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SCMS Dispatches: Second Time’s the Charm?

The second time at SCMS is all about comparison. Especially when you don’t just belong to film studies, but serve two masters, and that other master is a strange and rare bird – Slavic.

Your second time around, you are no longer worried about your own paper – it is what it is, it won’t make an impact (if you’re lucky, you’ll have a nice conversation or two, and get a couple of Facebook friends). You recognize that it’s more about networking than it is about presenting. You skip the morning panel and set out exploring the city. You learn to recognize faces and to smile pleasantly but noncommittally at them because they look familiar, but you can’t for the life of you remember where and when you met them. You finally see that name tags are useful, not annoying, when you suddenly realize that a person standing two feet from you is that famous scholar whose name you had heard for the first time on the way to the conference.

You no longer imagine that everyone you meet on the street leading to the conference hotel has to do with the conference, but you now pride yourself on possessing the uncanny ability to spot them in the crowd.

You are reconciled to talking about the weather (“and what’s YOUR connecting flight horror story?”). You get to say that last year the weather was better, but papers were worse. You are completely authorized to comment on the respective merits of the two hotels, two cities, two rooms selected for the reception, and what’s with the absence of free coffee this time?

Since you’re essentially foreign to the whole field (divided as it is into small groups, factions, and cliques), you make blunders. You can’t help it; there’s no way you would know the respective “academic weight” of everyone whose paper topic sounds interesting, so you are later mocked by a senior colleague for having fallen for the superficiality of someone’s manner of presentation.

You learn to embrace superficiality. You focus on the way people carry themselves and not on what they are saying. You go to see what such-and-such eminent scholar looks like and you compile your own list of best-dressed people (1st place men – Johannes von Moltke, 1st place women – hands down, Suzanne Buchan). You get disappointed when some of your “idols” don’t live up to their own distilled image on a page. And yet some of them do, and it makes you giddy with delight.

The fun part: being a Slavist in disguise, you get to judge non-Slavic scholars presenting on Slavic cinema. When theorists mention Vertov in passing, you sagely nod or scornfully snort. You silently fume about a historian spending 10 minutes re-telling the plot of a 1930s film, which still, he says, can only be bought “in the Soviet Union,” while butchering all the names (how would you like it if someone talked about “M. Dietrich” and “S. Spielberg” like they only have initials for first names?). But there are not many people to share your indignation with.

You meet your fellow Slavists during that one panel fully dedicated to Soviet cinema, and upon seeing them in hotel’s corridors you greet each other like next-door neighbors meeting by accident in a distant foreign land. You know you have to participate in the general discourse – but it is just so hard. You feel exotic, you don’t really belong – and so you are especially happy in those moments when there suddenly appears a common point of interest, when something that you know in and out can illuminate a more general argument, when that rare bird Slavic finds its rightful perch in what must seem as a veritable zoo to the unsuspecting “civilian” population of the hotel on which the conference had the audacity to descend.

  • Katie Bird

    Also, there was free Coffee last year? This is the most disturbing revelation.