It's been pretty quiet here. Not only have I been engrossed in preparations for the Spring semester (classes start today), but I also went to the 2008 NC Science Blogging Conference. So it seems like a good time to ruminate a bit on how conferences fit into the patterns of (my) academic life.
The official reasons academics go to conferences include presenting their work to others in their field and finding out what other people in the field are working on. In the "scholarly communication" hierarchy, giving a talk or presenting a poster is less valued than getting a peer-reviewed publication, but there are some conferences where presenting a paper and publishing a paper are connected. Also, presenting your work to a group, in person, gives you a chance to answer questions -- often questions that build on each other in interesting ways -- on the spot. Sometimes it's a while before you even know that anyone has read your published papers, let alone whether they have questions or ideas related to them.
Getting a feel for what's going on in an intellectual or professional community can be useful (or at least interesting). At a conference, this doesn't just happen in the formal sessions. It also spills over into the chit chat at the coffee urn, or over meals, or back at the hotel bar at the end of the day.
This is a reason that conference organizers often try to set things up so that conference goers are staying at the same place (and so that the lodging is reasonably close to the location of the official "content-laden" sessions in the conference). Ideally, the discussions continue until the people having them are ready to call it a day. Moreover, you want the opportunity to bring other people into the discussion -- including those who may have been attending a different session when the conversation was initially sparked. Unprogrammed time to hang out and talk increases the potential for collaboration on new projects, advice from people working on similar projects, and richer communication from your peers in a particular area.
Also, it's an opportunity to be with a group of people who understands a slice of your professional life that your family and friends, your students, and even your colleagues at your home institution don't quite get. At least some of the conferences we attend are valuable because they reconnect us with our tribe.
People sometimes underestimate this piece of the conference experience. Since I've started turning up at conferences which collect tribes that are not my own, I don't take the tribal aspect for granted anymore. I dig the ACS and occasionally participate in regional meetings, but I don't do research in chemistry any more. Similarly, while I may educate chemistry students on a regular basis, I'm still only visiting when I meet with the tribe of chemical educators. Using new communication technologies and thinking about how they influence the scientists who use them makes me someone the information scientists will listen to, but that doesn't make me one of them.
Indeed, even within professional groupings which are closer to my research area, there are some odd internal sub-groups. The large professional society of philosophers of science includes groups with quite different ideas of how philosophy of science ought to be done. (For example, do you want to tell a story about how an ideal Science could use evidence to build knowledge? Would it be better to look at how actual scientists build actual knowledge? I'm not sure there have been actual bar-fights about this methodological difference of opinion, but I wouldn't be surprised.) Plus, the philosophy of physics crowd has different concerns than the philosophy of biology crowd, and the philosophy of chemistry crowd is wildly outnumbered by both. Meanwhile, even the much smaller International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry is made up of chemists on the one hand and philosophers on the other -- which means the members of this tribe sometimes feel as if they're actually two different tribes who haven't entirely worked out how to speak each other's language.
Still, to me there's something really important about spending time periodically with people who really get how you can be as excited as you are about a particular subject or question. Being pulled out of your everyday routine of teaching and committees (not to mention household and family responsibilities) to commune with the other people who care about your area as deeply as you do can help reassure you that your commitment is not nutty, that your passion is not misplaced. It can help reinvigorate you so that you can go back to the routine and carry on with the projects that none of your other daily contacts really appreciate in the same way.
In other words, a good conference feels like home.