Why scientific meetings?

So I've been at the Geological Society of America annual meeting for a day and a half. The main part of the meeting just began this morning; yesterday I went to a short course about science education research. And now, after half a morning of talks, I'm taking a break to 1) revise things in my own talk and 2) blog.

I spent a lot of yesterday morning looking through the program, making plans for the rest of the week. (And no, I haven't followed through on all of them. That would have been impossible unless I could clone myself, unfortunately.) But although I am terrible about making plans and following through on them, the process made me think about the different things that people want to get out of meetings.

These days, I come to meetings for several reasons:

1) To get better at teaching content. I've been teaching at undergraduate institutions for 16 years now. Yes, we do research, and our administrators claim that the goal of doing the research is to keep up with the field. But I teach six undergraduate courses a year, and they aren't all in my research specialty. In fact, in any class, I probably only spend a few days talking about things that I've worked on myself. The rest of the time, I'm teaching students about ideas generated by other people. I've learned about those ideas in classes myself, but it's been 20 years since I started grad school. Ideas change. Over the past few years, I've started to wonder whether the framework that I use to explain ideas (especially about things like active faults, which I've never worked on myself) are... well, maybe not wrong, exactly, but misleading, or unproductive in terms of generating the ideas that will be important in the next 20 years. Meetings like this are my chance to learn where my discipline is going. (Yes, I could read more papers in journals. This is more fun.)

2) To get better at teaching, period. There's a lot of great research on how students learn in the geosciences these days. How do those nebulous "spatial thinking skills" really work, and how do people learn them? These day, it's the pedagogy that gets me thinking creatively.

3) To give me ideas for my own research. Or at least, to keep from falling so far behind that my papers will get laughed out of an editor's office. After 16 years, sometimes it feels like I have to sprint to stay at the back of the pack. So I come to meetings, and get ideas, and then need to finish my own projects... when I have time. (Ha.)

4) To see people. Durango's great, but not many people come through. I've accumulated at lot of friends and acquaintances and mentors and mentees over the years, and this is where I see them. (And after about two hours of talks, this becomes my priority for a little while.) I should refer to this as "networking" - after all, these are people who might become collaborators, or who might become connections for my current students. But mostly it feels like socializing.

5) To meet people with whom I'm currently working. Ok, some of my "meeting people" time involves projects that I'm planning to start. Those face-to-face meetings are important. This really is networking.

6) To support my student(s). Presenting at a conference is a big step, especially for an undergraduate.

7) To present my own stuff. This seems like it should rank higher, but honestly? It was a much bigger deal earlier in my career, when I was trying to get established as a researcher and trying to get feedback on my ideas. These days, if I give a presentation, it's because I've got something that I want to share, but I don't expect to get much professionally from it.

Of course, my goals were different at other stages of my career. When I was a grad student, presenting my research was the most important thing in my world. When I was a new faculty member, I needed to meet the people who were important in my field, and impress them with my work. I've come to conferences with the goal of talking to people from funding agencies, or to apply for jobs, or to interview job candidates. Some of those approaches were the right ones at the time (and at some times, I was too shy and didn't network nearly enough).

And now... I should go hear a couple more talks about detachments. After the blog post goes up. (Note that live-blogging the meeting is not one of my goals. If I hear something that I want to think more about, and I have time between all my other goals... then I'll do it. Apologies to anyone who wants a good science journalist and is reading me instead!)

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Agreed that presenting one's own work is the excuse for the more valuable aspects of the meeting. With email, asking expert peers about some weird observation or whatever* is instantaneous. the job of the meeting is to increase that pool of experts who you email about your areas of common interest...i.e., networking.

*[cough]grant review[/cough]

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 22 Oct 2009 #permalink

Agreed that Durango is a fantastic place but what you describe is one good reason for my having had an enriching experience in Denver. So many people came through town to go to Keystone Conferences and other ski-related meetings that we could often put together nice mini-symposia in any number of topical areas.

Hope you and your students had a productive and enjoyable time!