Academic conferences play an important role in the life of the academic, and in the life of the academy. For a graduate student (and in some cases, an undergraduate), it is often the first experience of the wider world of academia beyond their own schools. Despite a general understanding among scholars that there exists this wider community of science or of scholarship, it is not always clear how such a community emerges. One of the connecting points for such meetings is the large academic conference.
It takes a while to understand what role these conferences play in the community of academics, in part because that role is complex. The putative reason for a conference is for scholars and researchers to share their most current research, and, perhaps more importantly, to provide an opportunity for discussion of topics important to the discipline. For graduate students, the first conferences can be nerve-wracking experiences, as they expose their thinking for the first time to a wide audience. It can also be exhilarating to find that while their may be no one at their own institution with interests directly allayed with their own, such people do exist in the wider world.
It is this latter function that, in my opinion, the academic conference serves. Certainly, it is an opportunity to present current findings, but with the pace of research, it is entirely likely that what is presented is already far along by the time conference attendees see it. Journals and informal exchanges serve to keep folks abreast of information. The primary role of the conference is as an opportunity to establish colleagues, partners, acquaintances, and friends. Delivering papers is largely a function of providing public introductions, both to the research and the researchers.
If there is any doubt that this is the case, ask around any academic department, and you will find that the more bacchanalian events tend to be the favorites. Rousseau, in describing the origins of religion, talks about the parties that would be held annually or semi-annually–and that these celebrations brought rise to a feeling of commonality that led to the greatest (and worst) of what human society could do. Many people who attend conferences take stock of what was gained at the conference and whether it was worth the trip. In the past, all of these things have made it on to such a list for me:
1. Exposed to an idea that is exciting, and worth exploring further.
2. Exposed to an author, or a literature, that is worth exploring.
3. Met someone with whom I would like to collaborate in the future.
4. Had a chance to try to recruit someone (faculty or student) to the department
5. Was recruited by someone.
6. Was invited to participate in a research group or contribute to a collection/journal.
7. Had a chance to catch up with friends.
8. Had a chance to talk with and plan with collaborators on projects.
9. Received feedback and recommendations on a presented research project.
10. Received recognition for participation (top paper, etc.)
11. Experienced a city’s culture.
12. Had fun.
13. Got away from local concerns/routine.
These might be gathered into 3 groups:
A. Seeking and experiencing novel ideas
B. Interaction with a geographically-dispersed social network
C. Combining A&B: expanding social network
I think that weblogs can play an important role here as a tool that does not replace physical conferences, but allows for both an alternative route to these ends, and an enhancement to such experiences. I think blogs could be particularly good at providing a way to keep people updated between major conferences, and as a way of making conferences better, by providing some of the preparatory support (introductions) that would make the time together better spent.