Though I have only attended this whole Academic Conference Thing for about a decade, I am increasingly convinced that one of the least productive things one can do is attend a session (mine included). I say this even though my colleagues have exciting work to share and, for the most part, share it well during the 20-minute conference talk genre.
But I feel the real energy and talking and thinking and learning and connecting doesn’t happen during these sessions but in hallways, bars, benches outside of and during the conference talk.
In between sessions, the hallways are flooded with a cascade of people with name badges and laptops and frazzled expresses; people reading the conference program and looking for room numbers and shouting greetings to people passing them in the other lane. Between talks is too chaotic to talk—really talk—to anyone.
But once people get shuttled into their rooms, once the doors are closed and the chair announces the speakers, then the hallways are just home to a few scragglers. Those Left Behind. And here is where the good stuff happens.
Here is where you have a quiet moment to tell that Big Name that you enjoy/respect/love her work; to ask the graduate student about his dissertation; to inquire to the acquisition editor standing behind her tower of books about how a first-time author goes about pitching a book project; to bounce ideas off a old grad school friend; to tweet about that smart idea the keynote speaker forwarded; to rest.
The conference is not the ideas that are being bounced around during The Conference Talk. The conference is talking quietly with those other scragglers. This is where I learn the most, and this is what brings me back to conference after conference—even after the funding well has dried up for the year. Again.