Having just returned from a pleasant trip to WPSA 2011, I thought it would be appropriate to return to the intended question-and-answer format. Last night I was fortunate enough to have dinner with some friends of my mentor who were in town for the conference of the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association. I suspect that the reasons below would hold true for other professional organizations like theirs, but they are based only on my limited experience in political science and may not even hold true across the breadth of my discipline. Anyways, I see five inter-related purposes to academic conferences:
1. To share the latest ongoing research. This allows attendees to stay up-to-date with the latest findings in fields of interest to them, as well as to have ideas stimulated for new projects. Substantively-focused conferences like the International Studies Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association are even better for this than traditional regional organizations in my opinion.
2. Socialization. Applies both to people who are new to the profession (such as myself) and to those who are already in a given field. You can see the practices of others and the types of questions they're exploring. This is useful whether you agree or disagree with their work: if you like it, you can emulate it; if you hate it, you can respond to it/ fill a gap that the current literature may be missing. You can also gain new perspectives--my panel on terrorism this morning included a couple of former military members, who always bring interesting thoughts into these discussions.
3. Travel. It would be silly to pretend that the perk of funded travel isn't an important aspect of any profession that allows it. Occasionally travel to a new place can ignite new interests (there were a lot of Mexico-related presentations in San Antonio, for instance) but usually it's just fun.
4. To talk out ideas. This is related to the first two, but different. Most people I know use conference papers as an intermediate step between their initial research and submitting for journal publication. A good panel (not all of them are) allows you to get comments and suggestions that hopefully prevent you from embarrassing yourself in front of journal reviewers. I think there is a benefit to being able to compress your thoughts into a 15-minute presentation, whereas professors are typically called on to elaborate on ideas in 75-minute classes. The same is true of writing short articles (20-40 pages) as opposed to books: like any other muscle, the brain is strengthened by expansion and contraction. I'll take this up again in a couple weeks when I write about the purpose of academic journals.
5. Improved teaching. This one is closely related to several of the above, but worth mentioning in its own right because teaching is often viewed as separate from research. The two are integrally related in my opinion. You can't be a top-notch teacher unless you know how to do your own research, and vice-versa. Keeping up with the latest developments, getting to know others in your field, practicing the presentation of your ideas to an audience, and taking an occasional break for travel can all help someone stay fresh in their teaching. Some presenters may attend conferences for expressly this reason, with no intention of publishing their papers.
Anything I've missed? Other questions out there? If we get any questions that aren't within my purview, a few colleagues have agreed to be occasional guests here. Many thanks to them, and to you for reading.