Summers are traditional times for some (certainly not all) professional organizations to have their annual meetings. The meetings have a common format, with presentations made by scholars grouped into thematic sessions. Often a designated discussant is asked to critique one or more presentations, pointing out weaknesses that might be repaired in the next version of the work.
Having just come back from such an event, I find myself reflecting on their value.
For everyone attending such sessions, there are glimpses of what’s new in the field. Many presentations are incremental to the work presented in last year’s conference, but there are usually undeniably novel presentations, which generate some buzz. Sometimes these present real challenges to the field’s accepted knowledge. Such presentations generate arguments that sometimes break out in the discussion after presentations (or later in dinners and more casual gatherings). Academic fields thrive on conflicting viewpoints and debate.
The meetings are glimpses into the future. Many fields are facing multi-year delays in the publication of scholarly results, based on clogged peer review and editorial processes. The only way to keep up to date with a field is by attending such meetings. They are the setting where new work is first displayed. Three years later one sees the peer-reviewed final products, but by that time other developments have already taken place. These conferences disperse the key ingredients to update our class syllabi in order to give our students the most current knowledge in a field.
In thriving and growing fields, the attendees are disproportionately young scholars. It is they who dominate many of the sessions, seeking feedback on their efforts to push the field forward. There is nothing quite like orally presenting your work for real-time peer review.
There’s generally a lot of informal mentoring that occurs in these settings. They are one of the few arenas where those new to the field encounter those with much more experience, but without the complication of working in the same organization. Honest discussions and interchanges seem to be permitted more in these meetings.
Another real benefit of such conferences is reinforcement of one’s professional identity. Those working in relatively small professions may find themselves the only staff member interested in a set of issues within their organization. They can find themselves isolated, too frequently challenged to justify the legitimacy of their interests. The annual conference becomes a time to reenergize professional commitment by interacting with others who share those interests.
This socialization feature of an annual conference is especially important to emerging cross-disciplinary fields. By definition, interdisciplinary fields combine scholars from multiple traditional disciplines. Over the years, when traditional disciplines accept and incorporate such groups, the original professional organization tends to grow and revitalize itself. Those that are hostile to interdisciplinary add-ons sometimes face a challenge of renewing themselves. When an interdisciplinary field has their own conferences, they often use them to build out the field more fully.
Professional development needs contact with other professionals. Advancing one’s work requires knowledge of the cutting edge developments in the field. Assurance that we are presenting our students the latest developments in the field demands that we know those developments. Professional conferences are valuable tools to achieve these goals.