(EDIT: The former version of this post was missing a concrete recommendation that I have added to the end.)
I just finished visiting a major conference yesterday mostly in the capacity of a session organizer. Doubtless this the most I have ever worked for any conference event: to let you into the numbers a bit there has been about one year of preparations, months of promoting, selection and reading of abstracts and papers, and in the event, many chairings and commentings. As is usual in a conference (I always try to talk a lot) I met a number of people and discussed in the sessions plus shared emails. At the same time, I do not think I got to know that many new persons outside of the sessions and shared a few dinners and a bar trip with my good colleagues but ended up on my own after the event. It is somehow a peculiar combination and an unpredictable one but one that people who organize such events seem to know about: you both end up knowing about almost everyone but then “networking” or even discussing with fewer. Yesterday when I was walking alone I tried to summarize my experience of two kinds of ways of experiencing a conference.
The first way is what I did before I became engaged as a research network organizer and is what I still do at most other conferences. This is you arrive to a city in another country, usually know only a few people before hand, stand around in the first coffee breaks and hope to talk to someone by accident or by intent, make comments and start talking to presenters and other in the sessions, usually then start to get to know some other people better, attend to the conference dinner, continue to some bars, and invite or be invited to a dinner with some of the people you have met. It is very enjoyable in almost all the cases. The duty part, that you can give a lot of attention and efforts, is your presentation and its slides. In any case that will be over in 20 minutes. Afterwards you chat with other people about how good (or maybe more often whether it was not) your session and the whole event was and hopefully manage to turn your stay in some magnificent location into a party. After partying until 4 am you stumble to your plane the next morning hung over and regretful of some of the things you might have said or done. If you are lucky you receive a few emails after (from all the tens that were doubtless discussed), if you are very fortunate, you could have made a new friend or two.
However, this “networking” kind of a conference is not the only way to experience one. Here is what I did this time. In addition to the preparations I mentioned above, we sat in every session of my own network and tried to be most attentive we could to the presentations. This means about 35 presentations each of 20 minutes over four days, making notes in every one, making comments in many, and chairing more than once. I do not think if people who just attend a conference think about it that often (I would say I do not), but I would say that almost nothing of a good active conference session happens by accident. Conference sessions are prepared and the papers are screened meticulously before hand. Research networks take trouble to find social, polite, and energetic people as chairs to stimulate discussions. And if you receive a lot of comments as a presenter, it is not a secret that this is almost certainly because those active in a network are in the audience and being attentive for the purpose of keeping up a conversation. These things then do not happen automatically (the lack of attention to these details is why many conference sessions end up failing or even canceled without notice, in my humble opinion). They happen because rather than just visiting a conference and giving a paper like most do someone dedicates weeks or months of their free time to be an organizer.
Of course as an organizer you also typically get to do other things than sessions, like go eat out and maybe have a few beers with the other organizers. But that is usually during one night since why would you go out with the same persons every time? You certainly end up talking a lot with people in the audience and in your sessions, but my experience is that the interactions are short as people often take you as kind of a conference employee (even though you are not paid anything, in fact, you pay to do this work just like people pay to attend the conference to present and to party). For other dinners and bar rounds, at least in this conference’s case, you rarely end up being invited maybe because getting engaged to a large event requires that you attend to the conference more than its organizing.
Having said that, to be clear I do think organizing a conference is very valuable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that there would not be conferences without people who make them, both the participant and the organizers. The second is equity. I believe being an academic involves many random things that you cannot altogether influence in your own university, like the people you work with and who supervise you; maybe, in the bad case, you could have just ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I know this happens to many people based on discussions. That is why receiving comments, or more simply being encouraged, can be crucial to people and getting their theses and articles finished. I have heard this enough times from other people and even somewhat experienced it myself to think it is true. I think the aim here is to increase the diversity of research by encouraging topics that might not be supported enough other wise. Thirdly organizing can offer you merit in some way, although I also think this is quite limited. It is not like chairing a session will become a major part of your cv. What I do enjoy very much, though, is co-organizing with international people and meeting them personally. It is fair to say that these people become your friends and your work mates in a very nice way. Think about having a job where you are allowed to travel all over the world and work intensively with people from around Europe and elsewhere. I do not think many such works exist at least before meticulous seeking and applying, but being a conference organizer can be a way to achieve this in just a few years.
For me personally, I have now finished my thesis and I do not know what the future holds. I think with all my duties and having a finished thesis for the first time, I expected that this conference would be all different than others. In the end I have just ended up working a lot, as was expected. The conference dinner was similar as they have always been; I still find the best strategy is to visit one briefly and go someplace else in a nice company. I did manage to go to a bar with good friend of mine, so it was a nice evening; but other wise, in many ways I think this has been one of the most busy but the least social conference I have experienced so far. So when I finally catch sleep alone in my room at about 4 am Saturday night some conference goers I do not know are having a loud after-party under my window in the university accommodation that I took (I thought I would meet more people here and right it was). This difference between the conference goers fun (that I like to think I had maybe in part helped to establish) and my attempt just to have a rest after hard work helped me think about my attitude to academic networking in a new light.
I was reminded that I think Manuel Castells wrote about how in a network society, there are those who get benefit from the networks and then there are those who are just supposed to maintain the networks. I think there is something true to this, even though I must emphasize how rewarding it often is to maintain a research network and how many interesting things that has brought me. But still, at the same time, it could be that this conference has managed to turn my head a bit regarding academic work, and it is very good that it did. Of course one should not expect everything is fun all the time (an attitude that fails your expectations all the time), but I do expect that things in your life have some good trajectory. I always thought this trajectory was the more you publish etc. the more you can do at a conference. Ending up alone on a Saturday night next to a noisy party outside shows this is not always automatically the case.
I am raising this post mainly because in the academic life conferences like this are part of your work just as much as writing and publishing. How you experience a conference then is not something insignificant, nor are conferences just random acts of traveling nor tourism. Even if we are just making theses or recent PhD’s, what we do has to have value just as the work of others and it is certainly not just something of a resource to other people so they can do their “networking”. My network friends whose company I enjoy so much have always been clear about the role of my support and I appreciate it a lot. If it is so difficult to feel appreciated otherwise for all the hard work, I am alas not yet certain what is the motivation and the rationale to continue these academic routes.
EDIT: To be more constructive, I end this post with a few suggestions. This is because I do not want to complain rather than think about how organizers could be perhaps rewarded for all their hard work. The first is on the general level. Major conferences have a budget and they could give some small reward to the chairs of sessions and to board members of research networks and committees. I know this is possible because many conferences precisely do this for PhD workshops: if you attend a PhD workshop, you are often given something back from your flight ticket as well as a free registration. In these times of austerity even minor reductions in the extremely high conference fees of organizers would be an excellent thing — and an incentive to participate more for example from debt-ridden countries. If reductions are not practical for the number of persons which may be the case, then another idea also stems from PhD workshops: why not have all board members and chairs of research networks or councils meet in a common networking event with some drinks? Personally I would have loved to see who else is chairing in other networks, I suppose I know many of them already, so that would have made the event less fragmented.
I do understand that changes like these are not easy to “lobby” to an entire conference that has its own decision making rules that change slowly. I then turn to another suggestion, which is on the level of research committees or networks. In my case, at least, these bodies have a small budget of a few hundred euros, but still it is something to start with. Could that provide some kind of help and reward to the chairs of sessions and to the board members that we are practically asking to participate in each session that a network/other organizes? For these budget sums we are probably not talking about about reductions in fees or reimbursements from traveling, but maybe a common dinner or rather a buffet and wine would be feasible. Or just give something to these people, a book or maybe even some coffee to be had in the long sessions.
From my doing a lot of volunteering, I find that people are generally very eager to help others as long as they get something out of it, like interesting new experiences with others or feeling of being a part of a larger community. These do not come automatically just as a good session does not. If you are just asking people to commit all of their time and then leave them tired to do their own business or return home, it does not really feel just. Change that to some fun activity together and appreciation of their help and the situation could be very different.