Yesterday I got back from a great APSA in Seattle. My undergraduate students were despondent at me having to cancel class Thursday so I could attend. A few were curious about what happens at a scientific conference and asked about the structure. I explained that there would be several thousand political scientists at this conference and that most of the planned interaction would take place in panels.
In theory, a panel takes place in a room where 3-300 (median = 10) people watch three to five papers get presented by their authors. Then a discussant, who reads the papers in advance, comments on the papers both to draw connections among them and to stimulate conversation among the attendees. Then the audience asks questions and offers feedback to the authors. The whole panel takes about 1 3/4 hours.
Although panels comprise most of the scheduled events at a conference, they are not the best reason for scientists to attend conferences and they are far from the most rewarding part of a conference. Panels are often poorly attended. The papers in a panel often have very little to do with each other. The discussant may not receive the papers until days or moments before the panel, if at all, and even so the comments may focus more on typography than on big ideas.
Panels are a party game. They are an excuse to get smart people, who are interested in similar things, together in a room talking. Put a bunch of clever folks together and strange, wonderful, unpredictable things happen. A conference is mass planned serendipity.
The largest conference benefits to my research have happened when I have not been at panels: between panels, skipping panels, into the evening and the night. It’s the networking, but not “networking” in the Machiavelian, sales-person sense. It’s the comment on my paper that someone was a little too shy to offer in front of everyone, the comment that helps me recast the paper so it will place higher. It’s running into the same person at three panels and finally discovering we would love to work together on some research. It’s the dinner outing that leads to an invited talk or an interview. It’s the shared coffee followed up with a Facebook friending that leads to a new real friendship.
All of this is made possible by panels, but it’s not the direct result of the panels. So when someone tells me they didn’t go to a lot of panels, I understand that they probably got a lot of professional good out of the conference.
Also, I had a lot of fun at the Space Needle.