This year I went to both RSA and SAA, which I vow never to do again--or at least not when they're only two weeks apart. Yes, they were both in great cities, and yes, I saw people I love (and made useful new connections), and I heard great papers and ate & drank well, and I got to trot around in some pretty clothes. And this year I even had Twitter, which definitely beats a blog as a vehicle for catapulting conference observations and irritations into the internet. But it was exhausting.
What I love about conferences is their energy and their serendipity, and this applies as much to the social realm as to the intellectual. But as I get older there's less serendipity and I have less energy. My first year or two after getting the degree, seemingly every conference dinner involved between ten and fourteen people. This was because I'd plan to have dinner with a couple of friends, and they'd each invite someone else along, and those people would already have promised a few friends to dine with them--and we were all so young and so thrilled to be getting to know more people in the profession that OF COURSE everyone was welcome! We'd all get sushi together! And we'd have to wait 45 minutes for enough tables, drinking and gabbing throughout, and by dinner's end we'd all have promised to attend each others' panels (even the ones at 8.30 a.m. the next morning), and we'd leave the conference knowing another dozen people well enough to call friends.
Now, however, I know so many people that I often don't bother to make plans at all. It's impossible to prioritize, for one thing, so unless there's someone I haven't seen in a long while and have specifically been looking forward to seeing, I'm content to let chance do the planning and just see who I run into at the right moment (or who I turn out to be most excited to see, when I see him or her). And I'm not interested in groups larger than six: I want to talk to the people I'm with and I don't want to waste time trying to figure out where to go, or trying to get a table. Everyone else I figure I'll see at the bar.
The bar, too, is a problem: I may still be there every night until the lights go up, but I can't drink (or more to the point, I can't recover from a hangover) like I used to, and it's getting so even the drinking feels necessary, feels like social work: I have to stay there until I've made the rounds and talked to everybody I know, and that means I keep drinking even if I'd be better off in bed.
The other problem with knowing so many people is that I have to consciously try to meet new ones--especially new ones who are not already friends of friends, and especially grad students. It's easy to get lazy and to forget that having any kind of reputation and any kind of stature entails professional and social obligations. My position in the profession isn't a glorious one, but it's secure enough that my opinion actually does matter to a few people, and it's secure enough that I sometimes get read as slighting someone or being high-handed when really I'm just being a moron.
This happened at one of my past two conferences. After one panel a scholar, basically of my own generation, but with an acclaimed first book and an extremely fancy second job, came over to where I was standing chatting with a mutual friend.
I'd been looking forward to an opportunity to meet him, so I immediately stuck out my hand. "Oh!" I said. "We haven't met. I'm Flavia Fescue." And I may have added something about admiring his work.
"Actually," he said, "we have met. At Conference X last year."
"No," I insisted, smiling. "I'm sure we haven't."
He repeated his certitude, I repeated mine--and then he produced a whole conversation we'd apparently had. Based on its specifics, it had to be true, but I had no memory of it. And because I couldn't very well say, "wait, was this at a bar? maybe I was drunk?" instead I said, "oh, huh. I guess we have met."
Someone else came over then, and the scholar drifted away, awkwardly, and I realized that somehow I--who felt like the nobody--had come off as the self-absorbed jackass who couldn't be bothered to remember a person like him.
I'm sure I'll always enjoy conferences, but I expect they'll continue to be less purely fun than they were in those few first years. We have less to prove, professionally, and more to distract us: we have to run back to our hotel rooms to deal with departmental crises by email, or to nurse an infant, or to grade papers or work on grant applications. And if we're good members of the profession, as I hope to be, a lot more energy will be expended just trying to stay current: meeting people younger than ourselves, taking an interest in their work, and offering what advice and assistance we can.
Keeping up takes work; it would be easier if conferences were only about hanging out with one's friends for three days straight. But if what I like best about conferences is their energy and their serendipity, I guess it's well not to get too comfortable, to take it too easy, or to stick with the people and the things already known.