I remember coming to SCMS in Chicago in grad school. I spent most of the time in Grant Park with a broken-down car waiting for a tow, then at the garage waiting for it to get fixed. But I also clearly remember the sense of trepidation I felt: at a conference where I knew almost no one, where everyone seemed to know each other, and where it seemed--accurately or not--my professional ambitions would either live or die. It was, quite frankly, terrifying....but maybe I feel these things more acutely than others.
Sill, I think all of us grad students were hoping we could impress the big name faculty. Or the faculty who might have job openings. Or better yet, the big name faculty with job openings. Alas, few such people ever wandered into m Sunday afternoon panels; instead, it was mostly my friends and friends of my fellow panelists.
Yesterday when I arrived at SCMS, it took me nearly an hour to make it through the lobby to my room, because every two feet I ran into someone I knew and absolutely had to talk to. But the odd thing is, these are mostly the same people who were on those panels and in those rooms years ago. But we've gotten jobs, some of us have gotten "famous" (in the academic sense if the term, which isn't really a type of fame at all), and we all fall back so easily into the conversations we've been having for years. And, as I look around, I see both older and younger scholars doing the same thing.
I was talking with Michael Curtin yesterday about how it seems as though our job as grad students is to come to conferences and impress people. But really, the job is to come and spend time with our cohorts...to develop a cohort and then to work to to generate collaborative projects, share ideas and bibliographies, share intelligence about jobs, publishers, etc.
Which isn't to say that other kinds of important chance encounters don't occur, that those of us further along in our careers don't owe it to others to make an effort to reach out. But what it does mean is that even if all you do is come here, present your paper, hang out with your compatriots and maybe meet another person or two, maybe you haven't wasted your time here. Maybe that's what all of us are supposed to be doing.