Adam Fish at SavageMinds.org has written about the problem conferences and conference fees. He asks whether they are really worth it for graduate students in particular—many grad students are told by their major professors that conferences are necessary for networking. I share Adam’s doubts, though. Hiring for tenure track academic jobs is done by hiring committees with the approval of deans and provosts who are not at the conference. Few if any decisions are made at the conference “job fairs.” In my experience, hiring committees prefer actually teaching classes, and publishing papers to conference attending.
Conferences are a strange phenomenon in academia; in my view, they are mainly homecoming rituals in which you renew old acquaintances from grad school, and other places. It matters for the perpetuation of the group, just like it does for your family at Thanksgiving, or perhaps what the Trobrianders did on a kula visit.
In this respect, conferences are an important. But are they really that important for landing a job in the highly bureaucratized academic job market? If the answer is yes, then you also probably believe that meeting your cousin’s new girlfriend at Thanksgiving is a good way for finding a job, too. In other words, sometimes it works, but usually it is irrelevant.
Which brings up the question: But how often should you go to an academic conference? Well, ask yourself, how often do you go big formal family events like Thanksgiving? After all preparing and paying for an academic conference probably takes just about the same amount of time and expense as making it to a big family dinner in a distant city. There is the preparation, applications for leave, travel, and so forth which all take up the better part of a week, if not more. Then there are the steep fees which, as Adam points out, always hit the impoverished grad students the hardest (at least for Thanksgiving Aunt Sally is not going to give the grad student a bill for the meal!)
Big holiday meals with my family are indeed nice a couple of times per year. And that is a good rule of thumb for going to academic conferences, too. A couple of times per year you should renew professional acquaintances, get some perspective on what you do at your university, and then back to what is really important, which is indeed, teaching actual classes, and finishing actual papers which are headed for print.
But for getting that tenure track position, nothing beats actually teaching an actual class, and getting an actual paper published in a journal which is refereed or not. Book reviews are cool, too; I’ve never understood why grad students don’t seek out more of them. Insightful blogs on a site like savageminds.org, anthropologyreport.com, or even ethnography.com. All of these “publications” in my mind trump fifteen minute papers given in massive conference where seven people attended the presentation.