Short answer: Go to as many conferences as you can afford; present at no less than 1 conference a year and no more than 5, otherwise you will not have time to properly prepare for each presentation in a way that allows you to push deep, clear thinking and attract networks of peer scholars.
Long answer: Conferences can be great places for renewal, reminding you of the passion you have for your field of study and helping to connect you to diverse scholars working all over the region, nation, or world in areas of overlapping interest. A benefit of traveling to conferences is the opportunity to review a full menu of current scholarship, taking you beyond the things you can read in print which usually represents data that is years old due to publication processes, even if it has the current calendar year as the publishing date. At conferences you can meet mentors who can rise off the page and expand your network of peers and teachers in the field. Conferences can save you so much time–pointing you more clearly to relevant scholarship to read, invigorating new ideas, approaches to methodological problems or theoretical insights. And conferences can be fun, a place to meet and socialize with new friends in new cities where happy accidents of thinking and being can occur. I never regret going to a conference once I’m there if I’ve stayed within the number of conferences I can afford in terms of time and mental resources.
However, there is also a flip side. Conferences can be very expensive and very time consuming. One can feel left out of the “in-crowd” as a newcomer or a non-regular. If you don’t know how to plan to attend stimulating panels, you might find yourself in rooms listening to presenters who are unprepared. You may feel your time and money would have better been spent at home writing and/or moving your own research or scholartistry forward.
Although I have experienced some of the above negative feelings, I don’t think I have ever left a conference wishing I hadn’t gone. There are just too many opportunities and there is always the book room! If I ever feel unimpressed by presenters at a conference, I turn to the book exhibit and always find a new and inspiring resource to help with my teaching or writing or thinking. Feeling some degree of loneliness and disappointment can be overcome but missing out on meeting friends in the field face to face or seeing their new books–I am still excited about this after so many decades of conference attendance.
What conferences have I attended and recommend? For many years I have attended big national conferences for education (AERA), anthropology (AAA), and creative writing (AWP). These conferences have big funding and attendance which allows them to host an unusual variety of scholars engaged in innovative thinking and doing around the world. Usually, I can’t afford to attend them all in the same year and I exhaust myself when I attend all three. Each time I attend I find myself forming a new relationship with a scholar friend who I meet by chance or by organized effort and reuniting with people I’ve met before. I highly recommend these conferences. Other large-scale, international or national conferences I have attended but not regularly include AAAL, ACTFL, and TESOL. I recommend them all but never more than 2-3 per year. 2018-2019 I attended too many and I have promised myself: never again.
I love to attend smaller and/or international conferences outside the U.S. because it often gives more intimate space to connect with scholars from near and far. Some of these I’ve attended include ISLS, iFLT, Georgia TESOL, Georgia FLAG, International Bilingual Education conferences, SALSA, Hong Kong Gender Studies conference, Polish English studies conference, EITS English Teachers of Israel conference, Atlanta Writers Association, Georgia Poetry Society, JOLLE, UGA Children’s Literature Conference, ICQI Qualitative Inquiry Conference, and many others. When these are local, they are easy for travel, lower cost and allow me to attend selectively while also maintaining work at home. Other conferences like ISLS are in beautiful, global locations where I learn as much from the people as the new place (once I attended in Aruba and learned so much about multilingualism and translanguaging from local encounters!). CILS/ISLS will take place in Chile 2020 http://www.isls.co/conference.php and takes place every other year.
Should you attend conferences, yes?
Which conferences–I can’t really tell you that. You have to figure out what makes you feel alive, connected, and “at home” in schools of thought and subject or that challenge you in positive ways forward.
How many? Not more than 5 per year, less is often more (with little exception and I’ve often broken my own rules).
How to apply for conferences, put together panels, and stay connected afterward–that’s for a new post! Please let me know what new questions you may have and remember: only 50% or less of what I write is good for YOU!