Every spring my field puts on a big conference that attracts thousands of scholars of rhetoric and writing. Most years I attend and many years (i.e., when my proposal gets the thumbs-up), I give a paper. Typically, I also go listen to lots of other papers, go out to dinner at least once or twice with my friends from graduate school, attend parties sponsored by textbook publishers ("enjoy free drinks and finger food and, by the way, please make your students by our stuff"), meet with the rest of the editorial staff of a journal whose board I sit on, attend a breakfast for writing program administrators, attend my graduate program's annual party, and collect free stuff from the publisher's display area.
Right now I'm sitting in the airport in State College, Pennsylvania, having just attended a much more intimate gathering of colleagues. I gave a paper based on the research I was conducting in Beirut. I listened to other papers. But know what else? I met a boatload of people I never met before. I connected with senior scholars. I had a lot of conversations and took a lot of notes and got a lot of ideas. There's a perennial conversation about whether my field's big conference has gotten too big and outgrown its usefulness. I'm not sure how I feel about this, but the thing is, I don't go so far as to say the big gig isn't useful mainly because I like seeing old friends. As far as a professional experience, the small conference is where it's at. And Penn State does a great job putting on a small conference.