Way back in April or May I promised to write something about Kalamazoo. Now I'm just getting ready for leave for ISAS (and just got asked to chair a session... hellooo reimbursement!). Let me explain.
Because the academic world is so specialized, it's pretty unlikely that you'll have another person at your college or university who works in exactly the same area. So scholars go to conferences like pilgrims to Canterbury (and act like some of the pilgrims, too, but that's another story) to share their work, get new ideas, see old friends, and drink a lot.
For general medieval studies, the two big English-language conferences are at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo) and the University of Leeds in England. Kzoo is always in early May, Leeds in July. Both are huge conferences, with hundreds of papers; there are always at least twenty sessions (with three papers each) going on at any one time. There are different strategies for getting the most out of the huge conferences. You can rush around, trying to get to all the papers relevant to your sub-field (what I usually do), or you can allow for some serendipity. One year I just stayed in the same room for the whole conference, listening to every paper presented there, regardless of topic. It was interesting.
ISAS, the conference I'm off to in a week, is very different. First, it is really specialized: Anglo-Saxon stuff only. Second, there are no separate sessions; one paper at a time is delivered to the entire conference (probably 200 people or so). So it's very competitive to get papers accepted and there are some rather arcane rules for balancing sub-sub-disciplines, geographic regions, etc.
Whether because of these strictures or in spite of them, ISAS is by far the best conference I ever go to. It's only held every other year, on alternate sides of the Atlantic, and I'd estimate that over 80% of the papers are eye-opening and brilliant. I always walk away excited about Anglo-Saxon and ready to dive into new projects (which is actually the real reason to go to conferences; you can learn things when the publications come out, and you can keep in touch with friends by other means, but nothing charges you up like a good conference). It also helps that, for whatever reasons, the people at ISAS are the least phony and most collegial in academia. They would fit in very well at Wheaton (and that's a serious compliment)
Thus, while I'm not totally thrilled about the idea of Arizona in August, and I don't want to leave wife and daughter for a week, I can't wait for ISAS.