Why go to conferences when they seem to hold such potential for stress and humiliation? Because they're fun! (Is academia masochistic or what?).
Seriously, I like going to conferences, for the most part. I have to warn you, though: the first few that you go to probably won't be that much fun. This is because initially, you're going to be focused on "networking." What a terribly instrumental way in which to think about relationships and people!! I like to think of conferences as a key place - actually, THE key place - in which you develop and foster the important and meaningful friendships with people who share many of your professional and personal commitments. Someday, you'll be having lunch at conferences with the people with whom you now share a cubicle. Conferences will become one of the primary ways you'll stay in touch with your closest graduate student colleagues and your favorite professors, and it's also a way you'll deepen the friendships with people you see year after year at these and similar events. Sure, there are lots of "networking" benefits (and there are stresses - it's an achievement-oriented profession, after all), but what keeps me going back are the friendships and the opportunities to learn from people I greatly respect and admire who are in my own field or in a sister field of study.
But where and how to begin?
First of all, prepare for the conference in advance. This means more than getting your 25-page-paper turned into a 6 - to 8-page presentation (note: you can read about 2 - 2 1/2 pages of double-spaced text in 5 minutes). Once you've got that done, turn to the program.
Think of a conference as one huge scavenger hunt in which the goal is to locate people who read and think in ways you find interesting and stimulating. What you're really doing is not that different from what we do in other places in our lives: you're looking to make friends. So is everyone else there. Once you've got friends in other places, conferences become something to look forward to, and academic life becomes much more fun and interesting. The transition from graduate school to Ph.D. studies and faculty involves seeing yourself as no longer a passive reader/observer but a participant in an ongoing conversation. For me, conferences have been the most important way of learning to see myself in this way.
Once you're there, look for clues: titles of papers, names of authors you've read, programs at other schools that have intrigued you. Don't be afraid to go up to people and start a conversation. If you've read somebody's article or book and liked it, go up and tell the person. If you liked their conference paper, tell them so. If you can give some specific info on what you liked, so much the better (you can do this in person or later by email). That's a really nice thing to do and a good way to start a conversation. It's also a good way for you to articulate your own intellectual preferences, and thus is a learning experience for you. Stick around and talk to the people sitting next to you when panels end. Go to receptions. Check in with the professors from your school (or a former school) once in a while so they can introduce you to people (this also helps them to remember to mention you to people who might be looking for job candidates). Oh, and make plans in advance to have a few meals with your grad colleagues or those at other schools so you won't end up eating alone.Oh yeah, and you might want to think about how you're going to answer the main opening line you'll hear all the time: "So, what are you working on?" (performance studies students, who joke about "performing a conference," are welcome to snicker now).
Anyway, on to the list.