By 12:30pm of last Thursday’s #ScholarFest, 62 scholars had participated in 31 conversations on topics that included cognition and database design, the term “ghetto” and its role in the formation of Jewish and African-American identities, the universal declaration of human rights, the contemporary relevance of the Cold War, marriage law, life beyond earth and ISIS. It truly was a festival of scholarly insights–and the birth of a new program format, the “lightning conversation.”
We had devised the “lightning conversation” several months earlier. The goal was to showcase the breadth and diversity of the scholarly work produced at the Kluge Center as part of the celebration of our 15th anniversary. What if we paired speakers working on similar topics, or thinking about similar issues, in short, quick-hitting conversations, we thought, and then grouped the conversations according to overarching themes? The “lightning conversation” was born.
We are still aglow at how well it worked. The format proved to be an exciting way to introduce audience members to some of the scholars who have been in residence with us as well as their research. The format offered an engaging and accessible entry point into contemporary scholarship. And, of course, the success was enabled by our scholars all being outstanding thinkers and communicators. I encourage you to check out the Twitter chat for some of the fascinating insights that came out of the conversations. The event was also written up in The Washington Post.
The “lightning conversations” were just one aspect of what made the event memorable. Part of the thrill of #ScholarFest was to see so many of our former scholars again. Some arrived as early as Monday to conduct research in the Library of Congress. Others stopped by the Center on Tuesday to say hello and reminisce. By Wednesday evening, more than 100 familiar faces had returned.
#ScholarFest also included a private event on Wednesday evening. Two Kluge Prize winners–Romila Thapar and Fernando Henrique Cardoso–participated in a conversation moderated by our director Jane McAuliffe. Jane asked the two preeminent scholars to reflect on the histories of India and Brazil, and the effects of those narratives on the present-day societies of the two nations. She then asked each to think about the future: what they each hoped and feared for their countries. The atmosphere in The Great Hall was one of reverence during the conversation. One could feel 250 people rapt by the intellect of the two Prize winners. One attendee confessed that she learned more about India during Romila Thapar’s remarks than she had previously known in her entire life. Several people admitted that they could have listened to both Thapar and Cardoso speak for hours. The two wonderfully epitomized the brilliance and impact we celebrate with the Kluge Prize.
It often is the case that we do not know the impact of what we create until after it is created. With #ScholarFest, we may have given birth to a new program format that could aide scholarly institutions and learned societies bring new scholarship to the public in fresh ways. That is an exciting possibility. Taking a step back, #ScholarFest evidenced the community of outstanding scholars around the world who have been enriched by the Library of Congress collections and each other through their residency at the Kluge Center. They have forged new connections, produced new insights into the human condition, and have together helped us better understand who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. That was John Kluge’s dream 15 years ago. Perhaps we are most aglow this Monday because we have seen how over 15 years we have made that dream a reality.