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This Scholar Was Skeptical About the “Lightning Conversation.” Now, He’s a Fan.

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The following is a guest post by Bruce Jentleson, #ScholarFest participant and 2015-16 Kissinger Chair at Library of Congress Kluge Center.

Bruce Jentleson and Daniel Schwartz
Bruce Jentleson (Kissinger Chair, 2015) and Daniel Schwartz (Kluge Fellow, 2012) engage in a “lightning conversation” as part of #ScholarFest, Thursday, June 11, 2015. Photo by Sinead Carolan.

OK, I admit it. I was a skeptic about the “lightning conversation” format for the #ScholarFest commemorating the 15th anniversary of The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Five to seven pairs of scholars within each 90 minute session, each pair confined to 10 minutes of exchange, ostensibly staying within the time limits and leaving 20 minutes for questions with the audience? How many times had I been on scholarly panels with even 20 minutes allotted per individual speaker, and seen one speaker after another just zoom past the moderator’s waving hand (full disclosure, myself included)? And “job talks” even by senior scholars urged to limit their formal presentation lest the faculty to whom they were presenting (and who would vote on any job offer) feel slighted by there not being time for their own “seminal” interventions?

Well, #Scholarfest worked. I was in the fifth pairing in the session, “Right/Wrong: Perspectives on Notions of Morality.” And sure enough, with some diplomatic but assertive time monitoring, the prior pairs all stayed within their 10-minute limits. And so did we.

And each conversation was rich and stimulating. None of us had prior relationships with our conversation partners beforehand, although we did reach out in the days leading up to the event for some preparatory exchanges. The pairings crossed disciplinary lines. Each approached the overarching theme from a different intellectual angle while staying within the broad rubric. My partner was Daniel Schwartz, Associate Professor of History at The George Washington University and a historian whose work as a Kluge Fellow focused on the genealogy of the ghetto and its evolution over time as a word, concept, metaphor, and place in both Jewish history and more broadly. My project as the Kluge Center 2015-16 Henry Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations focuses on “transformational statesmanship,” major breakthroughs by 20th century world leaders in global peace and security and lessons for crucial 21st century challenges. For our conversation, Dan and I focused on issues such as the potency of identity as a factor feeding conflicts throughout history, and from the local to global levels, and the interplay of ethics and interests in ways that too often exacerbate differences yet also in some instances have come together to foster understanding and reconciliation. Based on the questions and comments from the audience to us and to our other colleague pairs, the session seemed to cohere and to have stimulated rich thinking.

Indeed, with #ScholarFest kicked off the evening before in the Library’s Great Hall by two Kluge Prize winners, former Brazilian President and eminent scholar in his own right Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the distinguished Indian historian Romila Thapar, in a conversation moderated by Kluge Center Director Jane McAuliffe, we had some great intellectual momentum on which to build. All told, it was a special event to be a part of. And the next time I’m organizing a conference, I may well go the lightning conversation route!

#ScholarFest, a celebration of the 15th anniversary of The John W. Kluge Center, occurred June 10-11 at the Library of Congress. Watch Bruce Jentleson’s and Daniel Schwartz’s “lightning conversation” on YouTube here. See more #ScholarFest videos here.


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