Last week I attended the ScholarFest at the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress.

Perhaps the best moment was being asked by the hostess if I would like to visit “the past, present or future?” and then, upon selecting the future, being led down a beautiful hallway in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library and settled into the beginning of a discussion about life on other planets.

The event initially came into my periphery when someone that I work with at TED sent a description of the event, highlighting their program for the “Lightening Conversations” and asked if I had time to go. I said, absolutely.

[Quick update: videos from Scholarfest are now on youtube. Here is the session cut for the Future]

First, what were the “Lightening Conversations?”

The first part of the ScholarFest program used scholars paired based on mutual research interests, tangentially related research interests, or directly opposing research interests.

Each pair was given 10 minutes to start a dialogue intersecting their research and/or engaging with each other’s work. Speakers were not directly introduced by the initial introduction to the event, instead weaving in a quick line or two about their work in the first few minutes of each session. There were five sessions in the first piece of the program and some time set aside for town hall style Q&A. The total program ran for an hour and 20 minutes before it transitioned into a new room with a new theme.

The structure of each pairing depended on what the two speakers decided they wanted to do. Participants were informed of their pairing and introduced to the other speaker the night before the panel. For some, it seemed they had found new collaborators and conspirators, even though their topics and opinions on various subjects varied so greatly. For others, the mix could be abrasive, but also ended quickly.

Some of the structures that evolved during these 10 minute Lightening Conversations:

  • each person introduced a few key points and themes from their research,

  • each person introduced their work and then asked their partner about their specific research work,

  • they started with a thematic question that applied to both of their areas of interest,

  • they presented a question directly to the other person

  • a science historian moderated/interviewed the scientist

  • the critiqued each other’s theories/work and had a lively discussion

  • they discussed and wove themselves from each other’s work into the same discussion

I was intrigued by the Lightening Conversation format for a few reasons. First, it seems like a great way to breathe life back into Academia. It was a wonderful treat for me, as a researcher, to watch experts in their fields have an open conversation and ask each other questions. It was a chance to see how their minds worked outside of purely academic contexts and formats. The informality and speed of the conversations meant that each person had to think on their toes.

Second, the interdisciplinary themes of the Future (and some of the other conversations, in particular Freedom of Speech) meant that these experts were asked to step outside of their fields of expertise and engage in new thought experiments. It made academia feel more human. Challenging. Like a continued experiment that the audience was invited to watch and engage with… not a typical experience when attending a university lecture. A lot of ground was covered quickly.

Finally, the audience was offered a wide range of perspectives before they were offered the opportunity to reengage with the entire cast of speakers from that session. Rather than pull from a single thread of opinions or thoughts, there was a tapestry of conversation to pull from and multiple experts could respond to our questions. This was nothing short of delightful. I felt very spoiled.

I would really like to see more of this take place at Yale (and others, but I can only speak from my experience). It brought rich life back into the research I’ve seen only in very long and dense academic texts. Looking forward to ScholarFest next year!