“It’s Time for the Lightning Round!”

The term “Lightning Round” may call to mind nerve-racking Quiz Bowls from grade school or the fast and furious stock-picking segment of Jim Cramer’s CNBC show Mad Money. In recent years, however, the lightning round has become a feature of academic conferences and symposia, especially those that involve the digital humanities. Speakers deliver quick presentations of about three minutes each to highlight the core essence of a new project, scholarly method, digital tool, or teaching resource. These rapid fire talks, like the one that I gave with Project Director Loren Moulds on the Scottish Court of Sessions Records Digital Archive at the recent DH@UVA Conference, seek to promote one’s work in ways that stimulate future conversations or potential collaborations.

The traditional academic conference mind meld usually involves a series of panels composed of three or four presenters delivering twenty-minute presentations to their peers on their latest work. They underscore Karin Wulf’s important point that conferences continue to serve as “a vital and distinctive forum for scholarly exchange.” This format is a useful way to articulate an evolving argument or new methodological intervention in some detail, creating the opportunity for the presenter to receive helpful comments or critiques of their scholarship from the audience while contributing to our body of knowledge.

It can also be difficult at times to understand the payoff of any given paper. I have seen—and given—presentations that lack focus or struggle to convey a project’s major points and an answer to the “so what?” question at the heart of any academic research initiative. We’ve all been there. We’ve all listened to and delivered them. These presentations are like Dementors for which we have no effective Patronus Charm.

Incorporating Lightning Rounds into the conference format will never ward off all of the demons, but it does offer practical and pedagogical ways to reinvigorate an intellectual gathering. This is not to say that we should abandon traditional panels altogether. It is simply to suggest that seasoning our conferences with Lightning Rounds can add some much needed flavor.

Unlike the code duello that governed Alexander Hamilton’s fateful encounter with Aaron Burr there are only a few things you need to know about a Lightning Round’s general rules:

1. Speakers typically have three minutes to talk.

2. Visual components to the presentation are limited to three slides.

3. The official Time Keeper enforces the three-minute limit with vigorous enthusiasm. Speakers are afforded a 15-second warning before their time ends. Violators are subject to public scorn. (Not really, but it is considered uncouth to go beyond your allocated time).

4. All presentation slides are packaged into one PowerPoint for ease of transition between speakers.

5. Brief live-demos of projects are fair game as well so long as the speaker stays within the three minutes.

Loren and I used the DH@UVA Conference to talk about our Scottish Court of Session Project and begin to build relationships with people who might want to use this splendid collection or help us think through the challenges of building a digital archive.

Slide 1: Scottish Court of Session Records website home page
Slide 1: Scottish Court of Session Records website home page on the UVA Law Library Special Collections website.

In a nutshell, the Law Library began to develop this project nearly two years ago under the direction of Loren and former postdoctoral fellow Randi Flaherty, now a fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. We are constructing a Drupal-based digital archive out of 64 linear feet of legal records produced by the Scottish Court of Session. The court is Scotland’s civil court of first instance and appeal. The Law Library Special Collections and Archives holds about 2,500 cases that date between 1759 and 1834. As Randi noted in the project’s early days, and what has only become clearer as we continue the work, these documents reveal hidden histories of trade, migration, and life in the British Empire in the years surrounding the American Revolution.

Repositories in Edinburgh and Aberdeen hold the largest Session collections. These holdings date back to the sixteenth century and they are indexed principally by case name. The index provides an excellent entry point into the material. It also reflects the choices that all archives face concerning how much time and energy should be allocated to heavily describing particular collections as opposed to others. The National Records in Scotland and its associated archives are charged with preserving the rich history of an ancient nation. Making records accessible for scholarly and pubic use is a daunting task that shapes decisions about the level of detail that should be provided. The team behind the Georgian Papers Project, an initiative to digitize and describe the papers of George III and his family, is wrestling with these questions at this very moment. So are we at the Law Library as we dive into our Session records in earnest. The relatively smaller size of our Sessions collection affords us the flexibility to experiment with our description process and build into this digital archive ways to collaborate with our fellow institutions in the future.

While these cases contain petitions, court briefs, and appendixes, they reveal more than contested points of law. They pull back the curtain on the everyday lives of people living in Scotland or circulating in the British Atlantic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They contain correspondence, census lists, voter rolls, corporate charters, shipping records, marriage contracts, and a wealth of other data, along with maps, architectural renderings, and patent designs created as part of the litigation process.

Slide 2 - Information for Elizabeth and Barbara Cunninghames (1775) and "Ground Plan and Elevation of the Distillery" (1828)
Slide 2: Information for Elizabeth and Barbara Cunninghames (1775) and “Ground Plan and Elevation of the Distillery” (1828)

This archive within an archive reveals how people used their property, how they ran their businesses, how old friends became enemies, how woman used the law to defend their interests, and how individuals established personal and economic connections that spanned an ocean and an empire. And almost all of our documents, like the collections in Scotland, feature marginalia created by their former owners that are unique to each collection.

We have developed a rich description process to extract metadata from these complex materials.

Students and staff tease out valuable information such as the people named in the documents, where they lived, their roles in cases, their relationships to each other, and to what organizations they belonged, among other data points. We are also looking at ways to augment the collection through additional research on people and organizations, and to signal to scholars the variety of sources one might encounter in these materials.

Metadata creation is currently underway in anticipation of beginning large-scale digitization in 2017. Our hope is that this project generates new questions about the British Atlantic World as it underwent a period of remarkable change. Students will handle the bulk of the actual digitization of the material. We will create master preservation TIF files for each of the documents and send them to Academic Preservation Trust, perform optical character recognition on corresponding PDF files using ABBYY, make the text searchable via Apache Solr, and generate JPG files for insertion into our Drupal database. Once finished, researchers will have the ability to download searchable PDF versions of the documents.

Slide 3 - Workflow and Technology
Slide 3: Workflow and Technology

In a practical sense, Lightning Rounds like those at DH@UVA can break up the more monotonous aspects of conference going by exposing attendees to a significant number of new ideas or projects in a very short time span. Earlier this year at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta, fourteen individuals gave DH presentations over the course of an hour. Then the panel’s organizer, Stephanie Kingsley, very kindly invited audience members with DH projects to show off their work as well. At the DH@UVA Conference, twenty-four individuals or teams gave these talks over the course of about an hour on a Friday afternoon. It was a terrific way to learn about work underway across the university, discover new potential collaborators, or think about curricular development with visitors such as Paige Normand from James Madison University.

Pedagogically, developing and giving a Lightning Round talk can help students (or senior scholars) to distill a project or argument down to its essential elements. Mentors constantly remind their graduate students to have a brief elevator speech at the ready for that moment when they encounter their intellectual heroes in a conference’s book display room or when they land an on-campus interview featuring a dozen or more individual thirty-minute meetings. Participating in a Lightning Round is a good way for graduate students to hone their pitch and gain confidence in delivering it.

The same lessons are applicable to undergraduates. In two research seminars on the American Revolution I had my students give longish prospective topic presentations to their classmates. My goal was to have them practice their public speaking skills and foster a discussion among them about their respective research interests. It did not always work out well. They often struggled to fill the allotted time, could not provide a clear sense of why their topic excited them, or why in their view it was important. In retrospect, I did not provide a reasonable structure for this assignment. In the next version of my course, I will structure these presentations as lightning talks to encourage students to think more concretely about their topic’s big picture. Hopefully, this will create a framework for class discussion that produces more questions than answers.

The Lightning Round at DH@UVA enabled us to share the Court of Session digital archive project with our colleagues in the university community in a concise way. It forced us think about what we considered to be its most important aspects and how to communicate those ideas effectively. Crucially, it exposed us to new ideas that our colleagues are employing in their own work and led to interdisciplinary conversations afterwards that are beginning to shape our thinking as we plot out the project’s next phases. These Lightning Rounds create the possibility for meaningful, perhaps even electrifying, intellectual engagement.

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Jim Ambuske

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