February 14, 2013

Knowledge bombs away

The best professors offer students epiphanic moments that can lead to self-realization, new worldview.

Earlier this week, I attended a “Literature and Philosophy” workshop where Professor Thomas Pavel presented a paper titled “Shiny Stars, Silent Calls.” He talked about mimesis, incumbency, Auerbach, Hamlet, and Heidegger. It was intimidating and inspirational, and I had no idea what I was doing there. Of course, that’s not entirely true: I was there because Professor Pavel is a faculty member on the Committee of Social Thought, and I’m doing some research on the Committee. I planned on scheduling interviews with a couple of Committee students after the workshop.

I settled in and prepared to spend a leisurely hour on Twitter, but Pavel was so brilliant that what began as an anthropological interest transformed into something more. As he spoke I found myself taking notes even though the subject was irrelevant to anything I’m currently working on. In the margin, I scribbled “KB” over 15 times.

KB stands for “Knowledge Bomb.” I’ve been using it as a way to record astonishing insights from class since my very first year at UChicago. Some people take knowledge bombs to be mere additions to their factual knowledge. “There’s an ATM on 58th Street? Wow, that’s a knowledge bomb,” would be an example of such a usage.

That’s a boring interpretation, however. In my view, a knowledge bomb is an insight that dramatically alters your understanding of everything; the moment one drops, you feel that you get—really get—what it was that Foucault or Freud was trying to say, for instance. That is not to say that you have actually got what they were trying to say—you may not have understood it correctly. But it feels as though you have. A knowledge bomb is an insight that makes you feel as though you’ve had a grand epiphany.

Understood in this context, “knowledge bomb” is a term used to express that one’s mind has been blown by a vastly superior being like Professor Pavel. My friends and I used it all the time when we first started taking “blow-your-mind” classes. We would exit the building, usually Cobb or Harper, and say, “Man, Professor So-and-So was dropping knowledge bomb after knowledge bomb today,” and that implied that we felt our minds broadening. Now, in my fourth-year, I’ve been out of the lecture circuit and haven’t had a chance to use my old and trusted KB for a while. It had disappeared as though it were a slang word, like “sick” or “totally.”

Sitting in Professor Pavel’s workshop, my writing hand resurrected the “knowledge bomb.” He zoomed in on the etymology of a word and used it to draw implications across the entirety of Hamlet. It reminded me of when I realized how bizarre it is that we use the verb “to rage” as a synonym for the verb “to party.” We use a word that implies violence to ourselves and pain and anger to others to describe something fun. A simple shift in scope that etymologically analyzes the psyche of our generation through our daily vocabulary is a perfect example of a knowledge bomb. Pavel repeatedly performed similar alterations of scope with ease and humor. An observation stuffed with academic verbiage would suddenly inform Valentine’s Day courting rituals.

Almost all our instructors are accomplished specialists and yet only some are capable of rocking our worlds. Very few have the capacity to make their subject relevant to our daily lives, though that’s the very goal of the humanities. We are studying these great books because, read in a certain manner, they affect our actions. The eye-popping realization that accompanied the “to rage” discovery is similar to how you can never walk through the BSLC the same way after reading Foucault. Knowledge bombs are the professor and the text conspiring to reveal yourself to you. In the moment one arises, your grade takes a back seat and fatigue evaporates because your self is being altered. The best professors are the ones who drop bomb after bomb in this manner until class reaches a crescendo and you exit shaking.

The term “knowledge bomb” implies a certain kind of violence. Nah, just kidding—I’m not going to go there. This isn’t a discussion section. I was very grateful to have my world expanded by Professor Pavel and his colleagues and be reminded of the pleasure and self-discovery that accompanies an artfully dropped knowledge bomb. It’s an experience that we should all learn to appreciate.

Raghav Rao is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.