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February 20, 2013 - 3:00am



Everyone's talking about Emlyn - Emlyn Hughes, the Columbia University physics professor who began his students' immersion in his subject by turning down the lecture theater's lights, stripping off his street clothes and putting on a ninja uniform, and then showing a film featuring disconnected images of violence and atrocity - the destruction of the Twin Towers, goose-stepping Nazis, Mussolini strung up, Major Kong on his bomb from Dr. Strangelove.

A stage show with other black-suited figures running swords through stuffed toys accompanied the film.

The YouTube of the event - taken by a student - records reactions.  Laughter, confusion, unease.  What's this got to do with physics?  Are you kidding me?  Is this for real?

At the end of the performance, Hughes speaks to the class: "In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain and start over again."

The idea behind the sound and light, then, was to jolt students out of intellectual complacency, to convey the idea that the field of quantum mechanics is counterintuitive, and that they won't get anywhere with it until they clear their minds of preconceptions. 


Professor Shake 'em up  is a hoary figure, all over popular culture.  Miss Jean Brodie gets the girls aflutter.  Mr Dead Poets Society brings stuffed shirts back to life.  To Sir with Love.  Blackboard Jungle.  Educating Rita.  The guy who taught the king not to stutter.  Pygmalion, for goodness' sake.  A philosophy professor in Don DeLillo's story, Midnight in Dostoevsky,  is a silent shabby depressive who randomly rouses himself to say things like Imagine a surface of no color whatsoever. and Logic ends where the world ends.   The class loves it.

We tendered our deepest trust to the stark nature of his methodology. Of course, there was no methodology. There was only Ilgauskas. He challenged our reason for being, what we thought, how we lived, the truth or falsity of what we believed to be true or false. Isn’t this what great teachers do, the Zen masters and Brahman scholars?

Emlyn Hughes was trying to be a great teacher, radically challenging the way his students thought.  His murderous images and his strip-tease were shock therapy, a way of galvanizing his class into new forms of understanding. 


Did it work? 

Who knows?  We'll see how his students do on their tests.  Comments from them so far are not very friendly.  The news media, which has gone to town on the story, is downright hostile.

Assuming it didn't work, why?

Well, one thing you'll notice about a lot of other Prof Shake 'em ups is that there's a connection between the content of their shock and the subject matter they're trying to teach.  The shocking poetry professor recites shocking poetry.   DeLillo's philosophy professor's seemingly random comments come right out Wittgenstein.  Why did Hughes choose, as his avenue to new thought about the workings of the universe, fascist rallies and banged up beanie babies?  What did his nakedness before his students have to do with quantum mechanics?

Did the violence have something to do with the violence of the universe, the violence of creation?  He could have shown his class clips from The Tree of Life.  His clips were more suited to an evolutionary psychology class on the persistence of predatory violence among humanity.

Hughes's arbitrarily (or enigmatically) chosen violence, its confusion compounded by his nakedness and by the poor beanie babies, created in that lecture theater what a physicist might call unpolarized light - light whose waves vibrate in any and all directions.  The heavy-going images and the earnest self-strippings of this Columbia University lecture madly radiated meaning - but what meaning?  In the absence of reasonably clear ideas in one direction, and in the presence of the apocalyptic intensity of the chosen images, we and the students fall back upon speculations about him, the professor, his personality, experiences, and motives.  The whole thing becomes narcissistic, an obscure expression of the exact opposite of the thing he's after.  Instead of the vast, weird, mind-blowing breadth of the universe, Emlyn Hughes has gotten his students thinking about the paltry particularity of Emlyn Hughes.


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