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The bus ride: A scene for the breadth of knowing

One of my favorite performances of campus choreography shows several times a day and requires no ticket or fee to attend, or even to participate. The Bus Stop Passenger Exchange is possibly one of the most diverse junctions students engage with generally, and I am struck every time I do by how many perspectives I get to ride between campuses with. So many pairs of eyes and so many different ways of experiencing the same object, namely the bus itself and riding on it—the event never gets old or mundane for me, but even more elaborately informed the more people and perspectives I meet. 

So in this column I want to explore this curious confluence of so many minds through another series of archetypes, each a major program of study at our university. While most of the time the bus ride is a distracted experience of transition rather than arrival, necessary only because our minds are tied to our space-bound bodies, my hope is that by sketching out the scope of thought and character contained in its confluence, you will be able to make the journey with more awareness of the people and their ways of knowing that you encounter while on it. Take your eyes in your hands now and exchange them with those of the following characters, seeing as they see, and let yourself experience the inescapable awe at the canyons of breadth they fill. 

POLITICAL SCIENCE: You’ve already listened to the crown jewel of our National Public Radio’s programming, “Up First,” so you take out your phone to listen to Michael Barbaro tell you what you need...toknowtoday. You think about the campaign speeches you’ve studied and how none of them come close to the comforting drone of someone very close to a microphone who asks excellent questions. You remember you have a quiz on Latin American Wars of Independence, so you unclasp the constituent’s hand you were shaking in your head and open up your study notes for one last look. 

BIOLOGY (VIROLOGY): It’s incredible, isn’t it, how many vectors for disease there are. This hand on that metal bus bar, then another hand unaware that it was touched before. Before the pandemic there were high-fives, handshakes, hugs and other unthinkables, but even now the air we breathe is stopped by a mere 60% effective disposable mask or 76% effective cloth one. Just a few little spiky protein balls filled with disastrous genetic material lodged in the nasal epithelium which expresses receptors much more susceptible to infection than the ones on the pulmonary epithelium, and the naked nose peeking through the mask ten feet away from you has planted the seed of a positive case. You look away to avoid thinking about it. 

ECONOMICS: Avoid looking through these eyes at all costs. You will no longer see human people around you but mobile money machines, spending and earning unaware of how they are managing, or rather being managed, to do both. If you think this reading is too harsh, you must not be pursuing a degree in economics because if you were, you would not find it harsh enough. 

NEUROSCIENCE: Looking usually through thinly rimmed circular glasses, the mind full of neuroscience sees an elaborate performance of coordinated circuits running up and down the concert hall of the bodies around them. The vestibular lumbo-sacral pathways mediating the tensing of the lower extremities by those standing up make you think of all the cerebral pathways downstream of the sensorimotor event. Someone bumps their elbow on a pole and lets out a cry, and you can’t help but think of the brilliant cooperation of afferent and efferent signals that let that person retract their elbow from the source of pain without a single explicit command. You remember you have a midterm in molecular neuro tomorrow, and pull away from observing the organic supercomputers moving around you to review your notecards for a third time this morning. 

STATISTICS: The models in your mind blanket the world around you, swirling normal distributions and probabilities into your interpretation of every person and event you come across. You think of the people around you sitting on a certain side of the bell curve and cast a thousand lots a second behind your eyes thinking about the odds of everyone being here at once in this very bus. Everything fades from your vision as a problem you’ve been working on all week surfaces in your mind, and you can’t help but pick at the knot of solving it. By the time you get to your stop it has loosened, but only slightly. 

ANTHROPOLOGY: The advanced primates all around you are a never-ceasing stream of field data, unprocessed by any supercomputer other than the starch-fed one jiggling in between your ears as you yourself act using impulses that are no less than two hundred thousand years old. You think about how far removed the activities of the bus are from our evolutionary forebears caravanning across a savannah or herding domesticated species at every rung of the latitudinal ladder across the globe. Minds and bodies that host adaptations still suited best to hunting and gathering sip sweet sodas that take advantage of our formerly-advantageous proclivity to sugar binge when we would find wild honey or a rare cluster of berries. You notice how the environments around you are all twisted into such different shapes than the ones that we originally adapted to, and you think in passing that if we put back the fruit from the tree right where we found it, perhaps we will be allowed back into the garden we inhabited in the beginning. The agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago ruined everything. 

VISUAL MEDIA STUDIES (ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN): The buildings pass in a blur from left to right as your bus driver speeds precariously past them, but you’ve determined by now which is which. There are the American Collegiate Gothic structures framed by steel-reinforced concrete beams and blanketed in Hillsborough-quarried stone stained seventeen different shades of seven primary tones. Nearly impossible to deconstruct, they’ll be here at least a thousand years into the future. With West Campus behind you, you notice the former endowed professorship houses along Campus Drive that now house various departmental offices. Wood framing, probably, but most with a brick or vinyl siding exterior. There’s that one Tudor revival structure diagonally across from the Ruby that you’ve marked as your favorite, and you wonder who lived there first when it was built. Finally you’re on East, that quiet Georgian revival sanctuary with the green-roofed neoclassical yard close to Main Street. You pick up the document cylinder that holds some of your larger designs and hope the next dorm to be built on campus has at least a few ornamental flairs. 

MECHANICAL ENGINEERING: While most of the devices around you contain some circuitry and electrical controls, the mechanical concert entertaining you as the bus has no lack of the simplest machines. From the wheels themselves to the pulleys used to request a stop, and then much farther up the scale of complexity when you contemplate the engine moving those wheels by controlled explosion, you consider what a wonderful age we live in when the most transcendentally functional machines are a mundane part of everyday experience. Then the bus hits one of the many keep potholes on Campus Drive and you snap out of your rapture to wonder whether the vehicle’s suspension needs some maintenance work done. (It almost certainly does). 

PHILOSOPHY: Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, Althusser and Lacan have all been belligerent this week. You’re not sure whether they’ve spun a brilliant web to connect ideas a thousand miles above the sky or whether they’re all peddling sewage—you change your answer every other week. Your mind is replete with a network of writers and thinkers and petulant questioners that comprehend the canon as far back as Socrates and as recently as Zizek. You laugh thinking about something that absurd Slovenian said in his most recent talk, but then laugh harder when you remember Badiou’s response. You’ve spent the entire week trying to make transparent one tediously opaque paragraph of Hegel, and you’re tired, but at least you’re on your way to a seminar you don’t really have to listen to since it’s about Kant and you can never compel yourself to care about the German Idealists. You relax by pulling out the enormous volume of “A Thousand Plateaus” you’ve been re-reading, and you escape into another cloud of words you’ll have to re-read ten more times before comprehending. 

***

At this point your mind’s eyes might be happily worn from so many exchanges between perspectives. But my hope is that you have seen the worth of considering what goes through the minds of the people around you during the common and seemingly mundane activity of riding the bus. I must provide the disclaimer that there are many perspectives not accounted for here, and even the ones I do account for are done with the limited scope I am able to muster from the testimony of friends and my personal experiences. Computer scientists, ROTC students, public policy writers, biomedical engineers, student athletes, pre-law and pre-med students and more—you too are all part of this place and make it great. 

Duke University is a community of incredible breadth, and like most institutions of higher learning it benefits immensely from stirring its pot of thinkers so that they interact and create previously unknown worlds of knowledge and innovation. Think about how wide is the scope of this community’s excellence, and even in the most unexciting moments of your time at this place, remember to be aware of how we can all converge to experience the same object, like the bus, and even then experience it in a myriad of ways from an array of perspectives. Remember that your world at Duke is full of very deep thinkers besides yourself, and consider often the benefit of entering into others’ ways of knowing.

Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity senior. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays. 

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