TITLE: The Strange and the Familiar AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 23, 2007 8:03 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Artists and other creative types often define their artistic endeavor obliquely as "to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar". I've seen this phrase attributed to the German poet Novalis, who coined it as "the essence of romanticism". You may have seen me use half of the phrase in my entry on a recent talk by Roy Behrens. Recently, I began to wonder... Is this what teaching is!? In a sense, the second half of the definition is indeed one of the teacher's goals: to help students understand ideas and use techniques that are, at the beginning of a course, new or poorly understood. The strange becomes familiar when it becomes a part of how we understand and think about about our worlds. But I think the first part of the definition -- to make the familiar strange -- is important, too, sometimes more important. Often the greatest learning occurs when we confront an idea that we think we understand, which seems to hold nothing new for us, which seems almost old, and are led beneath the surface to a wrinkle we never new existed. Or when we are led to where the idea intersects with another in a way we never considered before and find that the old idea opens new doors. We find that our old understanding was incomplete at best and wrong at worst. Many of the courses I am fortunate enough to teach on are replete with opportunities both to make the strange familiar and to make the familiar strange. Programming Languages and Algorithms are two. So are Object-Oriented Programming and Artificial Intelligence. Frankly, so, too, is any course that we approach with open hearts and minds. Teachers do what artists do. They just work in a different medium. (A little googling finds that Alistair Cockburn wrote on this phrase last year. There is so much to read and know!) -----