Defamiliarization and Wonder

Today in Tricia’s demo we were invited to express a simple mathematical equation in words. Many of the groups wrote word problems and our group wrote a description of the communicative property. Some groups even drew pictures. As many of us spend less time working with math rather than other areas, this activity forced us to encounter a text (the math equation) differently than we might have otherwise.* By asking us, without a great deal of direction, to represent the familiar in a new way, we were forced to think more creatively about the text and the way our students learn.

The demo led me to continue thinking about how to make what my students encounter in history class fresh or strange, to problematize easy and potentially incorrect assumptions. My high students especially come to American history with some deeply help and often implicit assumptions about history.

Defamilarization was a term coined in early 1900s by Russian formalists to describe the process of making something familiar seem strange for the audience or reader for the purposes of enhancing his or her perception. Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge predates the term, I think he describes the idea well in Biographia Literaria

To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar. . . this is the character and privilege of genius. 

It’s that sense of wonder and strangeness that’s part of what I’d like to help my students cultivate when they approach historical texts.

*I’m resisting the temptation to call us English people (as opposed to math people) because I think, influenced by Carol Dweck’s Mindset, that those categories are ultimately less useful and limiting.

Linguistic Accountability in Mad Men

I’ve seen several episodes of Mad Men, a show about Madison Avenue life in the 1960s, and been impressed with the extent to which the show evokes a historical period. The attention to the detail in furnishings and wardrobe is superb, but I hadn’t given much thought to language and speech patterns in the show until I read this New York Times article. It’s a nice example of the kind of participatory culture that can arise around a medium initially intended to simply be consumed and the kind of accountability that culture can provide to creators.