Breaking the Binary, Embracing the Anomalous

In her book “Places of Learning” (2005), Elizabeth Ellsworth challenges the idea that knowledge is concrete––something that, once taught and learned, will remain constant over time. According to Ellsworth, if we view learning and knowledge in this way, it “becomes nothing more than the decomposed by-product of something that has already happened to us” (2005, p.1, emphasis added).  Instead, Ellsworth asserts that we need to come to understand learning as a continual process for it is based in our understandings and experiences of the world (social and biological contexts), which change and develop over time. To illustrate this point, Ellsworth offers the example of watching a film: If we watch a particular film at five years old and then watch the same movie again at fifty years old, how we come to understand and interpret the plot, the sounds, the movements, etc. of the film will be different because of the differences in our social and biological contexts. In this sense, the key to understanding knowledge is to focus on the “self” that emerges from a particular learning experiences (Ellsworth, 2005, p. 2).

In the introduction, Ellsworth calls for an urgency to challenge strict binary discourses of knowledge. The problem with binary discourses of learning is that perpetuate the notion that knowledge is concrete, for they demonstrate only one way of knowing/understanding the world. Furthermore, binary discourses of learning typically reflect the dominant ideologies in society––that is, White, middle/upper-class, heterosexual, etc. ideologies. In this sense, these binaries only make sense if they are viewed from a particular angle––an angle of privilege. Therefore, if we are presented with a new knowledge that does not fit into our neat and tidy categories, we immediately render it invalid or irrelevant, or we attempt to organize it to fit into our categories. Ellsworth asserts that there is urgency for new knowledges that challenge these binaries, especially in the Education system, in order to demonstrate that there is more than one knowledge system, and that each knowledge system is valid in its own right.

This is where anomalous learning comes in. Ellsworth defines anomalous learning as “peculiar, irregular, abnormal, or difficult … pedagogical phenomena” that do not make sense when viewed from a dominant lens. In other words, anomalous knowledges challenge our strict binary discourses of knowledge and provide a different perspective––a different way of viewing the world. In terms of LGBTTQIA bodies in the classroom, anomalous ways of learning serve to challenge the dominant ideology of heteronormativity. It demonstrates that there are alternates other ways of expressing our gender and our sexuality as opposed to the normal straight woman/straight man narratives.

However, anomalous learning can be uncomfortable. I have experienced these feelings of discomfort myself. In my first semester of university, in ECS 110, we watched a video about Jazz Jennings, a 14-year-old transgender girl. As I watched the video, I found myself trying to categorize Jazz: If she is a transgender female who likes boys, does that make her straight or gay? But then I paused for a second and thought: Who cares? Why am I so determined to qualify Jazz’ gender and sexual orientation? The thing was, I had been so used to working with neat, tidy, educational binaries, and Jazz’ story challenged these normalized ways of thinking.

I think it is important to note that the goal is not to make anomalous knowledges “normal”––we do not want to squish them into our common sense ways of knowing and learning. Instead, the goal is to promote anomalous knowledges so that they are represented and become respected on their own terms.

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