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Title of case study: Working with binaries

Name: Pam Knights,

University: Durham University

Key Concepts/Threshold Concepts: values and ideology, theory/practice, institutions, symbolic representation of childhood (in films etc), children’s literature; Marxist approaches to class, power. Other: active approaches to reading and understanding, critical thinking, confidence-building. Carrie’s War, David Almond, Skellig, Margaret Mahy.

The examples here are drawn from various incarnations over the years of a Children’s Literature module within an English Studies department, consolidated in modules taught during the MEDAL project. Students came to these modules from a wide variety of disciplines.



Across the range of disciplines within childhood studies, binary oppositions underpin the organisation of many situations, identity-formations, and concepts that students may have encountered as ‘natural’. In developing critical thinking, students often find such oppositions make a good place to begin. The idea is not, initially, too alien or threatening; but seems to emerge from everyday discourses of ‘contrasts’ or ‘tensions’. In examining its theoretical extensions, and refinements, students often are pleased to discover an accessible, and useful, analytical tool. They can quickly come to understand the power relations of binary sets, the dynamics of privileging, structural differences, and the force of association. However, the concept can also lend itself too easily to glib, catch-all analysis, reifying hierarchies or subject-positions, and ignoring complexity, provisionality and the potential for change. Acknowledging this problem, through an activity, can have great benefits, as students become aware of how simplistic divisions may become set in stone.

What I am trying to achieve

The examples here, drawn from work on literary texts for children, represent a range of ways my groups have worked with binaries. They indicate some ways I have approached setting up arguments, revealing and foregrounding cracks and divisions, and encouraging students to deepen and extend their first observations.

Practically, in the classroom, working with binaries is also a straightforward way of bringing different groups into the same sphere of debate, and making productive cross-connections. Groups might work with different passages of a text or argument, entire narratives, or conversations, pictures, or other forms of social discourse. None of these are ground-breaking approaches, but taken together, they might be a useful reminder that straightforward tasks can often engage students very productively. They also offer a way of helping students negotiate detail in their essays, and move out from specific evidence, to speculate about broader significance.


All these activities arise from suggestions that students look at the tensions, opposites, or contradictions in a text.

Example A: ‘Contrasts and similarities’ to ‘Symbolic Resolutions’
Two North-Eastern novels.

Here, I wanted groups to think about the possible political/gender/and regional dynamics, and their wider cultural and historical significance, in some 1980s books for pre-teens/young adolescents. I took two texts, each of which features Durham and the North-East: Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye; Andrew Taylor’s The Coal House. (For my own view of these dynamics, see Pamela Knights: ‘England’s Dark Ages? The North-East in Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye and Andrew Taylor’s The Coal House’ in The Presence of the Past in Children’s Literature, ed. Ann Lawson Lucas, Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood, 2003, 167-75).

1. I divided the room, so that half worked on one novel, half on the other. We began with non-theoretical language, simply looking for opposites/ contrasts/ tensions. Image 1 shows one group’s work, on The Wind Eye. The ‘vs’ was the group’s term, and represented their view of the violent jarring of many of the narrative elements.

Image 1: Tensions in Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye (click for larger image)

2. Groups ‘jigsawed’, to bring the texts together, and look (again in everyday language) at ‘Similarities’ and ‘Differences’. Details begin to add up, to suggest a larger picture. (Image 2

Image 2: [Detail] Some similarities and differences between the two novels. Click for larger, complete image.

3. Plenary. With these observations in mind, at this point, I introduce Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey’s argument about literature as an ideological form (1974). Having worked through some of these lines of difficulty and contradiction, we look at the proposition that ‘literature “begins” with the imaginary solution of implacable ideological contradictions.’ What are the ‘problems’ such narratives are trying to ‘solve’? The charts before us present a helpful reference point: e.g. to reveal inner cross-connections; the way conflicts are being worked through in the characters and details of the narrative; which ‘strange’ details come to the surface and what they say.

4. The final stage is to look at how these narratives symbolically resolve their contradictions: which elements are reconciled, and what is occluded, remains resistant elements, or expelled at the ending. At this point, I find a whole-group approach works well, with everyone’s input into ‘solving’ the problem. We abandon the ‘column’ structure of binaries, and work with a circle on the board: what’s included? what’s left out? what merges?


Example B: Dualisms

This example, from a fantasy seminar, is intended simply to indicate the way students will often take up and adapt earlier work with binaries, to use in ways that interest them: here, on dualisms in Harry Potter (images 3 and 4). In both samples, the groups also try to indicate narrative, rather than just simple oppositions. See e.g. ‘allowed to flip between worlds’.

Image 3: Dualisms in Harry Potter.

Image 4: ‘Worlds’ of Harry Potter.

Example C: The grid: a way of engaging with change

e.g. Power in Carrie’s War

This approach adds a further dimension, by adding a second set of binaries, to generate a grid structure. This prompts readers to engage with the dynamics of change, and to explore the ways even seemingly fixed power sets, or binary hierarchies, may be overturned, or slip, as the narrative unfolds.

To open up various aspects of ‘power’ in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, students opposed Power/Powerless and ‘Alternative’ [forms of power] with ‘Social’ power. Different groups then tried to ‘plot’ on to the grid their allotted character. The scheme is also illuminating on units of characters (e.g. children/ racial groups/ gender). As the images (click for larger versions) demonstrate, students became very involved in trying to tease out how the novel shifts the balances. This led, in essays, to vigorous negotiation with categories such as reader position, and sharpened analysis. This activity also produced far more interest in issues such as class, marginality, social ‘invalid/ity’ than on previous occasions of teaching this text.

Image 5. Mr Evans

Image 6. Mrs Gotobed

Image 7. Power as a force field.

Image 8: Louisa – through binaries and division

Image 9: Hepzibah.
This reading, and that in Image 10 below, opened up far more complexities in this figure than had been evident when students first talked generally about the text.

Image 10: Hepzibah

Image 11: Mrs Gotobed
Again, a figure that at first seemed somewhat static, here generates considerable narrative energy and complication.

Image 12: Auntie Lou >>> Mrs Cass Harper

Image12: detail of narrative transformations.
Possible extension
A more complex version of a grid would be to try a semiotic rectangle, but I have had, so far, little success in finding the right opportunity for such a venture. The grid, however, with different terms at each point, has proved a very versatile activity, in discussions centring on a range of areas (from Little Women to race in William Faulkner).

Example D: Unstable binaries: Using cards.
David Almond’s Skellig; Margaret Mahy’s Memory and/or The Changeover

I have used the strategy in Example A above, with these novels. However, the approach which follows was simple to set up, and made a change from the ‘poster’-based methods above.

This was simply to look at the narratives in terms of ‘Civilisation’ and ‘Wilderness’ (one of David Almond’s repeated tropes, and one which he had talked on in a visit). I issued small cards, and asked students individually to write on the cards, one per card, some object from the text, which had stuck in their minds after reading.
Examples of Items / ‘terrible sherry’ /‘salmon coloured standard rose’/ DANGER door

I then introduced the themes, and invited students in pairs to ‘sort’ the cards into one or the other column.
Think of ‘Spaces’ – ‘Civilization’ / ‘Wilderness’ [we can qualify these later]
Place items in one or the other, and judge their distance from the central border.

We then moved to the idea of ‘narrative zones’ and characters’ journeys, or changeovers. I asked students:

Think about how you fit your readings on to these spaces. If you can pick up on any details of the items, so much the better.

We then reflected on the activity, looking at the way certain objects (e.g. .the take-aways in Skellig) shift from one column to the other, depending on perspective. This opened up the whole question of the generic instabilities – the texts’ spectrum from realism to the marvellous, and their affinities with adult magic realism. It also generated questions about concepts of wilderness; of ‘safe spaces’ in these texts, and the ‘spaces’ of adolescence, at least as constructed in these narratives.

• Lecturer’s view of the activity

That students remember such exercises and continue to think of the issues raised is evident from the number who normally choose to write on topics developed out of working with binaries: from power and powerlessness, to ‘Dangerous spaces’.

• Students’ view of the activity
[Extract from MEDAL interview]
There was one that I really enjoyed. We were looking at “Skellig” by David Almond and we were told to ..... it was when we were doing things like various codes and we were to look at maybe symbols or objects or something ..... things that David Almond had put in the book because there was a quotation that he said something like ‘none of the things that appear in my book are there by accident’. So Pam said you know pick up on that and just the simplest things we wrote them down on little sort of index cards and there were things like, I don’t know, football and there was a fruit gum and there was a toilet ..... just really stupid little things like that they all you know interconnected to be important. And then we had to separate them into civilisation and wilderness, look at the binary opposition between the two and we often found that the things ..... and then to decide, we had to work out which sort of came from civilisation and which came from wilderness and then to work out which one is probably the most positive from that and a lot of them tend to kind of ..... they overlapped anyway but often the most positive things were associated with the wilderness so there was just that kind of ..... the idea of the binary oppositions and Almond using the wilderness as a positive thing to help growth and things like that. That was really interesting.

Interviewer: So when you were saying ‘we’, does that mean there were groups of you working on something?

Student: Yes, small groups of maybe 3 or 4 at a time and then we would come together and discuss it.

Interviewer: Did you use anything like a poster or was this all, you know, when you were writing down the various things and charting them in different ways?

Student: Yes, that itself was just done and then done in groups so they just like ..... clearing a space on a desk and civilisation and wilderness and putting the cards in different places. But with things .....

Extract from English Subject Centre interview
… it makes it so much interesting if you do different things than if you just follow a text book; because I didn’t do another Special Topic. I’ve never been in a seminar when it was so active, all the time, rather than sitting and making notes- well it can get quite boring. So it was really excellent.

This is a field where the possibilities are endless, and I would welcome other ways of opening up the concept, in textual studies, and beyond.

I've tried this out and would like to offer feedback.

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