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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: July 29, 1998
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Playing with Habermas - From Habermas to Distance Teaching

by Jeanne Curran and Susan Takata

Paper prepared for presentation at the annual meetings, 1998,
of the American Society of Criminology.


Yes, yes, we know that we're not supposed to play with Habermas. This is serious stuff. Well, that's one textual reading. But we're going to argue for readings from a variety of texts reclaimed from the public sphere of what, today, constitutes the academy. To do that, we were forced to approach the academy with less than the reverence normally reserved for the monolithic arbiter of knowledge recognized as American Higher Education.

The Academy and Logocentrism

The first intimation that we were going to play with Habermas was our decision to teach with Between Facts and Norms.(1) Habermas was an ideal thinker for our courses in theory and sociology of law. He was optimistic; and our students needed that. He holds out hope for metanarrative and liberal politics, for democracy as we claim to know it. For many of our students deconstruction, with its refusal of the universal, was frightening. Habermas also represented a firmly rooted belief in the cognitive basis for discourse. Our goal was to teach social theory, not to invent it, so discourse based on reason seemed an appropriate goal. That goal was not to lead students to accept one side of the postmodern argument as against another, but to bring them to an awareness of the debate between metanarrative and local narratives, of the tension between individual and community, that they might better take sides somewhere in a future "lifetime of learning."(2)

The decision that we wanted to prepare our students for discourse meant that we had to pay particular attention to sociological logocentrism. Logocentrism displays a view of the world in which some "truth" or "reality" to which the academy(3) lays claim is privileged at the expense of other voices, other perspectives. This is most often seen in the determination of what is included in the canon (or the curriculum) and what is not. Intertextuality therefore concerned us, for Habermas would have to be read, not alone, not as the sole authority on discourse and its possibilities, but with other textual references to clarify, expand, situate within the range of contexts available.

We knew we wanted to achieve real discourse with our students, for our orientation is one of testing theory in practice. That fit, since Habermas has generally sought "the possibility of a unity of theory and practice."(4) We wanted to provide enough textual information that our students could grasp the concept of political discourse and understand the underlying concepts of the debate on metanarratives versus local narratives.

As women, we considered the concept of narrative and stories controlling. We wanted our students to understand that control, and have choices in how their small piece of the world might handle that debate. Not a small order for classes with up to sixty students in commuter universities, one urban, one rural, where many students are the first in family to attend college, and where the concept of "non-traditional student" has lost its meaning over twenty years of community reality impinging upon the academy's logocentrism on just what is traditional.

Urban "non-traditional" universities are not usually "research" institutions. They do not afford their faculty a great deal of time or energy for contemplating theoretical issues. Classes are large and many. Remediation is an issue. Classes are slowed by the broad range of abilities and academic experience, and administrative forms explode exponentially.

An "Interrupter" Narrative to Catch the Spirit

Curran had just picked up a copy of Between Facts and Normsin the summer of 1996. Always intrigued by Habermas' thought, she saw potential in including it in a sociology of law class. She shared it with her research assistant, who promptly announced that she would never forgive herself if she did not use it in the Fall 1996 class. A likely possibility! Nevertheless, intrigued, she picked up her office phone and called Susan Takata. What, she asked, would Takata think of using the original text in sociology of law? With so much emphasis being brought by the Trustees on "lifetime" learning, with the growing likelihood that for many of our students the B.A. would be a terminal degree, with at most a professional training program beyond, when would they be exposed to such texts if not now, if not in our classes? There would have to be supportive materials, but was it worth a try?

Takata replied that she would use the text in the Spring if Curran would use it in the Fall, Fall of 1996, that is. "Do you mean it?" cried Curran. "Sure. It's a good idea." replied Takata. We laughed and sealed the bargain. The play had begun.

Recovering Texts Not Normally Available for Intertextual Readings

Before reading Fox's "Intertextuality and the Writing of Social Research"(5) we dismissed this narrative as local and just a part of our lives. But Fox alerted us to the many aspects of "doing theory" with our students. Fox recognized how, in recording accounts of "doing surgery" he omitted or "submerged" other accounts that were painful, emotional. Now he sees the addition of these texts as adding to the richness of his description and understanding of social behavior. We, too, began to see the extent to which our playing with critical and postmodern theory encouraged our students to play, also. We had never bothered to record these narratives, for we saw no place for them in the traditional "writing of social research." Slowly, we began to see that teaching may have a more formal writing role than we had seen before.

Our "interrupter" narrative isn't recorded in a notebook, available as formal data, so that now that we see its importance we can go back and publish it as an ethnomethodological article on "doing theory." And we're not likely to find the time to record every phone call, every dialog with our research assistants in notebooks. Ours are non-traditional, meaning "not research" schools. Our texts are likely to remain informal, and we are likely to produce them mainly in the sessions like the ones that produced this paper: brief, focused (fifteen minutes), devoted primarily to the division of labor we can manage.

Does that make our texts less real, less worthy of inclusion in the academy's discourse? We argue here that our "interrupter" narrative illustrates our play and adds something of value to Habermas' text by adding local narrative through intertextuality. We know our students play with Habermas. But we hadn't connected that to our own play with his ideas. An invitation into a sandbox is hard to resist. This kind of play matters. These texts need to be recorded, find a forum, and enrich the source of texts for intertextual readings. We need to recognize their role if we are going to recognize the significance of the interaction as it happens, and begin to record, for we must.

Why hadn't we seen this kind of "writing social research" before? Because, we fear, the academy does not recognize and encourage this kind of intertextuality. The academy is a rather severe arbiter of knowledge. Despite all the postmodern grumbling about metanarratives and their implicit universality, the academic community adheres to an almost universal standard of scholarly production.(6) Incidents in which academy members eschew conformity with impunity are rare. Twenty professors of philosophy (from ten countries) protested that Cambridge should not grant Derrida an honorary degree, for his style "defies comprehension." Derrida dubbed it "the Cambridge affair," giving it rather more clout than the objecting professors had intended. Is style now a philosophical issue?(7) Derrida long ago garnered a forum, and can handle the likes of "the Cambridge affair" from a position of power. But what of the many others, whose need to stray from the traditional "style" of the discipline is not so readily defended? Not to have the imprimatur of the academy is to be either so successful that one can afford to play with the academy's displeasure, or to be in danger of losing one's place in the academy.

There is a need to recognize the importance of texts that come from this different "writing of sociology," and to find them an honorable place in the academy. These are narratives for which teachers have time. These are texts that serve to enrich the grander texts with the coveted imprimatur. To continue to treat them as unimportant devalues them in the eyes of the teachers and the students and weakens the ultimate readings of the texts of the canon.(8)

The Academy as a Reclaimed Public Sphere

Habermas' account of the public sphere in the twentieth century focuses on the problem of ever growing numbers of citizens. Along with the numbers grew the difficulty of communication to so many without the problems of media control and distortion, and the difficulty of maintaining the citizenry's skill at "rational-critical discourse." We live in the age of the sound bite, of increasingly insurmountable problems with the teaching and promotion of critical thinking in the public sphere. Decisions are increasingly made by supervisors, administrators, experts. Habermas, like Horkheim and Adorno before him, is appalled by this trend to the "administered society".(9)

In this paper we draw an analogy between the "administered society"(10) and the administered academy. The academy, like the populace in general, grew enormously after WWII, and experienced all the same events that caused the public sphere in general to weaken and give way to the administrative professional. Over the years, as the very foundations of the degree were questioned, and as some despaired, courses were ritualized to the point where teachers, even whole universities ,were replaced by office and video programs. The move to privatize education, both the granting of degrees, and the newest of information technology is risky and frightening.(11)

Increased access has often meant decreased quality control. But Habermas's glimmer of hope for the public sphere at large is indeed much more promising for the academy. Despite the problems, the ideals hold true. In Academic Discourse we read that "a significant section of the student population shares the institutional values of the system." They share particularly the values of: "cultivation of a critical spirit, transmission of general culture and promotion of research."(12) Although the studies referred to were done decades ago, Stanford saw fit to re-issuethem. Today's students, in our classes, reiterate these same goals: "permitting the individual to act in the modern world and to understand it." (Ibid, at p. 99)

Faculty speak continually on the campuses of most institutions of re-instilling the integrity they recall for the educational enterprise. If Habermas' optimism will bear fruit, the academy is agood public sphere in which to begin to create discourse.

Choosing Texts

Our understanding that our students did in fact seek a means of understanding and taking part in a public discourse they could imagine if not find led us to adopt Habermas' 1996 book. We considered the text difficult reading for them, and we wondered how they would react in terms of whether Habermas' theory met their need to understand. The classroom forums weresecure. And we saw no threat to any other forum. We didn't plan to publish commentary on Habermas; we weren't trying to cram into already overcrowded schedules serious publications in recognized style. We believed in leading our students into serious thought. We believed the academy was the place in which that should be done.

The "Habermas" project was undertaken in the spirit of inviting our students to share our delight in texts that had empowered us. Our concern with texts was purely with a choice that would enlarge on and explain ideas our students hadn't encountered before. Habermas speaks of a world of philosophy that is strange to many of our "non-traditional" students. To introduce them, to guide them comfortably, so that the reading of Between Facts and Norms would remain the delight it had been for us, we hastily prepared for them a Sociology of Law Handbook, that was tied directly to the Habermas text and that illustrated some of the basic concepts through practical problems in the students' experience. Concerned to offer more for intertextual reading, excerpts from other texts were annotated briefly. We included brief allusions to Martha Minow's Making All the Difference: Inclusion and Exclusion in American Law Her explanation of the unstated assumptions of difference is excellent, and helps students to grasp the need to clarify assumptions in attempting discourse. We also included brief references to Dworkin's Law's Empire, and to Rawl's Theories of Justice. Although we recognized that asking our students to read Between Facts and Norms was asking a lot for a fifteen week course with sixty students, all with varying educational backgrounds, we wanted the handbook to guarantee that they were at least aware of other theories, other approaches.

Setting Up An Approach to Dialog

Because Habermas focuses on the importance of rational discourse, we chose that as an educational outcome for our students. We believed the best way to measure that outcome was to guarantee that each student would in fact engage in some dialog with us. That was most reasonably accomplished with writing, since ours are commuter universities at which students have little discretionary time for office discussions. We knew that we would play with the forms the dialog would take, but students need grades, and some assurance that they can count on what they need to do to earn them. Thus, we included in the handbook fifty-tree essay questions that we hoped would begin the dialog process. But based on our own experience with questioning and dialog, we expected that students, especially given complex advanced material, would struggle with the questions, trying to find a "right answer," instead of looking for an approach to dialog. To alleviate the need for the "good student" to assure himself that he had covered all bases, we gave answers to our questions in the handbook.

We discuss the surprises that brought, having the answers to our questions, in another paper. Suffice it to say here, the students were surprised. They found it difficult not to accept our answers as "the" answer, even though we assured them that these represented only one plausible approach to an answer. We wanted them to know what we were thinking of when we asked the question, so they didn't have to look for hurdles to jump. Anything that looked beyond our answer to different approaches, different examples, represented for us the beginnings of dialog, and hopefully, discourse.

In this paper, we want to focus on how the students handled this approach to dialog. First, they expressed dismay. "What is left for us to do?" Many class discussions later that lament changed to "Surely you don't mean for us to learn all of this?" Well, that does depend on how you translate "learn." We wanted them to enter discussions that showed some evidence of their having struggled with the text, yes. "But struggling isn't usually what you get an 'A' for." Well, maybe it is, if the course's objective is to create rational discourse. So we insisted.

During Spring 1997, Takata, as promised, used the Habermas text along with the Sociology of Law Handbook in the second half of her Sociology of Law course. With about 50 students in a course normally maxed out at 40, a spontaneous demonstration of Habermas' concept of communicative action and democratic discourse occurred prior to the midterm examination (and was later connected to Habermas' theory). Students knew from previous courses with Takata that she believed in what Hans Mauksch once told her, "teaching is the interactive sharing of power." As a result, a negotiative process took place: students wanted to be able to do their midterm essay examination in groups. There were several issues to sort out: 1) whether to have the exam in groups or individually, and 2) if in groups, how were these groups to be selected (randomly, self-select, etc.).

The only stipulation Takata placed on the class that no matter what was decided there must be 100% consensus. At first, students said this would be impossible as they tried for "majority rules," very quick and very straight-forward to some. Again, Takata objected to simple majority rules and insisted on 100% consensus. Everyone had an opportunity to present his/her side of the argument, weighing the pros and cons and yet trying to make sure that everyone was "happy." Some skeptics thought this was totally impossible: "It would never happen." "Someone is always going to be unhappy." "That's how it goes." They spent three entire class sessions on this issue. Students who have grown up with the "fast food" mentality wanted a quick resolution. Eventually, students decided on a group exam, but discussed long and hard how groups would be formed. Some wanted the "luck of the draw" (random selection), while others preferred to work with "friends" (people they knew). As a result of long, and seemingly tedious discussions, the four students who wanted a random group became their own group while the remainder of the class selected their own groups. Everyone was happy!

A few weeks later, some students connected Habermas' concepts of communicative action and democratic discourse to the 100% consensus achieved prior to the midterm examination. We had practiced theory! In a sense, the teacher and students were living and breathing the discourse theory for the remainder for the remainder of the semester. To illustrate, in one class discussion on public autonomy vs. private autonomy, students starting to come up with their own examples, (the "English only" controversy, the local "speed wave" (massive local law enforcement net on speeders during rush hour), the affirmative action backlash and so forth. Students would connect life experiences and current events in order to demonstrate their understanding of Habermas.

There isn't space to share all the many transformations adapted by discourse in the three experimental courses. (Again, we are doing that in other papers.) What matters here is how the process changed our perceptions of discourse and how, in that process, we discovered new texts, new possibilities for intertextual readings.

Discovering Texts

Because our primary goal was the establishment of actual discourse, we asked our students to write on applications of theory in their own experience. Their efforts were often tentative. During lecture and discussion, especially in large groups, they experienced the same kinds of feelings many of us used to experience in math class when the problem was perfectly clear when the teacher solved it on the board, becoming muddy only when we tried it on our own. For example, UWP students claimed with the answers in the handbook, there was little "thinking" left for them to do. What else was there? Takata encouraged students to come up with their own answers or, at least, their own examples to illustrate their understanding of the concepts. They began making theori own connections between theory and practice.

Comprehension precedes creative production. Even with the guide of acceptable answers before them, students wandered lost through theories, often hitting on a theory that was less appropriate than another, often not quite drawing a rational correspondence between the theory element and the practice they sought to describe. This didn't matter so much; we expected it as part of learning, and proceeded to correct the papers, all sixty of them with extensive comments. Chalk that up to altruism and believing in the importance of what we were trying to teach: discourse.

Except that discourse wasn't happening. At one point, during Spring 1997, Curran and Takata decided to have their students talk discourse by e-mail. Students were connected, but they said very little. Curran and Takata could not figure out why this was happening. After all, so many rich and vibrant discussions had taken place during class. But the students didn't know waht to say to each other, where to begin the dialogue. A few students even tried the "chat" room, but it never lasted forvery long. Slowly we recognized that discourse does not simply happen. There must be a catalyst, a focus, that stimulates the process. For this is not a process students or teachers know and understand.

For whatever reason, discourse wasn't happening. Maybe we needed to identify and promote "discussion leaders." But that would immediately silence some. Even the "leaders" weren't involved in discourse. Good papers were not getting enough comment, for ones with problems took most of that energy.. And once the comments were translated into grades, students no longer bothered with them. All that work, and the students weren't holding up their end of the discourse! It was Habermas that saved us. If the students weren't taking the same effort we were to engage in discourse (and when did any of us ever have sixty wonderful dedicated students in one class?), that would suggest that they were presenting a different validity claim. Maybe they didn't have the time for all this effort. Maybe we weren't listening in good faith to their validity claims. These are students who work, usually full time, have families, and try to go to school, usually full time. Where did discourse fit into all this?

In Curran's eagerness, even determination, that these students would dialog, even in a class of sixty, she introduced an exercise she'd read about in Classroom Assignment Techniques.(13) She offered the option of writing about study time, what it was like in fifteen minute segments. The book said to consider no less than thirty minute segments, but Curran was determined to hear what the students were trying to say, in good faith. And she offered credit for the recording of experience with study time, even though the book said no credit. She asked the students if they would have considered that a validity claim, and they answered, "Yes," collectively. She was at least on the right track. These were people who had so little discretionary time they didn't want to engage in activities for "the sake of learning." They were trying to get degrees, in the middle of lives crammed full of people and things that required their constant attention. If they wrote paper, they wanted credit, grades. That was a validity claim we could negotiate, and we did. They got their grades.

One of them wrote about how she studied for the class in Habermas:

My study time is very limited. I work 35 to 40 hours a week, about 8 hours a day. So I do not have a set study time. Fifteen minutes of studying is very precious. Sometimes that time could be at home at the dinner table around midnight when the house is quiet or at work on my lunch break, in the very back office or in the car on my way to or from school. During those fifteen minute intervals, I try to focus my concentration on my school work. About half the time I am successful. The other half is usually interrupted either by my father asking me whether I am going to bed or what time I have to got to go school or work the next day. If I am at work, my boss might ask me if I put away my daily paperwork, or where I put the morning mail. Whenever I get interrupted, I am usually into the studying mode. I cannot get upset, because it will consume my thinking, and I can not get back into the studying mode. The fifteen minute intervals don't allow to intake, process and comprehend the material. If the fifteen minute interval studying is going to work, you need to be reviewing material studied already.

Study time would be more productive if it were to be for half-hour to hour intervals. I feel that would be more productive for me. During the week, I did about five of the fifteen minute intervals of studying and realized that if I were to pass every one of my college courses and graduate, I could not study by the fifteen minute interval method.

Now, aside from the fact that this represents the modern tragedy of higher education,(14) this is not an atypical story. The commercialization of the college degree has guaranteed that most will want it. And the commercialization of the means to achieve it has guaranteed that it will bear little semblance to what once was a liberal arts education. But this was a set of classes in which the teachers had sought not just essays and academic papers, but discourse. And here were students willing to state their validity claims as well as they could without dissembling. Our students knew that fifteen minutes in the morning and the evening was not adequate for the kind of education we were trying to give them. That's exactly what the student in this paper is saying. So why say it? Unless this is an attempt at discourse.

This is the kind of attempt we usually find in student papers. But we usually dismiss it. It's not an academic essay. Unless we've been focused on Habermas. Unless the students did in fact know, and they did, that their teacher was on the Dean's task force to improve retention. Unless they knew that their teacher was trying to listen, and would help them, through the discussion, figure out what they were trying to say, or were feeling, in defense of their validity claim.

This paper didn't go into the "Graded and recorded" folder. It went directly into the "Need to Cite" folder. First, it went into the report for the task force on retention. If our students are feeling this pressure, what can we do to make it better? What can we do to free them for the study that they recognize themselves as essential? Then, it went into the "Playing with Habermas" folder. Curran didn't know why. She just knew that it held important information, and that it had to do with validity claims and our discourse. And then she read Fox's paper on Writing Social Research, and she called Takata, and they knew where it went, and why.

This paper is one of the lost texts, one that never found an audience. No one ever had the time, or the reason, for that matter, to listen. By recognizing it as a text, as a narrative that has textual meaning, once written, we perform two major tasks on the way to discourse. First, we render the students' writings meaningful. They are no longer useless exercises that will end nowhere once the grade has been earned and recorded. They have become "gifts" of writing. (15) And writers must have an audience or they wither and disappear.(16)

Curran and Takata's knowledge of their individual campuses, of the power structure and the access it permitted, when one knew the channels, meant that these student texts could find a forum. Another student had e-mailed Curran, "Thank you for an exciting class. I think I learned something, but I don't know what." Yes, that is how they tend to express the first glimmer of understanding. And if there were a forum, instead of a dead paper file, they might go on with that expression until they got it right.(17) This lesson learned, Curran immediately turned the essays into shared writing, (18) excerpts shared with the whole class, in open discussion, so that the teacher could clarify what they had learned and help them present their validity claim more fully, in ways that it could be heard in good faith in the academy.

If discourse can indeed be created, slowly but surely, in this way, then there is added hope that Habermas is right. Perhaps we can reclaim the public sphere, starting with the "administered" academy. Curran and Takata began this project in earnest with the creation of a Web site, Dear Habermas, designed to give a published forum to these lost and now reclaimed texts. For both the faculty who never saw them for what they were, and the students who continue to write them.

No, we do not yet have an answer to the fifteen minute study sessions, but at least we've heard the narrative and have begun to look for the other narratives that may one day hold, not answers, for there probably are no answers, but new ways to interpret the problem and the texts, an intertextuality that includes all the texts, reclaimed and published for all who would read them.


1. Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996.

Visit for more
information on Habermas' Between Facts and Norms.

2. Cornerstones, "Planning for the Next Decade," Draft Reports, March 1997. Lifetime learning and learning to create and maintain public discourse for the sake of our communities are amongst our latest affirmed educational goals. Passim.

3. Or any other source of authority.

4. Craig Calhoun, Critical Social Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of Difference. Blackwell, Oxford, UK. 1995. At p. 28.

Visit for more
information on Calhoun's Critical Social Theory.
See also Habermas, passim.

5. Nicholas J. Fox, "Intertextuality and the Writing of Social Research," Medical School, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2RX UK,

6. The standards remain uniform despite wide variation in each forum's ability to maintain those standards. The question never comes up whether the standards are controlling or whether we are. Local narratives of professor's lives, in which their schedules permit no publication time and in which their work sites afford no ethos for publication, are rarely held up against the metanarrative of steady publication by all who are seriously committed to their discipline.

7. Michael Peters, University of Auckland, and Nicholas Burbules, University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, "Wittgenstein and the Importance of Style to Philosophy," available over the Internet.

8. We recognized this need in the presentation of papers, multiplying the opportunities for round table discussions and poster sessions, and through multiplying the number of associations and conferences. We need to recognize the need to recover the texts of these presently neglected narratives in similarly creative ways. Perhaps the Internet, which served us well in the finding of Fox's paper. But that is the subject of another paper.

9. Calhoun, ibid., at p. 31.

10. Ibid.

11. Nicholas Constantine Burbules and Thomas A. Callister, Jr., "The Risky Promises and Promising Risks of New Information Technologies for Education," Presented at the Education/Technology conference, Penn State University, Fall 1997.

12. Guy Vincent, with the assistance of Michel Freyssenet, "University Students and their Attitudes to Academic Staff and Teaching Practice." (At p. 98) In Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Claude Passeron, Monique de Saint Martin, Academic Discourse, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA. 1965. 1994 English translation and Preface, copyright Polity.

13. Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco. 1993.

14. Nicholas C. Burbules, "Teaching and the Tragic Sense of Education," Forthcoming in Teaching and Its Predicaments Nicholas C. Burbules and David Hansen, eds. (Westview Press.) http:/

15. Fox cites Cixous' 1986 work: "Sorties" in Cixous and Clement (Eds.). The Newly Born Woman. Manchester, Manchester University Press. Cixous recognizes the importance of "doing writing" as a means of freeing oneself, of developing one's validity claims.

16. Barbara Christian, cited in Curran and Takata, Woman's Difference, Woman's Prize at p. 53, in the discussion of the dilemma of the race for theory for Black Women.

17. This example can be found on the Dear Habermas Internet site, temporarily at " The site will move shortly to the university server at CSUDH and can be found by contacting Jeanne Curran by e-mail at . Listed in the Table of Contents of the Dear Habermas site as "I Think I Learned Something.

18. This teaching technique is described fully in another paper. Curran and Takata.

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