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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: July 13, 1998
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Refresher on Terms and People

Derrida and Deconstruction Dialogue and Its Forum

Derrida and Deconstruction

Derrida is a philosopher who divided his time between France and the University of California at Irvine. He is usually given credit as the founder of deconstruction, the process of taking concepts apart and putting them back together again sideways or inside-out. Derrida saw this happening with values as he switched back and forth between France and California. What appeared to be core values in France would appear as peripheral in California, and vice versa.

Deconstructionists take things apart and look at them from many different perspectives. At some point, they insist that there is no grounded perspective, that all perspectives compete, and that we can ill afford to choose one over the other. This led us to the concept of pluralism and postmodernism.

Many of us ordinary thinking folks see these arguments as important to getting us to hear all perspectives, but most of us would like to avoid any semblance to the old definition of Democrats as people who could never agree on anything. These are theoretical positions, and the world we actually live in needs just a tad more stability and "de la moderation avant toute chose." (French, for "moderation above all things", one of the most famous lines of French poetry.) Terence (Latin) said: "Moderation in all things." Check Bartlett's quotations. (Of course, you will find in Bartlett's Thomas Paine's quote: "A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.") Oh, well. Go back and look up tolerance of ambiguity.

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Dialogue and a Forum Co-Create One Another

From Knowledge, Difference, and Power, Nancy Goldberger, Jill Tarule, Blythe Clinchy, and Mary Belenky, Basic Books, 1996.

On p. 279 of Knowledge, Difference, and Power Tarule cites Nicholas Burbules' definition of "dialogue as 'representing 'a continuous developmental communicative interchange through which we stand to gain a fuller apprehension of the world, ourselves, and one another" At p. 8 of Dialogue in teaching: Theory and practice. New York Teachers College Press, Columbia University. 1993.

You will recognize in Burbules' definition many of the primary concepts with which we grapple on Dear Habermas: communicative discourse, developmental, and the juxtaposition of "the world, ourselves, and one another." Tarule suggests, however, that Burbules' understanding of this dialogue is one of "separate knowing." That is, although there may be discourse going on which shapes the social relations around the reality of the situation, Burbules perceives there to be a separate and extant body of knowledge to which participation in the discourse will provide an understanding.

Some social constructivists would modify that position. Tarule says "Dialogue is making knowledge in conversation. [At. p. 280] . . .Bruffee aserts about all learning: that these dialogue-rich, langauage-constituted relations are the way learning occurs and knowledge is constructed.

This is why we keep telling you that discussion, and a good faith willingness to hear each other, is such an important piece of your learning in the classroom. It does not produce the same "right" answers that lectures can offer, but it is an important facet of learning if you make a good faith effort at hearing. Beyond the classroom, on the site, the dialog that produces text for us bears the same importance to our learning. These are the procedural elements of making knowledge your own. They must be integrally bound up with the knowledge base access of surveying what we currently believe to be "known." In some cases you will be expected simply to grasp the knowledge base that someone (usually the instructor) presumes is the most accurate knowledge base available on that topic. In other cases you will be expected to grasp the means of accessing as extensive a knowledge base as possible, with the additional responsibility of establishing the authority for whatever evidence you use from that knowledge base. You and see that the latter is the harder task, but it is likely the task of the future. Dialogue is enriched by the data from the knowledge base, but it takes us a step further, to the point where you begin to make that knowledge your own.

Bruffee reports (at p.286 pf Knowledge, Difference, and Power, that Perry's Harvard students "'generously provided' [him] with 'evidence of th social construction of knowledge' in their learning." Evidence for this was found in the WWK project.

Where does Dear Habermasfit in the social construction of knowledge? Well, Tarule states on p. 286 that "The primary assertion about nonfoundational knowledge is that all knowledge is produced and modified in community and commication." She recognizes the academy as one of the centers of such a community. "Discourse or interpretative communities are defined as sites in which knowledge is produced, reproduced, and contested. Wtihin this community "odd truces" are formed as colleagues hammer out truth and major issues within the framework of current knowledge. Discourse, reading, writing are the tools of the trade. The individual's membership in such a community contributes importantly to the definition of her "social and political positionality" with respect to the production of knowledge.

Dear Habermas sprang up as a forum where none existed, where the individual memberships in the academy community did not provide adequate social and polictical positioning power to gain a forum. Nicholas J.Fox brought some of the finer aspects of this concern to the fore in his: " Intertextuality and the Writing of Social Research" Fox addresses the importance of writings in the academy that we tend to ignore as mere work products. He realizes the importance of the research notes that never made it into his published writings. They were freer, mademore telling, comments later removed from the final and polished product of research. "Scientists' . . . experimental materials are recalcitrant; their organizational politics precarious; they may not know whether a given technique was correctly applied or interpreted; they must often rely on observations made in haste or by unskilled assistants." (Susan Leigh Star, quoted at p. 241 of Epstein's Impure Science.

And the forum usually dictates the extent to which the document must be "cleaned up," offered in staid scientific style. Life isn't like that. Life has ups and downs; it's scary; it's messy; its jubilant; it colors outside the lines. And all of that is part of what shapes those staid scientific documents that finally appear in all the pomp of academe. The first paper we wrote on Dear Habermas was Playing with Habermas. Not staid, not dry. We recognized that we were having dialog where dialog had not been before, that we were testing the limits of discourse, and that we could do that best if we let all our notes in. Fox is right. The notes, the discourse, the dialog, the play back and forth as we try to establish the social milieu in which our knowledge will be tested, all that matters. Our positionality is not that of an editor of a traditional journal. We sought the equivalent of Fox's notes. Our willingness and need to keep good faith discourse flowing meant that we had to entice others beyond the traditional barriers of print. So we played. We invited them to play. And from that play there began to emerge a real journal, part time-critical translation of current events into the world of discourse, part formal recognition of play, part burying of all the unstated assumptions that said "good students will perform thus," part affect as we struggled to display the grace of good faith listenting. More than once there was an angry question on just how we were going to get this dialog going, on how discourse would look if it started to happen.

Our attempt to structure and create navigation for Dear Habermas this summer. In May, as over 50 students faithfully followed every exercise, every piece that went up, we began to put the pieces up, latest first. That destroyed coherence of topic, but it fit what our students needed. If we moved one of the recent pieces, the students ran the risk of not finding it. So we bit the bullet, waited for the Spring semester to end, and then thought we would just scoop the most recent 47 or so pieces and distribute them throughout the Table of Contents, wherever they actually belonged. Only then did we recognize that one of the reasons we had delayed distributing the pieces throughout the Table of Contents was that the contents had imperceptibly changed. It was still about postmodern and critical thought; it was still a forum in which we could explore ideas through dialogue, and include them for others to share and help develop. But the communal forum had taken on a shape of its own. "What will this dialog be like?" was a question answering itself page by page as we shared.

And our navigational system needs changed. It was no longer a matter of Jeanne and Susan and Pat finding that miserable worm, what file could it be in? It was a smuch the dialog that had led us to the worm, and how would all those who didn't know about the earlier dialog find their way to the worm and what it had come to mean? We suffered great depression over the slowness of restructuring the site. But we brightened a tad as we came to realize that part of the difficulty in this case was that reality had been constructed by a community.

We tried everything. Jeanne tried throwing away the Table of Contents. Mary Frances, in Wisconsin, was betting that it would be back. The navigational stars solved our problem for having everything within a screen or so's reach, so no one would ever be lost on the site. And there we were with gold stars everywhere, while featuring Alfie Kohn's diatribe against gold stars and grades! Luckily almost everything was new, so we made lots of them navy and maroon.

But where was the worm? Who knows? Somewhere on the KIDS' page and we could find that. But the question was real. How would we find the stories? The index? But then how would we know how the stories related to the theory related to the studies, related to the other academic sites? Back came the Table of Contents, just as Mary Frances had predicted. But how would the students tell what was new without roaming the whole site? The site additions! There we could put titles, place them in the contents, and have them ready to move from What's New easily and in timely fashion. And this complex, crazy reality emerged from continuous conversations, e-mail, and exhortations over an entire month.

A living journal, constructed over a two-year dialogue, across the continent, with validity claims raised by students we were having to restrain from putting obscenities on their Web Pages (a private site, not ours, but they were our kids) to faithful students, long with us, who merely sat and stared at the University Homepage, puzzled as to how they could go anywhere from there. Constructed with staff who wanted very much the discourse, but had to manage to limit their dialog sometimes to five minutes here and five there. So Dear Habermas has tried to live up to all these and many more needs, a forum for work that might not otherwise fit into a set forum, for those who must find access within their means of time and equipment. Here, the learner, the partners in the dialogue: teachers, fellow students, staff, and the social context of the Internet have all combined to make Dear Habermas what it is. Perhaps "is" should be tempered by "what it is to become," for it is clearly not yet formed. Perhaps its strength will be to continue as a forum for dialogue amongst learners and writers, for texts that grow from teaching and from working papers of the faculty. Sounds like this classifies us as developmental constructivists in Michael J. Mahoney's terms.

At any rate we hope to soon offer a fully navigable Dear Habermas so you can comfortably explore all its offerings, and then share in the forum, changing the social construct, and forcing us to devise a more adaptive navigation system.

Oddly enough, I depended mostly for my theoretical understanding of Dear Habermas' evolution on Michael Mahoney's chapter on "Connected Knowing in Constructive Psychotherapy" in Knowledge, Difference, and Power. Odd because we are concerned with teaching, not therapy. And yet, do not both ask of the individuals involved that they grow and develop through the relationships. Mahoney speaks (at p.138) of processes integral to personal growth: "Being heard and understood, being respected and trusted, having their experieinces validated and their efforts affirmed, being cared about--these may make invaluable contributions to clients' development." So also do they to students' development.

We hope to make Dear Habermas integral to our students' development, by offering them this forum to be heard and understood, to be respected and trusted as the creators of text, and to validate their experiences and affirm their efforts. Because each of these involves dialogue, because each involves communal and individual interdependence, we expect to produce valuable instances of communicative discourse.

Visit for more information on Knowledge, Difference, and Power.

Visit for more information on Dialogue in Teaching: Theory and Practice.

Visit for more information on Epsteins' Impure Science: Aids, Activisim, and the Politics of Knowledge.

Visit for more information on Bruffee's Collaborative learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge.

Intertextuality and the Writing of Social Research, N.J. Fox