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Power in Practice

In past posts on post-process theory, it has been solidified that agency and power are key factors in how people conceptualize writing fundamentals and how people convey writing skills from one person to another. A concept that I will be discussing here is "paralogic hermeneutics," a term used to dissect communication. Language is given to us. In some interpretations, language is imposed upon us. According to paralogic hermeneutics, each communicator brings their own communication strategy and, for the other communicator(s), the nature of that strategy is guesswork. What unites these communicators is a "passing theory," something that enables communication between all parties. In an ideal situation, the passing theory is modified between the communicators as each employ their unique strategy (prior theory) and resolution is reached. These terms come from Thomas Kent and philosopher Donald Davidson respectively.

The way that I interpret the utility of this is that it describes a way in which interactions can be both unique and productive. It's important to acknowledge that this model cannot be applied to every interaction, but that being mindful of it can help communicators think through the strategies they use. A few reasons why, further, it's difficult to teach discourse is that it expands so rapidly and is constantly changing.

Sidney I. Dobrin, author of "Paralogic Hermeneutic Theories, Power, and the Possibility for Liberating Pedagogies" states that there is no way to fully teach discourse because of these qualities, a stance I understand and, in many ways, agree with. There are ways to present a part of a discourse to a group of people and engage in the subject. Where teaching a discourse is concerned, it's much more difficult because there's an underlying assumption in the teaching of discourse that there are only a set number of interpretations that can be taken.

The engagement that would take place on the discourse would happen, but it would always be limiting in comparison to how the same discourse could change over time. In the type of engagement that I've presented, there is a teacher and there are students. Already, there's a kind of power at play as the teacher is an assumed authority and the students are usually expected to accept the guidance for engagement that the teacher presents. At face value, this does not have to be a situation that causes harm, but sometimes, participants come away from a discussion like this feeling as though their ideas have not been fully heard, feeling like the conversation was inconsequential to their understanding of subject matter, or otherwise.

From what I understand, one of Dobrin's stances is that as long as we declare discourse as absolute fact, we deny its malleable nature. Furthermore, if we believe that we already have the tools to apply paralogic hermeneutic thinking in the classroom to its fullest extent, then the idea of teaching is obsolete. That's a difficult concept to grasp, but I think I see where Dobrin is coming from. Rather than have a student-teacher dynamic, what we would need is a group of learners on relatively equal footing with one another for this model to work.

Our understanding of teaching reading and writing is indicative of a similar understanding that learning these concepts requires a process and that process comes before substance. Dobrin points out that this logic can also be applied to other disciplines, stating "things will always be subordinate to the processes that characterize, distinguish, and determine what those things are" (Dobrin, 1999).

While this is an effective stance to take, there are several sides to it and, in my view, some exceptions. People can, for example, appreciate the process it took to form a substance without appreciating the substance, something that's often found in film. The opposite can also be true. However, it's also true that a process that forms a substance can take more time, effort, and resources, than the substance appears to contain. That said, there have also been cases where a substance appears to have taken a great deal of time, effort, and resources when it hasn't, and it can be difficult to tell the difference.

That said, as Dobrin correctly points out, there needs to be an agreement to historicize events before they can become history and the laws of science also require a similar agreement. This isn't to say that it's inherently harmful or oppressive to have processes, but to acknowledge that many of the same decision-making processes included in determining valid pedagogy in literacy apply to fields outside of writing. We have seen understandings of history and science change over time as new information comes to light because we seek to improve our understanding of the world.

Understanding change in the field of literacy means that we not only change our understanding of the world, but the trajectory of how we use language over time. This means that we not only improve our understanding of the world, but our interactions within that world. We also learn to best interpret interactions between others and different communication strategies that can be employed. By no means does this diminish the importance of other fields, but I mean to emphasize the role and influence of this field in others.

To better understand how power relates to this discussion, Dobrin introduces the concept of triangulation. An individual relies on an interpreter to impart knowledge on their interaction with a particular object. The interpreter would identify that object bringing their understanding of it (prior theory), and that would lend to the knowledge of how that individual interacts with the objects and possibly others like it (passing theory).

Dobrin uses an analogy from David R. Russell to show how this can operate. A young child reaches for an object and the parent of that child identifies the object for the child as a "ball."

The parent might ask, "Do you want to play with the ball?"

The child would eventually associate the object with the word, "ball." According to Russell, the mediator between the understanding of the object as a ball and the child is the parent as opposed to a system of language. Dobrin states that, in that sense, a kind of dominant discourse is established, showing the child that they must attain their understanding of language from the parent.

Something that I'm not sure Dobrin accounted for in this situation was that the parent's understanding of the association between language and object must have come from somewhere and that there is a trajectory of understanding. In other words, the "dominant discourse" already existed and didn't begin with the parent. A dominant discourse can be perpetuated and can convey an incorrect understanding of how the world works, but the dominant discourse is also subject to change. With that in mind, it reads as though Dobrin did make some contradictions, but this does present some interesting ideas to think about including questions as to whether any discourse can be considered dominant.

How can the ideas that Dobrin presented be used? Reflection is very valuable. Being mindful of how we communicate, how we might assert power into a discourse that doesn't call for such assertions, and reflecting on the communication strategies used by others with intent to adequately complement them is important. Understanding that these strategies are not limited to our understanding of literacy on it's own, that other defined subjects can be integrated, is also important.

Post-process theory as a whole can aid in not just the way that we communicate but, more specifically, how we think about the way communication happens.

As always, many thanks for the wonderful feedback I have been given. If you like what I have to say and want to participate in the discussion right here on this site, consider becoming a member. You can "like," comment on my posts, interact with other members, and participate in my forum. Also, if you send me a message through the chat function, I'll know exactly who I'm talking to! If you're interested in submitting any questions or topics for me to research on the subject of writing, let me know! Your query may be the subject of a post.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Dobrin, S. I. (1999). Paralogic hermeneutic theories, power, and the possibility for liberating pedagogies. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing-process paradigm, 132-148.

Libby, L. (n.d.). Paralogic Hermeneutics. Passing Theory in Action.

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Jul 04, 2021

What I like about your approach is that after explaining the theory, you don’t advocate a headlong adoption of it but rather its use as a tool for reflection on pedagogical practice. Very wise and balanced.

Replying to

Thank you so much! This is my intention. I recognize that there is no one size fits all approach and, were I to apply one, I’d be denying what works best for others!


Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Jul 04, 2021

The notion of the origin(s) of the "dominant discourse" is very intriguing. Layering this with varying learner interpretations presents some interesting food for thought. The conclusion here is spot on -- to be mindful and respectful of learner. Another wonderful piece!!!

Replying to

Thank you so much! I found this and the types of paradoxes that can be uncovered here intriguing!

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