The first time I dared to defend a dinner table argument using the language of postmodernism, my father jumped at the opportunity to make fun of me. I was trying to explain that the idea of marriage is not only a creation of our own imaginations, but also that the whole idea of men and women as separate and opposite genders is not necessarily a "fact." Transvestites, for example, illustrate the flexibility of gender.

"What is postmodernism?" my father asked skeptically. "For that matter, what is modernism?"

"It's complicated," I replied weakly. After five semesters at a liberal arts college, I knew how to write a paper filled with postmodern jargon--or "pomo," as we refer to it, but explaining its basic tenets was another story. This much I knew: We inhabit social constructs, like the idea of men and women as distinct entities, and shape our lives around "metanarratives," which provide stories through which we organize the way we look at the world.

Mary Klages, associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, explained that most of the stories we have created come from the idea that we can organize the world in terms of binary opposites.

For example, men versus women, peace versus war, and black versus white. Postmodernism points out that these supposed opposites aren't actually so opposite after all--it "deconstructs the metanarrative," as we like to say in our college philosophy papers.

According to postmodernism, women aren't merely the opposite of men, nor are people with dark skin the opposite of people with light skin. Each person is more complicated than merely being the converse of someone else.

Klages said that parents tend to get nervous when they think professors are denying any sort of universal morality, and that she has even had students walk out of her course that introduces postmodernism. "At first, students hate it because we're challenging the idea that each individual being has freedom and autonomy, and replacing it with the notion that beings inhabit structures (like gender definition) that preexist us and affect our behavior."

Part of my father's skepticism seems justified. If we played it right, postmodernism could justify all sorts of college mischief. In an effort to deconstruct the binary opposite that divides work and play, why don't we bring our beers to class?

In an attempt to break away from the social construct of written language as the superior form of communication, why don't we submit dance performances or crayon drawings in lieu of final papers, as my law professor jokingly suggested?

If you think your son or daughter may be influenced by this new way of thinking, check for the following warning signs:

* Does he come home dropping terms like "dominant hegemony" and "engendered linguistics"?

* Do his college papers contain titles that you need a dictionary to understand, like "Exploring Constructs of Metanarrative Behavior"?

* Do you notice that when she talks to college friends, they have discussions that seem, to you, to be illogical? Example: Your daughter asks a friend if she would like something to drink and the friend declines, explaining that she is trying to live outside the oppressive construct of eating three meals a day.

If your college student shows any of the above signs, he may have been influenced by postmodernism. Don't try to argue with a postmodern spokesperson by countering the rhetoric with common sense, like "Eating three meals a day is actually healthy and nutritious." Believers in postmodernism will dismiss you as being subsumed by the metanarrative of logic, which is not necessarily a universal phenomenon.

Instead, try to respond using their own rhetoric. Suggest that lunch can be seen as a potentially destructive force, challenging the hegemony of breakfast and dinner, and therefore eating a midday meal is actually a subversive activity.

Back at the dinner table, I tell my dad that he's just the victim of the latest form of prejudice, aptly called "pomophobia"--unreasonable fear of postmodernism.