Bill Mallard: What is it like teaching conflict transformation at Candler School of Theology in the 21st century?

Ellen Ott Marshall: This spring I did an intense conflict transformation skills workshop course with students over two weekends. It was a really positive and remarkable experience. The students saw natural overlap between the skills for conflict transformation and the skills for ministry. There’s also overlap in the skills for conflict transformation and things they had learned in terms of pastoral care and counseling about listening and affirming and responding appropriately. They came into that setting nicely equipped and ready to go, and then had context for ministry—where there are plenty of conflicts to be found.

In the fall I’m teaching one of the Contextual Education electives. Throughout the semester the students will do an analysis of conflict at their Con Ed sites and think about resources for transformation and peacebuilding at that site. We continue to hear from alumni that they wished they’d learned more in seminary about effectively addressing conflict. How do you deal with fights over the hymnal? How do you deal with grouchy people who don’t get along? And how do you deal with the simmering hostilities in a congregational setting?

Mallard: Well, I just think that’s so fine. We had pastoral care, of course, and ethics, but we had not gone into conflict transformation.

Marshall: The language of conflict transformation, for me, has this theological claim attached to it: that this is God’s work, the process of transforming sites of conflict. The other piece, the hope of it is that sometimes, if a conflict can’t be resolved, it’s still possible that relationships and persons and institutions can be constructively changed even if the conflict itself isn’t resolved.

Mallard: And you teach ethics as well?

Marshall: I do. I did a conflict studies master’s degree at Notre Dame and then I did a PhD in Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt, so my home base is Christian ethics, but I understand so much of the work in Christian ethics to be about sorting through disagreements and helping people talk across differences.

Mallard: I received my degree in church history in 1956. Then I taught at Sweet Briar College as an instructor in religion. I came to Candler in 1957 and taught here until I retired in 2000.

Marshall: Do you miss anything about teaching?

Mallard: I would, except I have a Sunday school class at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church that meets most Sundays. It keeps my hand in it.

Now someone asked, how was it teaching here without technology? But, you see, we had technology! The man in charge of media for Candler pressed me to abandon chalkboard and chalk for an overhead projector and screen. That was, indeed, an advance!

Marshall: Did you adjust?

bill-mallard.jpgMallard: I leaped into it! I worked at great length on my transparencies, getting them ready for the next day. These were the days when Professor Roberta Bondi and I taught Christian Thought together. Transparencies enabled Roberta to illustrate her lectures. For example, when she got to Gregory of Nyssa and the problems of sin, Roberta illustrated gluttony by drawing a picture of a giant strawberry milkshake, and right next to it, a tiny little picture of her. And this, she said, is gluttony! Now, I’m not sure whether something has been lost here. My impression of PowerPoint is that it’s pretty stiff. I’m not sure Roberta could draw a picture of herself next to a giant milkshake on PowerPoint. What are the advantages and disadvantages of technology as you have experienced them?

Marshall: One of the things that’s helpful in my introductory course is using technology to give a 360-degree look at a topic by pulling in videos, maps, and images very quickly. We are able to move to an interview with a theologian that we’re reading and then to a news piece about the context that he or she is engaging. You can bring in a lot of material to enrich the study of a topic.

But one of the downsides that I really struggle with is, there’s something about engaging technology that inhibits our ability to focus for an extended period of time on one thing. You’re constantly enticed by the hyperlink to go to the next thing. We lose the ability to just sit with a page of text and contemplate it. There’s something about our ability to receive a lot of information and the expectation that we can process a lot of information quickly that cuts against that practice of pausing with the text.

Mallard: In my day, we had team teaching. In 1969, there were three sections of church history with three different faculty. When Dean Laney came, he said, let’s combine all the sections into one large lecture class and put together a team of two and let them teach the whole crowd.

So we did that. Some team teaching fell by the way, but for Professor Bondi and me, it just worked wonderfully. We were so happy to have that team working together. And at the time, women on the faculty were quite new. I think Roberta was the second. We modeled this team for students, a male and female working together on theological education. That was a contribution that we were very happy about. There’s no team teaching now, I gather?

Marshall: I think it happens in small ways. There are different kinds of informal partnerships—guest lecturing and conversations on pedagogy. I’ve enjoyed working with students in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory who serve as teaching associates. I’ve been lucky to have really capable, great TAs, and we configure ourselves as a teaching team. I did a little bit of team teaching at my previous institution and really enjoyed it. You learn so much.

Mallard: Oh, yes! Eastern church history had been omitted in my education, so I was rapidly taking notes under Roberta. Her first book was To Love as God Loves, and if you’ve never had a copy, get it. The first semester her book was out, she made it required reading in Christian Thought, and at Christmas, we found the students were giving it to their friends as Christmas gifts. First I ever heard of a required text becoming a Christmas gift!

Ellen, what is your sense of the MDiv students now? Are they very strongly geared toward graduating and going to the parish? I have the impression that in some cases, students think that before they enter the parish system they will do something else.

Marshall: I think the majority of students still come here intending to pursue ordination and go right into parish ministry. I do have conversations with students who are less clear about that. Some want to do faith-related social work, not necessarily in a parish context but still attached to ecclesial bodies in some way. I have folks thinking about a PhD in ethics or a practical theology degree. I think there’s a healthy spread of people in the program. I don’t know the demographics of students from when you were here, but we have now an increasing body of second-career folks.

Did you see a big shift in your time in the demographic makeup of the student body?

Mallard: Oh, yes. I think of two revolutions while I was here. One was the racial revolution and the development of the African-American contingent in the student body, which was wonderful and amazing. The other was the gender revolution. My first advisee who was a woman came in 1970. These were remarkable and beautiful changes in the student body.

When I first came, there were no African-American students at Emory. The idea down at state government was that if anyone tried to break the segregation laws in colleges and universities, then they would pass taxation laws against them and simply tax them out of existence. The School of Theology faculty was convinced—this was around 1958—that there was no way we could continue with integrity without being open to students regardless of race. We sent a message to central administration from the theology faculty: We’ve decided to have an open policy on admissions in the School of Theology.

The reactions were very interesting. In those days, on Oxford Road, there was a waffle shop. I went in one day, and there was a sign pasted on the cash register: “We cash checks for Emory students only.” I said, “Surely that means you’ll cash a check from an Emory faculty member.” There was an old man sitting on a stool at the counter, who said, “He’ll cash it for you if you’re not from the School of Theology.” I said to him, “But I am from the School of Theology,” and he was fit to be tied. It was like he’d never seen one of us before! He stirred his coffee, swallowed it down, and walked out whispering this, that, and the other.

But it was so important and so wonderful to see these two revolutions. Of course, when the women began coming to the School of Theology, the first problem was that men realized the women were making the best grades in all the classes. That was one of the realities they had to get used to.

Marshall: And they had to put women’s bathrooms in Bishops Hall!

Mallard: How about that? Was there any particular challenge to you to come in the field of ethics and conflict transformation as a woman?

ellen-ott-marshall.jpgMarshall: No, I don’t think so. Although, I found there was an expectation that because I’m a woman in the field of Christian ethics, I must do feminist ethics. I took feminist theology, but I didn’t have much training in feminist ethics. Now I do, and I’m happy I do, but it caught me up short because I wasn’t trained in it.

Actually, feminist and womanist ethics was one of the first classes I taught here, and I was thinking of it when you were describing those two revolutions. The course was 26 students divided into quarters: A quarter of the class was white women, a quarter was African-American women, a quarter was African-American men, and the last quarter was Korean women. I had scattered in there one white man and one Korean man who was the spouse of one of the Korean women. It was a wonderful class. I’d anticipated white women and black women in the class, but to have representatives of the Korean voice and African-American men in the mix, too—it was a great experience. There’s something about teaching these materials in diverse classrooms that enriches the experience.

Mallard: In the 1960s there was tension everywhere, as everybody knows. At Candler, we had a sense of struggle in the faculty between the younger and some of the older leadership at the time, who called us the young Turks. In those days, the full professors met as a committee with the dean to deal with various issues that the non-tenured young faculty were not privy to. Some of us young Turks began to meet together. We read each other’s papers and critiqued each other’s work and had a sort of bonding. The group included Ted Weber, Ted Runyon, Hendrik Boers, Manfred Hoffman, and a few others. We felt like we had to hold the line on what we thought was the integrity of our work in theological education. Boers said to us, “Now, my friends, we have to stand together and be solid with one another.”

When Boers said to us, “we’ve got to stand together,” we did. That group of young Turks who bonded in the late ‘60s were instrumental in Dr. Laney coming to be the new dean, and that was a turning point in the School of Theology’s modern history. Dr. Laney came and opened the windows and let in fresh air. That faculty had a sense of bonding and we were pulling for each other. Academic faculty anywhere you go are fighting like crazy. They’re going to compete with each other, and be questioning each other, but we supported each other. It started with reading each other’s papers. That atmosphere of mutual support and concern then continued in the theology faculty and I think it still continues. Does it?

Marshall: Yes, I think it does. This is a very happy place to work and teach. We don’t agree on everything, but we play well together. That means being honest about our points of disagreement, practicing a civil dialogue when we disagree, and pulling together for the good of the whole. I think you initiated a good spirit with your young Turks.

Mallard: Well, if so, then I’m very grateful, because I felt that was the best thing that came out of a tense time—that spirit of mutuality and closeness.