Conflict: It’s an Opportunity

– Jane Schuchert Walsh

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Jane Schuchert Walsh. Photo by Benjamin Edney.

At 5:00am on October 19, 2016, PASSHE faculty went on strike. While faculty, students, and administration were familiar with the conflict between APSCUF and PASSHE, the escalation of the conflict into the form of a strike was unknown territory. By the end of the first day, one thing was clear and it wasn’t a contract. This conflict was creating unanticipated opportunities.

I teach Sociology of Conflict Resolution. On the first day of class, I ask students to answer the question, “What is conflict?” in one word. As predicted, students provide me with one-word answers such as: violence, war, disagreements, politics, abuse, anger, fear, fighting, killing, anxiety, trial, bitterness, and hatred. After writing these words on the board, I draw a box around them and explain that our society puts conflict in a box called “Conflict Should Not Be Happening.” When perceived as something that “should not happening,” conflict becomes a problem that needs to be fixed, or worse, avoided. Consequently, our negative reaction to conflict becomes our view of conflict. An alternative answer to “What is Conflict?” is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to create a situation that is even better than the current one. It can be managed. It’s not something to avoid. While it doesn’t mean that we like or feel good about conflict, this alternative perspective can help us to ask, “What’s missing?” as opposed to “What’s wrong?” The answer to “What’s missing?” is the POSSIBILITY of something more or better than what we ever thought possible. The conflict between APSCUF and the State System created opportunities for both faculty and students that could not have been predicted.

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Photo by Benjamin Edney.

When I was in second grade, my teachers went on strike. I loved school and remember feeling disappointed that I had to stay home. But what I learned during that strike has stayed with me more than any of the classroom lessons of that year. First, it created an opportunity for me to begin studying the violin, which became my undergraduate major. Teaching violin post-undergrad opened my eyes to inequalities in education, one of the prompts that pushed me to pursue a graduate education in sociology. Second, I learned to respect my teachers who had to stand in the cold and in the rain with their heavy signs for a fair contract instead of being in the warm classroom with us. Third (due in part to a pro-union upbringing), I learned to never, ever cross a picket line. Indirectly, the strike I experienced at age eight helped lead me to a discipline (sociology) and a specialty (social movements and labor) about which I am so passionate. As I walked the picket line on October 19th, I wondered if our strike would have a similar impact on the lifelong education of our students. Would it create opportunities? Would it create possibilities that were more or better than we ever thought possible? By the end of the strike I had my answer: Yes!

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for real-world application of our students’ education.

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Benjamin Edney, self-portrait

While I’m in a unique position given the courses that I teach, my SOC 390 (Social Movements) students witnessed social movement theory unfold before their eyes. One of my students showed up at 7:30am with his camera to document the strike. I had once stated in class, “If an action isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” Remembering this, he decided that he would make sure that the strike was appropriately documented. Moreover, I learned that my students used key concepts from class (and shared the definitions with their friends) in order to identify the groups on the picket line, such as “beneficiaries” and “conscience constituents.” No amount of reading or lecturing could take the place of the real-life application of the concepts we discuss in our classrooms.

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for students to get to know faculty outside of the classroom.
Like faculty, students spend a lot of their time with the same faculty in a formalized setting. During the strike, students saw who we are when we are not in our formal faculty role. They learned that faculty shared similar hopes and concerns. Students were introduced to faculty outside of their discipline, who they may have never met if it had not been for the strike. The professional relationships between students and faculty strengthened during the strike, not weakened.

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for students to provide for faculty.

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Photo by Benjamin Edney.

Our job is to provide for students. We provide them with classroom experiences, feedback on papers, exams, and assignments, and formal advisement. We write letters of recommendation, and celebrate their accomplishments at graduation. During the strike, the students provided for the faculty. When students brought us coffee, water, donuts, granola bars, and most importantly, support and solidarity, it was an unexpected reciprocity. Looking at those same faces in the classroom on October 24th was different than it was on October 18th. Collaboration had been established. We knew we were there for each other.

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for students to think of themselves as PASSHE.
After the strike, students told me that they had never considered themselves to be part of PASSHE. But their identity had changed. They thought of themselves as something bigger and it felt good. They were not just Clarion University students, but instead, PASSHE students. They became aware of not only their fellow students on campus who were part of the mobilizing effort, but also of students mobilizing in similar ways at the 13 other PASSHE schools. Without the strike, these students might never have found each other or the chance to develop a collective identity.

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for students to be in solidarity with faculty.

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Photo by Benjamin Edney.

With the acknowledgement of this newfound PASSHE collective identity, students had the opportunity to take action as a united group. As students honked their horns, marched through campus, and walked the picket line, they sensed that they could make a difference. They sensed that a fair contract for faculty benefitted them too. Students didn’t march for us. They marched with us because they had a stake in the outcome.

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for students to learn about public education.
The strike provided students with the opportunity to learn about who makes decisions about their education. They learned that people and positions beyond the faculty member who is teaching them impact their classroom experience. Being able to identify the people and positions of power that affect their daily lives is a skill we rarely have the opportunity to hone.

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for students to learn about labor unions.

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Photo by Benjamin Edney.

Labor unionization reached its height in 1945 and, since then, has been on a steady decline. With fewer workers unionized, students have fewer opportunities to learn about how unions work from family and friends. The strike provided PASSHE students with their own story about how labor unions work. Consequently, they will be able to make better-informed decisions in the future regarding legislation that may affect unions, as well as their own labor union participation. Perhaps because of the strike of 2016, some of our students may become (or are becoming) future organizers.

But students weren’t the only ones presented with opportunity…

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for faculty to get to know one another.
I spent my time on the picket line meeting and getting to know faculty from other disciplines. There is little time to socialize with faculty in one’s own department, let alone with faculty whose offices are in a different building on the opposite side of campus. But during the strike, we talked as we walked. We shared stories about our commitment to public education and the journey that led us to Clarion. Since the strike, I feel part of a committed faculty because I know more of their names, faces, and stories.

The strike of 2016 was an opportunity for community allies to show their support.

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Photo by Benjamin Edney.

It wasn’t just students who were providing food and drink to the faculty on the picket line. Community members also expressed support for us. The Fulmer House opened its doors to provide us with words of encouragement, warm coffee, light snacks, and most importantly, a clean restroom. Trucks and cars honked their horns in support as they drove past, while others dropped off food and bottles of water. Pike Pizza sent a pizza to the picket line to not only feed us, but also to let us know that they supported our union. Alumni from out of state sent pizzas and support. The strike provided faculty and students with the opportunity to engage with Clarion community members in a way that initiated or strengthened meaningful relationships for the future.

As I write this, citizens and residents of our country are either mourning or celebrating a most unusual presidential election. We are witnessing overt conflict between and among demographic groups including (but not limited to) race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, faith tradition, education level, and political affiliation. Some of the commentary about this conflict falls into the box of “conflict should not be happening.” Some are saying that conflict should be avoided or that it should come to a swift end. But as I tell my students, conflict is necessary in order for social change to occur. History tells us this. I’m hopeful that conflicts that have been made visible with this presidential election season – whether in the streets, in our workplaces, at the Thanksgiving table, or on Facebook – will direct us to the possibility of something more or better than what we ever thought possible. I don’t know what that possibility might be, but like the strike of 2016, I’m hopeful that it is an opportunity.


Jane Schuchert Walsh is an assistant professor of Sociology at Clarion University. She earned her PhD in Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and specializes in the study of social movements, labor, and race and ethnic relations. She enjoys running, coffee, chocolate, and most of all, spending time with her 5-year-old and 3-month-old daughters.

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