CFDE Featured Faculty: Ellen Ott Marshall

As her title suggests, associate professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation Ellen Ott Marshall, in the Candler School of Theology, is an expert on contemporary Christian ethics and issues related to violence, conflict, and peacebuilding in both secular and sacred spaces. She helps people think about conflict transformation and teaches them how to engage conflict constructively.
In her nine years at Emory, Marshall has taught many face-to-face classroom courses on conflict skills and conflict transformation, as well as on the theories and theologies of nonviolent resistance. Her work translates well to a variety of academic, professional, and theological contexts, which is one reason (along with her engaging pedagogical style and research) why the Coursera course she developed with the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, called “Conflict Transformation,” has been such a success.
Coursera is an online learning platform that offers self-paced massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to anyone—whether they are currently affiliated with an educational institution or not—wishing to learn new subjects or explore a new academic discipline. Marshall’s course is a five-week overview of conflict transformation, a concept she explains as “the latest in a lineage of approaches to conflict.
“It overlaps with conflict resolution but goes beyond it, because in the transformation approach, conflict is not only a problem to address but an opportunity for constructive change. You’re trying to understand conflict itself as a natural and necessary element of social life and capture this catalytic possibility within it to make improvements in ourselves, our relationships, and our institutions.”
Conflict transformation, then, equips individuals to deal with conflict more constructively and thoroughly in their communities, academic and living spaces, and religious institutions.
The Coursera course “Conflict Transformation” leads students through the basics of the subject over five modules. The first module asks participants to think about what it means to treat conflict as an opportunity and provides the theoretical underpinnings necessary to discuss it as such. The second does self-assessment work to understand the individual’s settings around conflict. The third teaches skills for analyzing conflict through an animation sequence. The fourth module introduces students to basic skills around mediation. And the final module tries to name intractable questions that always come up around dealing with conflict: why do some conflicts simmer on forever, while others are sudden explosions that catch everybody off-guard? How do we work with strong emotions and power differentials? The course has been running for about a year and is still accessible to anyone who is interested.
Marshall decided to develop the Coursera course after participating in a teaching intensive with the CFDE in August 2016. After this workshop, she worked with Stephanie Parisi, assistant director for online education in the center, to develop the five modules. As of this spring, she estimates, around 200 people have completely finished the course, and around 2,000 have begun it or completed some of the modules.
A chapter of Marshall’s forthcoming book, Introduction to Christian Ethics (Westminster John Knox Press, October 2018), grew out of her work with the CFDE and the Coursera course. It is situated as a textbook, but most of the primary arguments in her book center around conflict and the question of living a good life in the midst of ongoing conflict.  After its release, she says, she would like to turn her attention to digital pedagogy and digital assignments: “I wouldn’t have made that turn [to digital pedagogy] if I hadn’t gotten more comfortable with various kinds of innovative teaching methods or online work and how you communicate differently through these media.” Putting together her Coursera course and working with the CFDE, she adds, has allowed her to think more about digital assignments and projects as a possibility.

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