Volume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004
Conflict Resolution, Negotiation
and Team Building
The third source of evaluation was the open-ended questions to students in three tutorials; 29 of 51 students were available and responded to the request to identify the three best and the three worst aspects of the course. Substantially different student populations were reached by the on-line and the in-tutorial surveys, because only 25% of the students who responded to the on-line survey had me as their tutorial leader, whereas all the students who responded to the in-tutorial exercise were my tutorial students. As previously noted, one has to be careful about drawing generalizations from this sub-sample of the students. There are some important overlapping interconnections between what the three evaluative instruments seem to indicate.
In identifying the "best aspects" of the course, the vast majority of respondents (23 of 29) noted the importance of the small tutorial sections. They noted such qualities as the small size of the group that facilitated communication, the interactive nature of the role playing and group exercises, the opportunity to clarify and apply concepts, and the linkage between lectures and the tutorials. These comments from the in-tutorial evaluation helped to explain the generally strong positive feelings students expressed in the on-line survey about the tutorial groups. Nine students identified the group presentations (on the Oka crisis and the UN Security Council) which were made in the tutorials as one of the best aspects.
Almost half of the respondents in the in-tutorial evaluation (14) emphasized the relevancy of the course material to their own experiences, noting that they had already applied course ideas and skills to their everyday lives, or thought it will be easier to resolve conflicts, or saw the course as job related. Others – in addition to the 14 – found the combination of theory and practice as one of the best aspects of the course.
Again, almost half of the respondents (14) said one of the best aspects was the quality of teaching. They found the instructors enthusiastic, genuinely concerned with students, easy to talk to, passionate about their subject, knowledgeable, humorous, open to feedback, respectful, available, and presenting a "welcoming 'vibe.'" One student commented that s/he valued the freedom to express ideas without being criticized. These comments helped to explain the positive evaluation of the lead instructor provided on the university's Faculty Course Evaluation. It also related to one of the points identified as one of the worst aspects of the course.
In identifying the "worst aspects" of the course, one-third of the students (10 of 29) commented on various aspects of the readings. These students found the readings to be challenging in one way or another. There were comments on the amount of reading, the length of some readings, and their difficulty. One respondent also said the readings were "confusing" because they were a new area of study. In addition, a quarter of respondents (7) commented on the overall cost of the course readings, some noting that not all the readings from the course reader were used, others recommending the elimination of "recommended readings" from the reader. (As a matter of balancing student views, five students noted they found the readings quite interesting, especially Berger and Luckmann on the social construction of reality and Bush and Folger on the transformative approach to conflicts.)
Finally, a quarter of the respondents (7 of 29) highlighted the challenge team-teaching presents from the student point of view. These students found it difficult to shift between and to integrate the different ideas, perspectives and pedagogical approaches of two instructors. This comment is particularly interesting in light of the overall positive evaluation of the quality of teaching. I interpreted these findings as a reminder of the complexities of team-teaching and the importance, whenever possible, of colleagues working together from the earliest possible planning stages so that they can clearly articulate for themselves – and later for their students – the connections between their ideas, perspectives and pedagogies.
Questions Raised by the Experience
The experience of teaching this course raises at least two basic questions: What is appropriate content at the first year university level? And how it is most effectively taught?
What is the appropriate content? From early in the conception of the course, I was requested to include basic concepts of negotiation, mediation and teamwork. To do this in one semester seemed too much to attempt. Having taught the course once, my judgment now is that not only can it be done – with some reorganization of materials and classes – it is an exciting and useful course. It is precisely the integration of these fields of study that make the course so dynamic an experience. In particular, each of the three focuses require praxis – the reflective experience of understanding and action. It is notable that in the on-line survey 86% of the respondents found "mediation in general" well covered by the course, though 71% found "negotiation" and 61% found "teamwork" to be the most useful focuses (more than one answer was permitted). This suggests the importance of having a foundational understanding of the social experience and the need to re-balance the weight each of these nodal concepts receives within the basic framework. A fuller articulation of such a perspective is beyond the scope of this essay and, unquestionably, an issue for another paper.
For me, it was at the midterm review, in response to the student question at the beginning of this article, that the course solidified a well-articulated, purposive central focus – expressed above as the central argument of the course – and set a clear progression of topics based on that focus. The reasons for this slow start, despite the months of preparation before the course began, I suppose, are the newness and rather unique tripartite nature of the course and the lingering development of the best division of topics between the two instructors. For me, this particular student question was one of the key moments in the course. Faced with the student experience of the lack of clarity about the link between essential ideas and the uncertainty of the purpose in studying these ideas, I was able to articulate more clearly for the students and myself the key arguments in the course: that we are responsible for constructing the meaning of our lives, that we do this through theoretical frameworks with varying degrees of explicitness, that conflict is a normal part of our lives, and that the transformative approach to conflict is a particularly powerful perspective in the construction of meaning. Some students were clearly energized by the challenge to integrate school work with other aspects of life. Others were challenged by the idea that education was more about greater self-understanding and increased respect for others than about memorizing
How is the course to be most effectively taught? While one's conceptual arguments can always be tightened up and further elaborated, what students most seem to want and to need are experiences – the opportunity to learn about and participate in real conflicts, negotiations relevant to their immediate experiences, and teamwork experiences that are somehow more than the usual group presentations. The Oka crisis and the UN Security Council exercises are good opportunities for this, and I would like to find other options for major group work. But more interpersonal conflicts also need to be used in the classroom to give "reality" to the power of student classroom experiences through a range of pedagogical techniques from quick exercises that can be managed with one-hundred students to simulations. The brief news documentaries helped bring examples and applications into the class to stimulate discussion, and other techniques are needed. One of the greatest challenges is to match with greater precision the content of lectures and the exercises to be used in that week's small group meeting. These are the areas where I expect to put further substantial efforts in the next few months before the winter term.
The opportunity to teach dispute resolution to around 200 students a year is a remarkable challenge. It is of course important to the students registered in the course that the course be the best it can be. But it is also an opening to encourage and enhance the development of the field of dispute resolution professions in Canada. The evidence suggests that in the first year of the program a successful effort was made, but it is equally obvious that a more effective job can be done.
In the first class meeting of the course, I told students that the course had three basic goals – enhancing their abilities to deal with conflict, developing a conceptual understanding of their efforts to transform conflict into a productive experience, and helping them to live well. Telling students that you are going to teach them to live well is akin to Yann Martel's claim, put into the mouth of the protagonist at the beginning of The Life of Pi, that he is going to tell a story that will make us believe in God. For me, my audacious claim is justified by the link between the social constructionist idea that individually and collectively we play a role in defining, constructing, maintaining and changing the various social worlds in which we live and the promise of transformative conflict resolution to help people be "not just better off but better: more human and more humane" (Bush & Folger, 1994 at 29). Dispute resolution is not just an academic area of specialty, nor simply a professional practice. Addressing conflict is an existential part of everyday life that provides us with opportunities for personal and social growth.
At the close of the course one student wrote to me of a conflict within her family situation and how the conceptual tools of course had helped her "in unexpected ways" to understand her perspective and needs more consciously and communicate them more clearly to everyone involved. I believe that if I do my job right I can help students give themselves a fuller understanding of their own conduct. Like the unanticipated question during the mid-term review that calls for a more vital integration of ideas, the student's unexpected application of the course's concepts invites me back into the classroom this September.
Arts and Contemporary Studies, Ryerson University. http://www.ryerson.ca/arts+. Visited August 26, 2004.
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources. http://www.campus-adr.org/. Visited August 25, 2004.
Berger, Peter L. 1967. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological theory of Religion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Bush, Robert A. Baruch, and Joseph P. Folger. 1994. The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Conley, John M., and William M. O'Barr. 1998. "A Natural History of Disputing." Just Words: Law, Language and Power, pp. 78-97. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cragan, John F., David W. Wright, and Chris R. Kasch. 2004. Communicating in Small Groups: Theory, Process, Skills, 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Fisher, Roger, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. 1991. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, 2nd ed. Toronto: Penguin Books.
Martel, Yann. 2002. Life of Pi. Mississauga, ON: Random House of Canada (Vintage Canada).
Moore, Christopher W. 1996. The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Pirie, Andrew. 2000. Alternative Dispute Resolution: Skills, Science and the Law. Toronto: Irwin Law Inc.
Rogers, Carl R. 1961. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company (Sentry Edition).
Standoff at Oka 1990, A Conflict Studies Webquest. Designed by Bill Warters. Last updated on September 16, 2001. http://www.campus-adr.org/Webquest/index.htm. Visited June 2, 2004.
Student Model United Nations – March 7, 2003. Peel District School Board. http://www.peel.edu.on.ca/student/model/eighth.htm. Visited June 2, 2004.
Model United Nations Activities Sourcebook, 3rd ed. 2000. United Nations Association in Canada. http://www.unac.org/mun/sourcebook/sourcebook_main.html. Visited June 2, 2004.
i The two teaching assistants were Rebecca Morier and Devin Dubois. Rebecca had recently completed her Masters degree, and Devin was a currently writing his Masters' thesis in Communication and Culture, a joint graduate program between Ryerson University and York University.
ii Alex Wellington teaches Philosophy at Ryerson; her education includes a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a L.L.M. in Law as well as a Masters in Environmental Studies.
I am grateful to Alex Wellington, Mark Lovewell, Robin Haley-Gillin, and Bill Warters for their criticisms and suggestions of an earlier draft of this article. Their comments substantially improved the paper; the essay's weaknesses remain my own.