Sociology class examines Israel-Palestine conflict through virtual conversation

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It's 9:45 on a Tuesday morning as 11 upperclassmen shuffle into a small classroom in Pond Laboratory. One by one they settle into one of the folding chairs arranged in a horseshoe around the perimeter of the room. The half circle's opening faces a large flat screen monitor on the wall where a man is waiting to join the conversation.

Rotem, the man on the screen, is a 26-year-old entrepreneur who works at a technology start-up company and studies computer science.

Today, he's taking a break from his studies to participate in a virtual conversation with Penn State students in Sociology 425 Social Conflict — a class that explores inter-group and international conflict and cooperation related primarily to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  

It’s a subject Rotem knows well -- he is also a soldier in Israel's national army reserves. It's a mandatory role he's held since he was 18 years old, along with more than 600,000 of his fellow countrymen and women.

Throughout the semester, students use videoconferencing technologies to connect with people who live in the conflict zone or who have experienced conflict in another part of the world. This fall, they’ve spoken with individuals living in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and Northern Ireland. During today’s discussion, students will get the chance to ask Rotem questions about what it's like being a soldier and growing up during an active conflict.

The conversation is intense and emotional on both sides of the screen. Rotem freely speaks about such subjects as the resurgence of violence during the summer, being frightened, joining the military at 18, his interactions with Palestinians and how he feels about peace.  

Though their conversations often deal in such difficult-to-discuss topics as violence, fear, religion and human rights, that is what makes them worth having, according to Laurie Mulvey, the instructor for the course and executive director of World in Conversation, Penn State’s Center for Public Diplomacy.

“A good conversation happens when people bring different perspectives to the mix, are honest about their positions and are able to truly listen to the other side,” Mulvey said. “A lot of effort goes into helping people to listen and hear others’ positions.”
 
The goal of the conversations is to foster understanding and respect on both sides of the screen, while also encouraging the students to question their own conclusions.

“Ideally, participants come out with something they haven’t thought of before -- an expanded perspective,” Mulvey said. “We’d like people to leave our conversations slightly confused. That small bit of confusion can really open up the possibility for growth. If someone encounters a person they believe to be the ‘other’ -- in conversation or on the street -- they’ll have the tools to pause and react in a more positive way than they might have otherwise.”

When talking about violence this can be key.

“You can’t treat someone like an object if you see them as a person,” Mulvey said. “In a big conflict or even in the professional world, if you can learn to interrupt that immediate moment of judgment and reaction, you are better able come up with alternative stories about people.”

It’s hard work made possible with the help of technology.    

Realizing that elaborate videoconferencing equipment isn’t always available or even useful for people in countries with unreliable Internet connections, the class focused on finding a tool that would help Penn State students in the classroom connect with people across the world without requiring them to use matching technology.

They chose Blue Jeans, a device-agnostic video service that enables anyone -- on any device -- with an Internet connection, camera and microphone to join a virtual conversation.

The tool offers other benefits, too.

“The humanization factor that technology brings to our conversations is game changing,” explained Mulvey. “When you can see someone on the screen who’s halfway across the world and they’re life size, you get to see every gesture, smile and wrinkle in their shirt -- they stop being the ‘other.’ There is so much power in that.”

Not only would the class not be possible without technology, it’s also why Mulvey created the course in the first place. After her husband and Penn State sociology professor, Sam Richards, gave a TED Talk about perspective in 2010 at TEDxPSU, a scholarship program for Palestinian students contacted Mulvey and Richards about initiating a dialogue series between Palestinian and Penn State students about life in the Gaza Strip. After nine weeks, the dialogues had gone so well they decided to turn the series into a full-fledged course.

They were missing one thing: the Israeli side of the story. To keep the discussions balanced, the class now usually speaks with Israelis on Tuesdays and Palestinians on Thursdays.  

Mindful of how she invited this conversation into the classroom, Mulvey chose to avoid the bias of a textbook by encouraging students to control the course’s content through their own exploration and media literacy. Each week students are asked to share their thoughts and questions in a Facebook group and respond to each others' comments with relevant media links.  

Sarah Dufour, a philosophy major in the class who is studying poverty and development discourse and learning Arabic, is interested in dialogue and conversation as a means of conflict resolution. She has spent time in Jordan, Israel and South Africa, and hopes to work in Jerusalem after college before attending graduate school for conflict resolution and peace studies.

For now, Dufour is happy for the chance the class gives her to speak candidly with people in the locales in which she’s interested in working one day -- something that books and media can’t deliver in quite the same way.

“I don’t believe in a perfect world, but I do believe people who haven’t been heard need to have a voice, and I want to help make spaces for those voices,” Dufour says. “For students, it is so important to have classes that center on dialogue and to talk to people outside of Penn State to learn how to have discussions and engage in conversations that are hard.”

Mulvey agreed.

“I cover very little territory taking the same walk to and from home and work every day, yet I feel so connected to the entire world through these screens,” Mulvey said. “I know people and feel and understand a part of the world I wouldn’t otherwise. We are probably just beginning to understand what technology can do for our relationships and the kinds of collaborations it can help build.” 

Media Contacts: 
Last Updated November 11, 2014