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Serious Fun

Sociology prof Jason Wollschleger's busy life combines research,
retail, and recreation

Compiled and edited by Terry Rayburn Mitchell, '93

Whitworth Today recently sat down (at our computer) with Jason Wollschleger (at his computer) to get a read on this new Whitworth faculty member. Wollschleger, an assistant professor who came to Whitworth in 2011, has managed to find a way to keep his life in balance by pursuing his passions for his family, his teaching job, his part-time coffee-shop job, his martial arts, and ... roller derby?

An abiding interest in social justice and equality fuels Wollschleger's life and his studies. In college, he double-majored in English and sociology and earned the equivalent of a major in religion. He has taught English and sociology at a Christian high school, worked as a resident counselor in a group home for juvenile offenders, earned a master's degree in social work, and served in ministry and as a research associate at the Urban League of Rochester, N.Y.

"I realized that I loved research and writing," Wollschleger says, "but I wanted to do my own, and I missed teaching. So I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Washington." His dissertation is on the impact of church congregations' structure and organization on their levels of participation. It covers congregations all over the country as well as case studies of congregations in Seattle. (And if you read on, you'll find one of the only sociological comparisons of churches and roller derby teams on record.)

How did you decide to become a sociologist?

I spent a summer in Tanzania between my junior and senior years in high school and became really passionate about social-justice issues. This led me to be a sociology major in college and carried over into my desire to be involved in ministry. Once I discovered my strengths and my weaknesses, I learned to follow my passions -- which, as it turns out, were in the areas of research, writing and teaching.

Can you tell us about your family?

My wife, Tonya, and I got married at 19, when I was still in college. It was definitely ill-advised, but somehow it has worked out amazingly. Our three kids are James, 14, who just started high school at Lewis and Clark; Molly, 13, an eighth grader at Sacajawea; and Marah, 12, a "sevie" at Sacajawea. James is very artistic and, like most every other boy his age, is into video games, music and girls. Molly and Marah are into roller derby.

How did your passions in life develop?


Photo courtesy of Leo Chen

I was deeply shaped by the evangelical religious environment in which I grew up, especially the drive to go out into the world and transform it. But I was also keenly aware of a disjuncture between the gospel's orientation toward issues of social justice and my upbringing and experience in evangelical circles -- which, I thought, were devoid of concern over social-justice issues. My passion for social justice grew out of this tension between my understanding of what Christians and the church should be doing and what I thought they actually were doing.

I'm also passionate about martial arts. For the past six years I've been training in multiple martial arts including: Filipino kali (a stick-/weapons-based art) and its empty-hand version, panantukan, muay Thai kickboxing, savate kickboxing (a French art), jeet kune do/jun fan (the approach to martial arts left behind by Bruce Lee), and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. While I was in grad school, I found I had a little free time. I'd always wanted to get involved in martial arts, but I had no desire for something traditional like karate or taekwondo. I saw a video on kali/panantukan, tried it out and fell in love. I love the challenge of learning in new ways, I love how physically demanding it is, and I love the contact. It offers the perfect counterpoint to life in academia and is, in my opinion, the best source of stress relief ever!

Okay, you've told us a bit about your family and your interest in martial arts. Now, how about your coffee shop and your excitement for roller derby? Any sociological studies lurking there?

Well, I got involved with roller derby through my daughters. Both skate for the Lilac City Rollergirls junior team, the Pixies. We went to a bout in Seattle, and my daughters fell in love with the sport and have been involved ever since. I love the gender-empowerment aspect of it, and I appreciate how it breaks norms for female sports. Plus, I love watching it. Research on roller derby? Yup, already started. I'm doing a multistage project that involves observation of differing teams' practices and governance meetings, as well as interviews with skaters. On the organizational side of things, I think roller derby leagues and church congregations are pretty similar -- they face many of the same problems, and the effective ones develop very similar types of strategies. For example, roller derby leagues are typically nonprofit and they are all skater-run and -operated. Thus, they are similar to churches in that they rely on members and their contributions to the organization to run. They have similar problems they need to solve in order to be effective, and these include coordination, decision-making, delegation of tasks, and simply getting their members to contribute -- time, skills, and money -- at higher levels. So while on the surface they appear to be very different in terms of what they need to do to be effective, they are actually very similar, organizationally. That's the similarity I'm most interested in.

I doubt the coffee shop will lead to research. My wife had a tough time finding a job in her field -- commercial real-estate accounting -- when we moved to Spokane. We heard about a coffee shop that was for sale, and that started a chain of events that led us to where we are now: the owners of Revive Coffee, at the corner of Nevada and Lyons. We're hoping we survive and start bringing home a small income soon. I work at Revive on occasional weekends; my wife has worked there almost every day, non-stop, since June.

If you had a generous grant and a "free" year to do research, what would you study?

I've always wanted to study seemingly bizarre or extreme religious phenomena like Marian apparitions, weeping statues, or the gold-teeth miracles. [Ed. note: Check this out on the Internet.] It would take some prep time, but if I had a generous grant and a year to do it, I would want to travel to active phenomena all over the world. As a social scientist, I don't want to prove or disprove the phenomena; I'm more interested in studying their social context.

Do you consider yourself eccentric? Since you have serious interests in some non-academic areas, do you think you're perceived here as kind of a character?

I'm not sure, actually. I hope that my colleagues and students perceive me based more on my teaching, scholarship, and personal interactions than on anything else. If they find me interesting, that's all right, since I'm definitely not normal. The great thing about being a sociologist is that all areas of social life are up for inspection, analysis and interpretation. Sure, I spend a few hours a week skating/practicing with the local roller derby team, and you'll definitely find me at just about any local derby event, but a couple years from now -- if all goes well -- I'll be presenting papers at conferences and publishing articles on roller derby.

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