Academic Exchange Quarterly      Summer   2008    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  12, Issue  2

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Inviting Respect for Social Justice


Michele K. Lewis, Winston Salem State University, North Carolina


Michele K. Lewis, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Work.



The issue of respect is discussed specifically in relationship to teaching respect for social justice and sensitivity to diversity issues.  Pedagogy is presented that addresses respect as an element of a classroom management model that invites student self-discipline.



It has been nearly 25 years since the publication of Audre Lorde’s collection of essays entitled, Sister Outsider (Lorde, 1984).  In this work, Lorde raised such issues as feminism, racism, homophobia, and sexism. Subsequently, other authors have addressed similar issues in relationship to teaching (hooks, 1994), and also in relationship to the unhealthy practice of “silence” as a means of covering the true self (Yoshino, 2007).  In the academy, regardless of the nature of the campus environment, such issues raised by Lorde may be labeled as “difficult dialogues”, albeit not impossible dialogues.  Could a black female professor’s decision to engage in such dialogues in the classroom, in lieu of  her sexual minority status, have varying effects on the students’ respect for the professor?  Could the professor’s multiple identities influence the students’ receptivity to learning in that environment? Whether the answer to these questions is yes or no remains to be seen once there are more specific studies to supplement the work that has been done on anti-lesbian/gay prejudice (Moradi, van den berg, & Epting, 2006).  Meanwhile all professors, but especially those of multiple identities must find ways to ensure respect, dignity, and integrity in the classroom while teaching the social justice issues about which they are most passionate.


Thus far in my academic career, I have worked in a mid-sized state university, a large community college, and a small private liberal arts college.  Presently, I face the situation of being on the faculty at a mid-sized historically black college/university (HBCU) where at times I feel like the proverbial “Sister Outsider”.  In this campus environment, my concerns about establishing and maintaining student respect are of the utmost.  My heightened anxiety about being respected in this environment is not solely driven by the race of my students.  I definitely do not have the misperception that black students will not or cannot be respectful.  In fact, in acknowledgement of black cultural norms, I expect deference for one’s elders among black students (Mutran, 1985).  Specifically it is the interaction of race, gender, sexual identity, and the southern regional context that compounds my feelings of anxiety.  At the root of this is my concern that student respect may be potentially compromised if I do not “cover” aspects of my identities that influence my pedagogy.  Previous research has revealed that such anxiety for women is not uncommon, and women’s concerns about gender-based stereotype threat may negatively impact their work performance (Bergeron, Block, & Echtenkamp, 2006). 


Purkey (1985) developed a timeless alternative approach to classroom management that he entitled, “invitational discipline”.  The four elements of Purkey’s invitational discipline are respect, optimism, intentionality, and trust.  Invitational discipline is based on the premise that these methods or techniques will result in the establishment of a desirable classroom atmosphere.  The invitational approach advocates for respect, optimism, openness indicative of trust, and  intentionally high-level engagement with students as all being elements that set the stage for positive student-educator relations.  The four elements of the invitational approach are consistent with the practice of social justice, which I include as an integral part of my teaching philosophy and the respectful classroom environment. 


In this article I will present my concerns about stereotype threat as I attempt to teach respect for social justice issues specifically related to heterosexism, racism, and sexism in the classroom; I also have the goal of openly expressing respect for students.  This enhances classroom management and models a social justice approach to educating.   Like other women of color who are also sexual minorities, my multiple identities are frequently at the forefront of my consciousness (Parks, Hughes, & Matthews, 2004). Irrespective of this, I consistently utilize the principles of invitational discipline to obtain and maintain respect in the classroom.



The respect element of Purkey’s model, on the surface seems to be the easiest to apply, if for no other reason than the fact that for many of us, we were perhaps taught to have respect for ourselves and others from a very early age.  However, depending on a professor’s views about having authority and sustaining hierarchy within the classroom, as well as personality differences, respect could very well be difficult for many professors to convey to students. Yet, making an effort to convey information in a respectful manner will likely have a substantial impact on goal attainment when addressing difficult issues or conflicts (Andersen, Saribay, & Thorpe, 2008).  I have found that what works well for me regarding the respect element is mutual accountability and consistent use of specific forms of address.  My syllabi clearly detail mutual accountability within the learning environment.  I want students to be sure of what they can expect of me over the course of the semester, but equally as important what they should do to help themselves, and what they must do in order to achieve success in the course (Long & Sparks, 1997).  I have also found it useful within my current academic environment to address all students as “Mr.” or “Ms.”, while they consistently address me as “Dr.” or “Professor”.   For some professors, addressing students as “Mr.” and “Ms.” may feel stilted and too formal, but for many first generation college students, this style may help to give them a sense of the serious and professional nature of the college learning experience, and respect for the experience.  I am hopeful that this formal address gives students a sense of the respect that I have for them, and the respect that I insist upon receiving in return.



Research has demonstrated that others are able to make fairly accurate first impressions of women’s personalities when observing a woman’s handshake (Chaplin, Phillips, & Brown, 2000).  Researchers have also demonstrated the importance of emotional whole-body expressions in communication, when these whole-body expressions are viewed on their own or in combination with facial expressions and emotional voice (Van den Stock & Gelder, 2007).  Thus, from the moment that I cross the threshold into the classroom on the first day, I am conscious of manifesting optimism and enthusiasm for my work via my whole-body expression.  It is also important that I express optimism in my greeting of “good morning” or “good afternoon”.  I am aware that my optimism, enthusiasm, and competence are all being evaluated in my every move, my words, and my handshake if I choose to extend my hand to a student.  I am aware that my degree of perceived optimism and enthusiasm may be related to my likeability, teaching effectiveness, respect level, and confirmation or rejection of any stereotypes related to my gender, perceived sexual orientation, political ideology, and race (Golebiowska, 2003; Popp,  Donovan, & Crawford, 2003; Twenge &  Zucker, 1999).


With all this in mind, my goal is still to honor social justice principles and the celebration of diversity of opinions and personalities in the room.   I invite students, in an enthusiastic manner, to view themselves as all having something of value to contribute to the learning environment.  Thus I make it clear that I expect no student to express verbal or non-verbal disregard for another student’s question or comment.  Also, in keeping with the ideology of Purkey’s invitational discipline approach, I utilize optimism by informing students that they are capable of success in the course if both they and I hold one another accountable for the learning environment.   This promotes an optimistic atmosphere in the class.  It serves to create feelings of partnership and collaboration.  It is my hope that this approach sets the stage in the students’ minds that I am a professor who wants to see them do well.  According to Purkey, I am likely to easily have respectful student behavior in my classes because I have made the students feel optimistic about their ability to achieve success.  I fully expect that because I am optimistic regarding my students’ performances, that my multiple identities are far less relevant than the students’ affirmations of their present worth and quality of existence within the learning environment.



Purkey defines intentionality as a purposive activity intended to offer something beneficial for consideration and acceptance. This component can be instituted in a variety of ways.  What is most important is that intentionality is applied consistently.  A method by which I apply intentionality is via direct invitations to students to visit with me during weekly office hours.  Intentionality is not demonstrated by merely posting office hours on the syllabus or web.  Instead, more is required.  I not only invite students to the office hours, but I explain to them what cognitive benefits they may expect by accepting the invitation.  I explain to them that they are invited irrespective of their current grade in the course.  “A” students are as welcome as “F” students.  I inform them that the office visit may include discussion of my course content, or discussions about thought-provoking content of another course that they are taking.  I also express to students that it is appropriate for us to have general conversation about their experiences as college students.  I intentionally express my openness to these types of discussions during office hours because research has suggested that the personal lives of students play a dramatic role in the learning process (Jacob & Eleser, 1997). Via the usage of intentionality, it is my aim to affirm the students’ worth and responsibility, as well as to promote their growth and potential.  In my quest to achieve this goal, I am demonstrating intentionally inviting behavior, and thus opening myself up to increased student interest about who I am outside of the classroom setting.  However it is during such moments of interaction that I increase my vulnerability. A student may utter statements that cause discomfort in relationship to one of my multiple identities or my passion for issues of social justice.


For example, some students have religious beliefs that they express in relationship to general psychology course content such as gender and sexuality.  Researchers have studied the relationship between religious personality dimensions and implicit homosexual prejudice in college students in the south-central United States (Rowatt, Tsang, and Kelly, 2006). The researchers found the existence of greater implicit and explicit prejudice towards homosexual individuals compared to heterosexual individuals.  These findings were stronger among students identified as religious fundamentalists.


For the gender and sexuality chapter of the general psychology text (Lahey, 2007),  when the topic of sexual orientation is discussed, it is difficult for me to sit quietly while a student expresses religious beliefs regarding same sex attraction that disregards or disrespects the issue as one of social justice.  In this situation, I am torn between my belief in bell hooks’ ideology of 1) wanting to “teach to transgress” as a matter of social justice, 2) my own beliefs in teaching gender and multicultural awareness, and 3) my concerns about maintaining student respect.  I am aware that self-disclosure of my own sexual identity during more informal conversations could be used as an opportunity for teaching cultural awareness, diversity and respect, and possibly reducing prejudice (Hill & Augoustinos, 2001; Berryman-Fink, 2006). However, I do not always speak up and out.  At the root of this silence, is concern about student respect, particularly as research has revealed that some personal characteristics of professors are significant to students’ ratings of quality of a professor (Felton, Mitchell, & Stinson, 2004).




In the general psychology course, I often give assignments that require students to apply psychological concepts to their life experiences.  An assignment that I regularly give in this primarily freshman-based course is a writing assignment on stress.  I assign this short paper in the early weeks of the semester, a time when students are often experiencing a heightened level of stress.  Students seem to enjoy this assignment for several reasons, most of which is the opportunity that it provides for them to connect the text material to real life personal events. I have also found that students often disclose serious matters in this paper.  For this reason, it is important that I convey to the students that what they write about in the stress paper will not be morally judged, but only that feedback will be given on the writing and accuracy of usage of psychological concepts and theories.


With the stress assignment, I am aware that they are trusting me with their feelings and they are  taking risks in being open and involved in the course, which has been identified as significant to the element of trust in the invitation model of student discipline (Purkey).   I also take the opportunity to share with the students, stressors that are occurring in my life as well, in an attempt to establish not only trust but cooperation in the learning environment (De Cremer & Tyler, 2007).  In using this type of respectful and sincere communication, my goal is to demonstrate that I am trusting, and willing to take risks for the sake of promoting learning.  Yet, when it comes to my desire to teach social justice principles such as respect for pluralism and diversity, regarding some sensitive issues my ability to take risks is lacking.  My quest continues to find ways to ensure my respect, dignity, and integrity in the classroom while expressing academic freedom to initiate important difficult dialogues in the interest of education.



Regarding my pedagogy, I am most mindful of the element of respect in Purkey’s model.  I have found that by being consistent in maintaining mutual respect and kindness, the other areas of trust, optimism, and intentionality have more easily manifested in the classroom.  Incorporating the four elements of the invitational discipline model (Purkey) has facilitated classroom dialogues about issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism.  These are still areas in which passionate commentary often manifests.  However, once the space has been sufficiently infused with the four elements (Purkey), with respectful communication as significant, professors may have an easier time passionately teaching acceptance of issues of pluralism and social justice. This is consistent with literature from social psychology that suggests that such interaction fosters peace and cooperation between diverse groups of people (Andersen, Saribay, & Thorpe).  Nearly 25 years after Lorde’s work, Sister Outsider, which included her thoughts on many of the “isms”, educators must reflect on the degree to which students are truly being respected for who they are in the classroom, while they are also learning to respect differences in others from whom they may learn, as well as with whom they will live and work.




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