Join | Login


    A “Mindful” Approach to Teaching Social Issues

    Tracie L. Stewart, University of Mississippi

My interest in a “mindful” approach to teaching the psychology of social issues began with a conversation with students in a university van on the way to an undergraduate research conference in upstate New York.  It expanded a few years later over lunch with students in the campus union at a university in the eastern Netherlands.  And I suspect it is soon to evolve further at an upcoming research meeting/picnic we’re having in the historic Ole Miss Grove. Both undergraduate and graduate psychology students have been centrally involved at every stage of my lab’s research on mindful teaching strategies and are, accordingly, co-authors on all of the articles that have stemmed from this research.  Consequently, writing this column reminds me to be ever, well, “mindful” of the innovative and important contributions to psychological research that students are willing and able to provide when given the opportunity to take on leadership roles in research.  I will elaborate on our operational definition of mindfulness below, but first let’s return to the discussion with students en route to the student conference.

The conversation among students and faculty during the drive turned at one point to a discussion of the variable terms of address that students used for professors at the college, ranging from formal addresses beginning with “Dr.” to informal use of the instructors’ first names.  Some of the students pondered whether gender might play a role in students’ use of formal versus informal terms of address for their professors. We then considered ways that question might be tested empirically.  Two of the students – Hilary Takiff and Diana Sanchez – took up the charge to review the relevant literature and then to conduct two ambitious studies to address this very question and to examine the implications of students’ terms of address for faculty on evaluations of the faculty members’ status and accessibility.  Two years later, these students earned second place at an undergraduate research conference for their presentation of this research and were first and second authors on a peer-reviewed publication (Takiff, Sanchez, & Stewart, 2001).  Their research showed quite clearly that female professors were significantly more likely than male professors to be addressed by first name and that this difference was most pronounced for older faculty members (I believe our cut-off for “older” professors was 40, which, from my current vantage point, seems preposterously young).  In fact, whereas older male professors were significantly more likely than younger male professors to be addressed formally, the opposite was found for female professors, with older female professors proving to be the most likely to be addressed by first name among all four groups. In the article, possible reasons for this interaction of age and gender (e.g., “academic momism;” Bernard, 1964) are considered.

Also reported in the article was the finding that students perceived both male and female professors addressed by title to be more knowledgeable and higher in status than professors addressed by first name.  In addition, students appeared to be more comfortable with male professors when they were afforded this higher status term of address, rating them more accessible than male professors addressed by first name.  In contrast, female professors had a choice to make.  Although afforded higher status if addressed by title, female professors were perceived to be more accessible if addressed by first name. Given that perceptions of both status and accessibility play a role in students’ faculty evaluations and, consequently have implications for faculty members’ career success, female professors faced a double-bind. When presenting this work initially, I didn’t have an answer to questions about ways out of this dilemma for female faculty.  Fortunately answers were forthcoming when I had the opportunity to pursue a research fellowship at Radboud University Nijmegen the following year.

Over a lunch planned to discuss a class research project, Nijmegen students Mathilde Berkvens, Werny Engels, and Jessica Pass expressed their interest in the concept of “mindfulness.”  At the time, I knew of Ellen Langer’s work on mindfulness but little else on this topic.  Today I am likely to draw on work by Kelly Wilson (2008) to define mindfulness as “a collection of attitudes, sensitivities, and practices, the goal of which is to increase conscious attention to the present moment…” (p. xii). Wilson has primarily examined the utility of mindfulness in clinical settings but has more recently turned his attention to potential benefits of mindfulness approaches in the classroom.

My Nijmegen students’ interest in mindfulness and my own nagging concern about the troubling “term of address” findings led to a published research study showing that a mindful approach to teaching could provide a way out of female professors’ double-bind (Stewart, Berkvens, Engels, & Pass, 2003).  Slight changes in the presentation of course information, modified based on mindfulness research and theory, led to female professors obtaining higher status through being addressed by title without an accompanying backlash of lower accessibility ratings.  The study ruled out alternative explanations for this finding such as mindful professors simply being perceived as more feminine.

I suspect that a mindful pedagogical approach has evolved naturally for many psychology faculty who teach courses concerning multicultural issues.  And I am interested in examining empirically whether such an approach is, in fact, particularly useful for teaching about topics such as diversity and group privilege, helping to shield these faculty from the more negative course evaluations that can accompany presentation of material that some students find uncomfortable to process (Case, 2007). My lab group plans to pursue this question in future work.  However, to date, our research can speak to its benefits in courses such as “Introduction to Cognitive Science.”  But what are these mindful teaching strategies, exactly? Let me outline here a few of the strategies discussed in greater detail in the article (Stewart et al., 2003).

In our study, students read a fictional transcript of a class session in which a male or female professor was addressed by title or first name and communicated with the class using either “mindful” or “mindless” terminology, operationalized based on Langer’s (1989) conceptualization of mindfulness.  The mindful instructors displayed openness to novelty, alertness to distinction, sensitivity to context, awareness of multiple perspectives, and orientation in the present.  For example, they stated “I think this is a very interesting course, so I’m happy to be here.  It’s nice to see that so many of you are here, in spite of the rain.”  The mindless instructors’ phrasing was identical, except for the omission of the final sentence.  The mention of the ongoing rain was designed to orient students in the present moment, as well as place the class in a broader context.  A recommendation I have sometimes asked graduate instructor mentees to consider is to sometimes “talk about the weather” at the start of class.  It communicates to the class that you are engaged with them in the present moment, within a partially shared broader context.

Communicating awareness of multiple perspectives was achieved in this study by beginning a mindful instructor’s statement with “Many researchers believe that the best way…,” as opposed to the mindless instructor’s statement which began “The best way…” and neglected any form of qualification of the statement.  Similarly, mindful instructors stated that “According to several researchers whose work we’ll study in this course, a common feature of research in this area is…,” rather than posing the statement as an absolute by beginning simply with “A common feature is…”  It’s a small change, but our research suggests it can make a big difference in student perceptions.  Other examples of our mindful/mindless instructor manipulation are provided in the paper (Stewart et al., 2003).  In the mindful instructor conditions of our study, both male and female instructors addressed by title were perceived to be high in accessibility, as well as status.  A mindful teaching approach seemed to free female professors from the status versus accessibility double-bind, which continued to be illustrated in findings for the mindless instructors.

In closing, I can state with confidence that I have never failed to benefit from the exciting process of discussing research questions with individuals at diverse points in their academic studies – from beginning undergraduate students to graduate students to fellow faculty members.  I find an incredible amount of innovation to be possible from free discussion among such groups. And few things are more enjoyable than talking with an engaged group about a mindful approach to the psychology of social issues on a spring afternoon in the Grove.


Bernard, J. (1964). Academic women. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.

Case, K. (2007). Raising male privilege awareness and reducing sexism: An evaluation of diversity courses. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 426-435.

Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Stewart, T. L., Berkvens, M., Engels, W. A. E. W., & Pass, J. A.  (2003).  Status and likability:  Can the “mindful” woman have it all?  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33, 2040-2059.

Takiff, H. A., Sanchez, D. T., & Stewart, T. L.  (2001).  What’s in a name?  The status implications of students’ terms of address for male and female professors.  Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25, 134-144.

Wilson, K. G. (2008).  Mindfulness for two: An acceptance and commitment therapy approach to mindfulness in psychotherapy.  Oakland, CA:  New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

-Tracie L. Stewart

Previous                                                         Contents                                                        Next