Teaching psychology to a diverse audience: An ethical imperative in the 21st century

The second of an ongoing series on teaching ethically, this column explores the intersection of two central areas of psychology: teaching and cultural competence.

By Melanie M. Domenech Rodríguez, PhD, Scott C. Bates, PhD, and Lesther Papa, MA

We are now well settled into this 21st century. Diversity-affirming and promoting statements abound, especially in academic contexts. Demographic statistics show that college classrooms are more diverse than ever (American Council on Education, 2005). Is it time to breathe an enormous sigh of relief? Yes and no. Making progress toward one goal often leads to new and uncharted territory. Succeeding in making college classrooms more ethnically diverse eventually leads educators to experience the challenges of teaching in a diverse classroom. A more diverse classroom requires new levels of self-awareness, knowledge and skills on the part of teachers and students alike. Taken together these factors are known as cultural competence. The present article focuses on ethical challenges in the 21st century classroom and is loosely based on earlier published work (Domenech Rodríguez & Bates, 2012).

The tripartite model of cultural competence (Sue, 1998) posits that a culturally competent individual must (a) engage self-awareness (e.g., self as a cultural being), (b) build knowledge proactively and in response to contextual demands and (c) develop and use specific skills to work effectively with diverse individuals. In the classroom, these skills would include promoting student engagement regardless of ethnic or cultural background, assessing student performance in ways that do not privilege a particular cultural group and managing student and student–instructor interactions in such a manner that creates a positive and productive classroom environment while balancing other course and instructional goals. 

Needless to say this is quite a tall order. Many of us who trained as psychologists learned about research methods and psychological theories over the course of our undergraduate and graduate careers. Some of us were even trained as psychotherapists and learned important interpersonal skills such as managing resistance and promoting behavioral change. Few of us were challenged to see ourselves as cultural beings, much less to behave in ways that acknowledge that culture. Few of us were taught how to teach, much less how to teach in a heterogeneous classroom that requires flexibility in teaching processes and evaluation. In this piece we tackle the intersection of two central areas of psychology: teaching and cultural competence. The intersection of teaching and diversity is a critical juncture in psychology for which most of us were never formally trained, yet, we argue, adequate performance in this arena is an ethical imperative for psychology teachers.

Ethical imperative or summoning the sword of Damocles

The words “ethical imperative” may evoke fear and apprehension in many of us who have come to equate ethics with the law. We do not mean to underestimate our readers who surely know the difference, but simply to acknowledge that, for many of us, any mention of ethical issues generates an emotional response that signals professional peril. We tend to equate ethical guidelines with clear-cut prescriptions of behavior (e.g., teachers do not have sex with their students) like those found in the enforceable standards of the APA (2010) ethics code. Yet no one would base their judgment of a psychology teacher’s ethics on the basis of “not having sex with students.” 

Think of the most ethical teacher you know. Why is that person at the top of your list? Likely it is that person’s proactive commitment to engaging aspirational principles. Aspirational principles are “goals to guide psychologists towards the highest ideals of psychology” (p. 2, APA, 2010). Perhaps the person at the top of your list is willing to directly confront hot-button issues like stereotypes, aggression and prejudice in line with the principle of justice. Or perhaps she is the kind of teacher who is willing to say “I don’t know” out loud and is prompt and accurate in her promise to gather further information, in line with the principle of integrity. 

In summoning an ethical imperative, we simply refer to the affirmative responsibility on the part of the psychology teacher to continuously engage in improving their performance in teaching in a diverse classroom. Rather than provide a list of moralistic “dos” and “don’ts” that will likely send readers into a fit of self-doubt and avoidance, we share main ingredients of cultural competence squarely placed in the classroom context and peppered with some of our own successes and failures. 

Instructor self-awareness

Self-awareness is clearly defined in the APA’s (2003) first multicultural guideline: “Psychologists … as cultural beings … may hold attitudes and beliefs that can detrimentally influence their perceptions and interactions with individuals who are … different from themselves” (p. 382). In a classroom, we posit two areas of self-awareness are critical: (a) power and privilege, and (b) biases and prejudices.

An instructor’s awareness of his power is essential in ensuring its responsible use. Power is the ability that a person, group or system has to influence others’ choices and the direction of one’s own life. And teaching is a process of persuasion (Friedrich & Douglass, 1998). Thus, the teacher is in a de facto position of power relative to a student. Sitting on Damocles’ metaphorical throne implies an inordinate amount of responsibility. On a college campus, for example, a White American professor already holds a PhD and the teacher role as indicators of higher status. That status can be amplified by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation and other identities. For example, an ethnic minority student may find himself intimidated by his psychology instructor and may choose not to challenge a grade that is in fact erroneous. While such a student decision may not be altogether avoidable, a teacher can attempt to prevent such consequences of her power by inviting students to check in on grades when they have questions, putting a statement in the course syllabus and/or treating queries with respect. In essence, self-awareness that the power differential between student and teacher is large, and even larger where other dimensions of diversity intersect to create more distance, can lead an instructor to take proactive steps toward minimizing the impact of such a gap.

Bias and prejudice refer to preferences and attitudes. Prejudices become discrimination through actions. We assume everyone has biases. We propose that biases are not the problem per se, but rather the unawareness of bias or the inappropriate behavioral manifestations of prejudice (i.e., discrimination) are problematic. Cultivating self-awareness around biases and prejudices can be a powerful tool for instructor self-monitoring. A ubiquitous example can be found in class participation. Ethnic minority and international students are less likely to participate in class than White American students, and men tend to participate more than women. According to Rocca (2010), there are many reasons why this occurs, including instructor actions such as ignoring, making fun or being critical of students . Multiple techniques for eliciting broad participation from students can be found in Rocca’s (2010) recent review that would prevent biases from turning into potential discriminatory acts. One notable technique is “Think, Pair, Share” (Lymna, 1981) in which a question is posed to the class, and students are told to think about the answer. Then students pair up and share their responses. Finally, pairs share with the class. This strategy to increase engagement in the classroom can also promote social justice in a diverse classroom by privileging all students’ voices. 

Failures of instructors’ self-awareness can be painful for students who are already marginalized. For example, Domenech Rodríguez and Bates (2012) discuss a case in which a teacher leads a privilege walk exercise in a classroom with all White American students and one Latina. The way in which the exercise was implemented and debriefed led the Latina student to feel more, rather than less, marginalized (e.g., the experience of being all alone in the very back of the room was ignored). White students in the room had a positive educational experience because their voices were heard, and they experienced the benefits of participation. As a result, broader social dynamics of power and privilege were re-enacted in the classroom and the Latina student was harmed. The alternative — examining her experiences among those of other students — would have resulted in an excellent learning experience for all in the group.

Instructor knowledge

Knowledge in the cultural competence parlance refers to knowledge of the “cultural other.” We expand this definition here to include knowledge about diversity in psychology. In a classroom context, it will be difficult for the instructor to know for certain the ethnic origins of her students, or even address them directly. However, it is not difficult to know that psychology is situated in a particular cultural context and invite a rigorous engagement with this fact.

The first author had the opportunity to teach an orientation to the major course, which included many topics in psychology but neither diversity nor ethics. She included one class meeting time and assigned homework. for each diversity and ethics. Additionally, in an assignment designed to increase students’ ability to be consumers of psychological research, she required that students describe the ethnic composition of the samples in the manuscripts that students selected. This led to interesting discussions about the limited diversity in samples and even observations regarding the absence of proper descriptions of the sample sex and ethnicity. Students not only engaged with the fact that one result will not easily transport to another population, time or place, but they also nourished a healthy skepticism that is central to scientific thinking.

There are robust lines of research in cross-cultural and multicultural psychology. Some faculty may feel they do not have the expertise to skillfully integrate “diversity issues” into their courses (see the case of Dr. Mayo in Domenech Rodríguez & Bates, 2012). Others may complain there is too much “mainstream material” to cover as it is, and there’s no room for “specialized topics.” Indeed, diversity topics are not specialized. Everyone has a culture that supported value and habit formation, attitudes, beliefs and worldviews. Keeping culture “invisible” in the teaching of psychology constitutes implicit participation in broader systems of oppression wherein students are led to believe that theories, principles and findings based on work with select few apply to all humans (Watters, 2013, may prove to be a useful resource). Psychology teachers are encouraged to make the invisible visible by speaking to assumptions of universality and bringing forth examples that support and refute universality.

We recognize that integrating diversity in the curriculum can be challenging. A textbook may provide limited coverage that may necessitate assigning additional readings or inviting guest speakers, among other efforts. The literature is vast and can be overwhelming. There are ways to creatively ease into integration that include: consulting with colleagues (e.g., for selecting key readings), posting to professional electronic mailing lists, consulting the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (APA Div. 2) website for diversity resources or running focused literature searches. Instructors may also consider assigning students to identify key readings. Valuable diversity materials are sometimes found in technical reports and book chapters rather than journals (e.g., Trimble, Stevenson & Worrell, 2003). There is no known marker for determining sufficient integration of diversity. We assume this is an ongoing task.

Finally, there are areas of psychology where little information exists on the application of theories or interventions across diverse groups. Our limited understanding can be acknowledged as a feature of the field: That we have questions we cannot answer perfectly and expeditiously is why the field is vibrant and growing. Acknowledging the limits of our understanding does not make psychology less relevant, rather it serves to stimulate future psychologists into pursuing important areas of inquiry in need of attention.

Instructor skills

Instructor skills are the behavioral attempts to put knowledge and awareness into action in the classroom. As more ethnic minority students attend colleges and universities, they experience subtle forms of prejudice known as racial microaggressions (Boysen, 2012). Sue et al. (2007) define racial microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (p. 273). For example, if a teacher comments on how well a student speaks English, she may be unintentionally implying that she did not expect the student to speak English well. While it may have been meant as a compliment, the comment can be experienced by the student as a racial slight and affect that student’s attendance, performance and interactions with other students. 

From our experience microaggressions tend to happen most commonly between peers. A proactive psychology teacher may consider how to intervene when observing these exchanges. Ponder the following situation: A student (Joe) asks another student (José) where he is from. José replies “Arizona,” but Joe presses on “where are you really from?” José, who is now offended, repeats his answer. José has experienced a microaggression labeled as “alien in your own land,” in which a person born in the U.S. is assumed to have been born elsewhere. How might you intervene? Calling Joe a racist probably will not help the situation and is probably inaccurate. This response will also alienate Joe and push him away from self-exploration. However, ignoring the comment sends a message to both students that you tacitly approve or agree with the erroneous assumption. One, both or all of these may be helpful steps:

  1. Help each focus on the other person’s experience and emotion. Joe probably did not intend to offend José. The teacher can acknowledge Joe’s benign intentions and even empathize (e.g., “It’s hard to realize you’ve hurt someone when you didn’t mean to. Yesterday I stepped on my cat and I felt terrible. I didn’t mean to hurt her but I did. It feels awful”). José was on the receiving end of a microaggression, and he should be validated and supported (e.g., “It’s hard to be American and have people assume you are not. It’s an incorrect stereotype. I’m sorry you had that experience right now. Is there something I can do to make this situation better?”). 
  2. Use the moment to promote scientific mindedness and practice cultural empathy. Scientific mindedness as described by Sue (1998) requires individuals to (a) form hypotheses rather than make premature determinations based on possibly incorrect assumptions, (b) find creative ways to test their hypotheses and proceed into action on the basis of the information they gathered. Joe’s underlying assumption (e.g., all Latinos are immigrants) was indeed only a hypothesis and can be described as such. The hypothesis itself was formed likely due to Joe’s cultural context rather than any personal flaw on Joe’s part. This understanding of the self as a consequence of what is learned from culture teachers — those persons, groups or institutions that teach us beliefs, values and practices so we may succeed in our cultural context — is central to cultural empathy (Pedersen & Pope, 2010). Rather than blaming Joe for his personal shortcomings, you can expose him to the notion that we all have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal from culture teachers. We can accept or reject the teachings and seek new teachers.
  3. Encourage error recovery. In essence, Joe has “stepped in it.” Now what? Possibly the most powerful intervention in this regard came from the teacher’s own response which combined validation (“This is hard.”), apology (“I’m sorry this happened.”) and an offer for alternative action (“What can I do to make this better?”). In a real situation, it’s unlikely that Joe will engage with José in quite this manner, however, watching the teacher do so is a powerful opportunity for learning for both Joe and José. Should the opportunity arise, and Joe show a desire for more instruction, the psychology teacher can have an opportunity for further influence.

Teaching is a process of persuasion (Friedrich & Douglass, 1998) and as such, the ethical teacher must proceed with great caution, especially in an increasingly diverse classroom. Diversity in academic settings has been related to more positive academic and social outcomes for all students. There are also great academic and social challenges. If teachers of psychology do not change their approach, both in content and process, they can unintentionally augment the risks and minimize the gains of having a diverse academic context. We propose instructors consider the task of proactively building self-awareness, knowledge and skills in teaching of psychology as an ethical imperative and as an opportunity for personal and professional growth. 

The actions we outline here are ongoing. There is no final destination, no badge, no “culturally competent teacher” certificate that can, will or should be provided. Sometimes the richest lessons come from our stumbles. By way of example, the second author hit an important wall during his first semester teaching a 300-student section of Introductory Psychology at a state university in a highly religious and politically conservative community. During a human sexuality lecture, he noticed students left the classroom midway. It would have been easy to ignore the event and continue teaching the course as he prepared it. It would have also been easy to conclude he should not teach human sexuality; eliminate the lecture, eliminate the problem. Instead, he sought feedback from students, openly acknowledged that the students’ behavior was different from the norm and that he understood this to be a form of communication. From that feedback he made modifications to how he covers the topic to present the material in a way that is appropriate to the cultural context.

Culture is fluid, and so are cultural contexts. Until the 1960s, people could not marry across racial lines. At present, sexual orientation — once a taboo subject — is a hot topic of discussion. Our classrooms are more diverse than ever before, and the diversification is tremendously valuable in challenging current conceptualizations in the field and pushing us all toward more accurate knowledge of psychology. Exposing our students to the wonders of the field, all the while aligning to its reality — studying humans and behavior means studying all humans and all behavior across a wide array of contexts. 


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About the Authors

Melanie M. Domenech RodríguezMelanie M. Domenech Rodríguez is professor of psychology at Utah State University. There she has taught ethics and diversity courses to graduate and undergraduate students for over 13 years. Her research focuses primarily on transporting an evidence-based parenting intervention to Spanish-speaking Latino families in the U.S. and abroad paying special attention to needed cultural adaptations to improve implementation and treatment outcomes. She is a fellow of APA and current editor-in-chief of the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research.

Scott BatesScott Bates is associate dean and associate vice president in the Office of Research and Graduate Studies, and an associate professor of psychology, at Utah State University. Bates has accumulated an excellent record of teaching accomplishment, including college and national awards for excellence in teaching. Bates is a faculty senator at Utah State University, the secretary to APA's Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology), and a CUR councilor. He is the co-author of widely used text book, "Methods in Behavioral Research" (McGraw-Hill, 2012).

Lesther PapaLesther Papa is a second-year graduate student in the combined clinical/counseling/school psychology program at Utah State University (USU). Before attending USU, he received a master’s in teaching of psychology. His research has two primary foci: ethnic minority mental health among youth and families and higher education teaching and learning.