Respect is not something one can imitate, but something one must embody. — Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Discussion Questions & Topics

The UW Common Book is more than a book; it’s also a gateway into a world of ideas in action. Start a conversation about Respect using the discussion questions provided here. Learn more about the people and places in the book. Or discover groups dedicated to building respect on campus and in the community.

Discussion Questions

Reading is about more than words on a page. It is also about engaging those words through conversation, debate, and application. Here are some discussion questions to help you engage Respect. Think about them on your own as you read the book or, better yet, discuss them with a group of friends, use them to start a reading group, or write a paper about them for one of your classes.

Chapter Summary

by Karissa Kingery, UW Student, Freshman Interest Group Leader


Creating Symmetry. An overview of the book.

Chapter 1

Jennifer Dohrn, a nurse midwife – founded a birthing clinic in the South Bronx to serve mainly poor black and brown women. Theme – empowerment

Chapter 2

Johnye Ballenger, a pediatrician with a private practice in Caimbridge, Massachusetts, teaches residents at Children’s Hospital, is on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School, and works one day a week at a community health center. Her message of respect is her healing actions; “her medium is her message.”

Chapter 3

Kay Cottle—middle and high school teacher. She sees respect “embedded in classroom dialogue, as she helps students learn how to ask good questions, value inquiry, listen to each other, and begin a habit of thoughtful reflection.”

Chapter 4

Artist and photographer Dawoud Bey, photography always begins with a deep curiosity.

Chapter 5

David Wilkins is a Harvard Law School professor. It is his own hard-earned fight for self-respect, his determination that none of his students will be as terrified of teachers as he was. His students speak of this professor with respect, as well as the appreciation for the respect and attention he bestows on them.

Chapter 6

“Respect comes full circle, from the life-giving screams of birth to the terror and peaceful silence of death…. Bill Wallace, an Episcopal priest, pastoral therapist and AIDS activist, supports his patients during the great transition of death…. His respect is conveyed through undiluted attention.”

“Six windows on respect—empowerment, healing, dialogue, curiosity, self-respect, and attention—each one reveals a different angle of vision; each one illuminates different experiences.”


Discussion Questions for the Introduction

A. The author opens her book with a description of her parents and the lessons she learned from them about respect. Thinking about your own upbringing, where have you learned about respect in your life? What experiences, words, or events stand out as particularly instructive? What did they teach you? These can be positive examples in which respect was present, or negative examples in which it was absent.

B. The author points out that “we pay more attention to [respect] when it is not expressed” (p.8), and suggests that contemporary life is often criticized for the lack of respect people show one another. But she also questions this claim, and wonders whether we might be being too nostalgic about times that never really existed. What do you think? Is public life more respectful today then it was, say 10, 20, or 40 years ago? Are we becoming less respectful as a nation? What is your evidence for this? How does our definition of respect change your answer to this question?

C. The author’s primary task in this book is to “shape a new view of respect” (p.9). Consider the following paragraph:

Usually, respect is seen as involving some sort of debt due people because of their attained or inherent position, their age, gender, class, race, professional status, accomplishments, etc. Whether defined by rules of law or habits of culture, respect often requires expressions of esteem, approbation, or submission. By contrast, I focus on the way respect creates symmetry, empathy, and connection in all kinds of relationships, even those, such as teacher and student, doctor and patient, commonly seen as unequal. Rather than looking for respect as a given in certain relationships, I am interested in watching it develop over time. I see it not only as an expression of circumstance, history, temperament, and culture, rooted in rituals and habits, but also arising from efforts to break with routines and imagine other ways of giving and receiving trust, and in so doing, creating relationships among equals.” (p.10-11)

What does she mean by this? What is respect based on “debt due people”? How does this contrast with the author’s alternative notion of respect that “creates symmetry”? Is “symmetry” the same as “equality,” or “relationships among equals,” as she seems to suggest? Do you agree with this new definition of respect? Can you find an example in your life in which respect was used to create “relationships among equals” rather than the result of “debt due people”? Is this a more powerful or ‘better’ form of respect? Why or why not?


Discussion Questions for Chapter 1

A. The theme of this chapter is empowerment. What does the author mean by this word? Her patients, who are mostly poor women that possess very little economic, political or even physical power, are not becoming wealthier, more politically influential, or physically stronger by going to the clinic, so how are they being “empowered” by Jennifer Dohrn, the nurse midwife? What does it mean to be “empowered” in this circumstance?

B. What does empowerment have to do with respect, as the author defines it? Is empowerment a form of symmetry? Is respect a product of empowerment, or a necessary ingredient in its creation?

C. Consider a time in your life when you felt empowered by the actions of another: was this a source—or a product—of respect? Where are the places in your life where you feel most empowered or disempowered? Are these also places you feel most or least respected? How can you become a more empowering person in your own social interactions?


Discussion Questions for Chapter 2

A. The theme of this chapter is healing, represented through the work of Dr. Johnye Ballenger, a pediatrician. The chapter begins with these words: “Respect is not something one can imitate, but something one must embody.” How does Dr. Ballenger’s healing work embody respect? Are there particular examples that seem especially powerful or revealing to you? Can you think of instances in your own life in which you or someone you know embodied respect in their work?

B. There is a section in this chapter that discusses the use of names and titles as a way of showing or giving respect. The author tells her own story of how she felt disrespected in certain circumstances by colleagues or students who addressed her informally using her first name. In the author’s case, her feelings were also linked to deeper historical and cultural traditions. How does the way we address one another show or engender respect? Do names and titles matter, or do they get in the way of the “symmetry” the author spoke of in the introduction? How do cultural differences shape this debate?

C. In the last pages of the chapter, the author writes of an epiphany that Dr. Ballenger had while in medical school. She realized that “respect was expressed through doing very little when there is little to do” (p. 88). “Good practice also requires that doctors enter into ‘relationships’ with their patients, that they actually ‘see’ them. Good practice requires that doctors be respectful, tender, and gracious” (p.88).What does it mean to “do very little” and how can this be a form of respect? What does it mean to “see” a person? Does the need to be “gracious” only apply to the medical field or can it also extend into our own lives? How so?


Discussion Questions for Chapter 3

A. This chapter explores the idea and practice of dialogue as a means through which respect is created and received. How does dialogue produce respect? Why is respect important for dialogue? What kind of dialogue is this chapter talking about?

B. The author opens this chapter with these words: “Making oneself vulnerable is an act of trust and respect, as is receiving and honoring the vulnerability of another” (p.93). What does the author mean by this? Is she right? Why or why not?

C. The main character in this chapter is a high school teacher named Kay Cottle. For Kay, good teaching is built around inquiry, dialogue, and, ultimately, trust. Why is trust so important to teaching and learning for Kay? Are there common classroom practices that in your experience increase or decrease trust and dialogue (such as randomly calling on a student for an answer)? How have these experiences affected your learning? What would you do to foster greater trust and dialogue in the classroom? What are your expectations for the UW?

D. At one point Kay notes that “‘teaching is storytelling…It is the place where lives can meet’” (p.107). What does she mean by this? What do stories have to do with respect? Kay wonders whether she went too far telling her students about a dream she once had. Did she? How does she use stories to cross boundaries and make connections (p.111)? When do you use stories in your life to create connections with other people or ideas?


Discussion Questions for Chapter 4

A. This chapter opens with a poem by Langston Hughes called “Theme for English B.” Why do you think the author included this poem? What is it saying to you? How is the poem and its themes of questioning, belonging (or not belonging), and story telling, related to respect?

B. The main theme of this chapter is curiosity, and the person who embodies it is Dawoud Bey, an artist, photographer, and teacher. Dawoud’s life and work is driven by curiosity and he tells several stories about how his curiosity led to important discoveries and insights about his own life. Perhaps the most important is his trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the photography show “Harlem on My Mind.” The experience transformed him by helping him see his own community—something he had taken for granted—in a new light, shaping his direction as an artist. What moments of curiosity have you experienced in your life and how have they shaped you? How important is it to step outside your own comfort zone, as Dawoud did by entering the museum, in order to find such transformative experiences? What things are you curious about trying this year? What things might you try just to try?

C. In a story about his experiences in school as a child, Dawoud talks about the importance of receiving attention or being “seen,” and the consequences of being ignored, overlooked, or misunderstood. He points out that all people wish to be seen for who they are. How is this desire related to respect? What does it mean to really “see” a person, as Dawoud describes it? Is this what Dr. Ballenger (chapter two) also meant? How is this a form of respect, and what can you do in your life to ensure that you both see and are seen?

D. Dawoud is a portrait photographer who believes photographs tell stories about people. As an artist, he is genuinely curious about those stories, and works hard to form a relationship with his subjects so that the portrait he takes can be a deeper representation of who that person is. If Dawoud were to take your photograph, how would you want to represent yourself? What story would you want your portrait to tell?


Discussion Questions for Chapter 5

A. The theme of this chapter is self-respect, and the author opens the conversation by referring to the writings of Joan Didion. Didion, according to the author, once said that self-respect is “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s life.” What does this mean? Why is accepting responsibility for one’s life the basis of self-respect? Do you agree? Why, or why not?

B. The main character in this chapter is David Wilkins, a professor of law at Harvard University, who seems particularly concerned with ensuring that his students understand that self-respect and achievement can be two different things. David, according to the author, tells his students that “…the exams test ‘only one kind of intelligence.’ ‘If you get an A,’ he tells them, ‘you should be proud of your achievement, but you should also be humble. An A doesn’t make you a better person. It could just be that you are good at this stuff, that it’s easy for you. But virtue is in working and understanding. […] Partly I’m saying to them ‘respect yourself, respect your own accomplishments.’” (p.187) Is David correct? Does getting an A really mean that you are not a better person than someone who, say, got a C? What measures should we use to assess a person’s worth or achievement, especially in college? Is it reasonable to think that other measures matter as much as, and maybe more than, a grade?

C. The chapter ends with a quote from David, who says, “You can’t show respect for someone else unless you are prepared to make yourself vulnerable. You can’t give respect unless you have the courage to say what you need from the other person” (p.194). What does David mean by this? Why must you be vulnerable to show respect? Is giving respect always contingent upon your willingness to ask for what you need from the other person? How is this related to ideas of symmetry discussed in the introduction?


Discussion Questions for Chapter 6

A. The main theme of this chapter is attention and is illustrated by the work of Bill Wallace, an Episcopal priest, therapist, and AIDS activist who describes his experiences being with people in the last days and hours of their lives. Toward the beginning of the chapter, the author notes that for Bill, “the quality of attention is the most important dimension of respectful relationships…” (p.198). Why does Bill believe this? What does he mean by attention, and why is it such an important aspect of respect?

B. Bill frequently talks about the importance of being in the moment. He contrasts the business of always doing something with the strength of not doing anything (see p.206). For Bill, being present is often more powerful than being active. What does Bill mean by the power of presence and not doing anything? Is not doing anything really doing something? What does this mean to you? How can you find time in your life to simply be present?

C. Several of the themes discussed earlier in the book seem to come together in this last chapter. Learning to do nothing; learning to “see” another person; the power of story telling to create bonds between people; developing a sense of self; the importance of symmetry: all are embodied in Bill’s approach to his work. How does the author tie these ideas together? What is the relationship between them, and how do they work to produce the sense of respect she is interested in? Is there one theme that seems most important to you? Why?


Concluding Discussion Questions

A. If you were to write a book on respect, what would your chapter titles be? Who would you interview, and why?

B. In addition to being a discussion of ideas, this book is also a form of scholarship, and the methods that produced it are a form of research. In your view, what are the book’s strengths and weaknesses as a form of scholarship and research? Is this a form or research you would undertake yourself? What would you research if given the chance?

C. If you could ask the author, Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a question about this book and her ideas, what would it be?

D. What is the most important idea, lesson, image, practice, or understanding that you take from reading this book?


People & Places in “Respect”

Johnye Ballenger


Dawoud Bey


David Wilkins


Joan Didion

Published works:






Langston Hughes