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Reflecting diversity, equity, and inclusion in our publications

library bookshelfI’ll never forget that encounter I had with Kathy a number of years ago. Kathy and I are friends now, but I’d never met her before that moment when she introduced herself at our annual anatomy and physiology (A&P) teaching conference. She asked if I had a moment to chat about how illustrations are chosen for textbooks. As you can imagine, I love talking about the process of creating textbooks, so we stepped aside for a quick chat.

It turns out that she was chatting up as many A&P textbook authors as she could, including a few other TAA members, with a question that stemmed from her interest in diversity issues. Kathy wanted to know about the illustration process because she wanted to know why women and other groups were underrepresented.

Going back to our first collaboration in the 1980s, my former writing partner and I, both White men who consider ourselves to be aware and compassionate, had been concerned about fairly representing women, people of color, and others who seemed to be invisible in mainstream A&P textbooks. When my partner retired as an author, I put that effort into a higher gear and was proud of the diversity represented in our books.

As I explained this to Kathy, she asked the question that changed everything for me. “Then why,” she asked, “do all the major A&P textbooks represent the muscular system with only young White males?” After a long moment, I contracted my masseter—the muscle that closes a dropped jaw. I stammered something about the question taking me off guard.

As my mind flipped through my books and others in my genre, I realized that probably all of them represented only young White males in the key illustrations of “the muscle chapter.” Although my books had an insert and a supplementary atlas that show female muscle anatomy, these were the exception—not the rule. My mind brought up rational explanations for why this might be so. But I quickly realized what I was doing. I was rationalizing. I found myself rationalizing unfair representation of diverse groups of real, living, loving people. I was horrified.

I expressed all this to Kathy. Knowing that I was at a revision stage with my flagship textbook at which I could request new illustrations, I promised Kathy she’d see a change in the new edition. I asked Kathy to be a consultant-reviewer for a set of new images that depict muscles in an adult Black female.

That chat with Kathy was a new beginning for me as a textbook author. I not only changed gears, I changed vehicles. I’ve made additional replacements in the muscle chapters of my books. But more importantly, representing diversity among humans is now a standing priority and ongoing policy for the contributing authors, editors, and illustrators who collaborate with me. I learned that I, and perhaps all of us, need to look outside ourselves for feedback to help us try to create and maintain justice. To listen to challenges rather than automatically rebuff them. To recognize rationalization for what it is and pull ourselves outward to a broader and more humane perspective.

I hope that as students use my textbooks, the diversity they see and read there will allow them to identify with the subjects in my books and thereby engage more strongly in learning and see themselves as capable of success. And I hope that such diversity speaks to them about the equal value of all people.

As our society struggles with sorting out issues of social equity, I often ask myself, “what can I do as an individual?” There are many possibilities in which most of us can engage. But there is one in which I know I must engage—in my textbook and academic authoring. In that venue, my efforts can have an impact that reach far beyond my immediate world and our present time.

In what ways can your authoring work engage in recognizing and promoting social equity? What successes and failures have you had? What problems are you grappling with? This is a conversation we must have in TAA.

TAA Vice President Kevin Patton is an award-winning professor and textbook author in human anatomy and physiology (A&P). He has a podcast and several blogs about teaching and writing, including A member of the TAA Council of Fellows, Kevin currently serves as TAA Vice President/President-Elect and conference committee chair. Besides teaching undergraduate A&P, he also teaches in a graduate program that trains college instructors of anatomy and physiology.