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President’s Message: Doing the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion

Kevin PattonI once again find myself writing about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in textbooks. Not because I am—or feel myself to be—an expert in any aspect of DEI. Far from it. I am writing again because these concerns continue to weigh on me.

As a textbook author, I have a grave responsibility that goes beyond the obvious promise to deliver useful content for learning my subject. It is not only my descriptions and explanations and examples that affect my users—it is also the voice and vision that comes through those written words.

The attitude projected through a textbook’s pages can touch the lives of readers and have meaningful impact on them. We may encourage our readers this way, but when not fully inclusive, our attitude may instead become a barrier to learning.

A conviction that I need to be better has dawned slowly. I started out with the naïve attitude that a desire to do good and be inclusive was enough. I’ve discovered, however, that my own lens is not an accurate one. It has not been informed by the discrimination, invisibility, and outright injury experienced by my colleagues and diverse readership. I need the help of others to see that, so that I can refocus my lens to a wider view.

I’ve also discovered that mere awareness will not accomplish what I must in my writing. I must also do the work.

The DEI conversation has ramped up within all the academic disciplines in the last few months. In anticipation of this, TAA established its Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (CDEI). Already, the CDEI’s work has had substantial impact. For example, I have received helpful information and advice that helps me and others to do the needed work and improve our textbooks.

Along with my team, I have also begun this work in my A&P textbooks. Using what I’ve learned from the recent TAA Annual Conference, articles from The Academic Author and Abstract (the TAA blog), and resources found in my own research, I’ve already started making substantial changes in my textbooks. And what I’ve found is that, well, it is indeed work. Work that is difficult and, at times, frustrating.

One obstacle that I encountered early in this process is the lack of guidance on what, exactly, we must do to be inclusive in our writing. It seems simple, doesn’t it? Include everyone. But how one does that in textbook writing is not always clear.
I was already aware of various publisher guides for authors, many of which have been recently updated for inclusivity. However, these are not complete. Most often, these publisher guides lack guiding principles that may help authors as they encounter specific issues when writing in their respective subject. Instead, the guides seem
to focus on a few broad style recommendations that are general in application.
For example, they may advise us not to use “his” or “mankind” or other gender-biased terms for generic references to humanity.

But when it comes to discipline-specific terms such as “daughter cell” or “sister chromatid,” we are on our own to find alternatives. These terms have emerging alternates in the literature (offspring cell; duplicate chromatid) but some do not. It is often challenging to find established alternatives. It may be tough to decide what to do with a clearly problematic term that does not yet have an acceptable alternative. Should we make one up? Doing so may be more inclusive, but will it serve students who are expected to know the language of their discipline?

Sometimes, my focus on being inclusive has made it difficult to write prose that is simple and clear enough that beginning college students can read it without difficulty. For example, I can change “mother’s blood supply” to “uterine blood supply” without making things awkward. But repeatedly referring to parents and offspring in a chapter about prenatal development or genetics without excluding those who are adopted members of a family is difficult. Instead of changing all terms, or being vague in my use of terms, or adding convoluted disclaimers to each use of a term, another method is to briefly explain inclusivity concerns with terms they really must learn.

Even though this process is hard for me, and I’m sure I’m making mistakes, I have found a hidden benefit. For example, books in my discipline often use terms such as “normal” and “abnormal” that in many cases can be problematic. If a condition is merely out of the ordinary, we have sometimes dubbed it as “abnormal” with no concern for how that affects individuals on the outskirts of the diverse spectrum of humanity. These individuals are not defective—they are wonderfully unique and healthy.

If I refer to “normal” body temperature, am I referring to that use- less number marked “normal” on my little thermometer from the local pharmacy? Or am I referring to a more accurate average human body temperature? Or am I referring to what is “normal” for a particular individual—which is nearly always the case in my text- books. Replacing “normal” with a synonym such as “healthy” (or perhaps simply deleting the word) has made many passages simpler and easier to read. These edits may also be more accurate, as well.

As I integrate DEI sensibility into my work, I am making my textbooks more valuable for the many learners who will be using them. An ongoing practice of learning about DEI concerns and how to address them helps me in the process of adjusting the focus of my own lens. TAA, through our CDEI, continues the supportive work needed to sustain authors. Will you join me in rolling up our sleeves and making the world a better place?

—Kevin Patton, Ph.D.