Tackling Racism in Textbook Publishing

New guidelines from textbook publisher Pearson aim to dismantle systemic racism in higher ed. Do they go far enough?

February 26, 2021
 
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Pearson published editorial guidelines on race, ethnicity, equity and inclusion.

Pearson yesterday published editorial guidelines addressing race, ethnicity, equity and inclusion, becoming one of the first major textbook publishers to make such guidelines publicly available.

The document is intended to help authors, reviewers and editors at London-based Pearson promote diversity and avoid propagating harmful stereotypes.

The guidelines identify several key challenges to address. These include the underrepresentation of minority ethnic groups in text, images and references; descriptions of people of color that exaggerate negative associations and stereotypes; missing stories of the achievements of people of color; and the idea that social and economic disadvantages are the result of personal circumstances and decisions rather than systemic injustices and inequalities.

Pearson employee groups in both the U.S. and Great Britain began developing the guidance over a year ago. It was reviewed by Jason Arday, a professor of sociology at Durham University in England who authored the Black Curriculum Report.

Increased awareness and support for movements such as Black Lives Matter and the decolonization of K-12 and college curricula in the past year have raised questions about a lack of diversity in the publishing industry -- a sector predominately staffed by people who are white and middle class. The #PublishingPaidMe movement illustrated that authors of color are often paid far less than their white peers.

Some textbook publishers faced fierce criticism of the content they publish. A McGraw Hill Education K-12 textbook, for example, came under fire in 2015 for labeling enslaved people “workers.” In 2017, a nursing textbook published by Pearson was accused of propagating stereotypes because of controversial advice on how to evaluate patients based on their cultural background.

Pearson employees will receive training on how to implement the guidelines. This training is currently under development and is expected to be rolled out in the next 12 months, said Ebrahim Matthews, senior vice president of global schools for Pearson, who was part of a team that reviewed the guidelines.

The new guidelines follow previous equity-focused moves at Pearson. In 2017, Pearson developed a global editorial policy, which highlighted the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion but did not cover these issues in great detail. An updated global editorial policy with enhanced standards for content relating to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, religion and disability will be published later this year.

An audit of Pearson textbooks with respect to the guidelines announced yesterday is already underway, with more than 100 titles completed, Matthews said. The publisher has already made changes to some titles, including a sociology textbook that featured an image of a Black man being handcuffed by white police officers.

While publishers want to address systemic racism, many are not doing so effectively, said Laura Jiménez, department chair for language and literacy education at the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. Public-facing documents featuring stock images of models from different ethnic backgrounds that look like they came from a "United Colors of Benetton ad" are often done for show, with few changes behind the scenes.

“I’ve seen quite a few of these kinds of things in the past six months, maybe a year, since white folks woke up to the horror that is, you know, the world, and they all share very similar messaging,” Jiménez said.

Public-facing communications from publishers in both educational and book markets often take a very “neutral stance on oppression -- they state that oppressions exist but don’t name who caused them,” Jiménez said. Instead of talking about people who are members of minority groups being underrepresented, for example, she said publishers should name the overrepresentation of white, male, heterosexual perspectives.

In the Pearson guidelines, the words "minority" and "minorities" are used dozens of times, but this may not have been the best word choice, Jiménez said.

“Minority is a neutral fact. You either have less of something or you have more. But marginalized means that something’s happened -- it’s an active word, somebody has been marginalized,” Jiménez said. “I find that blameless neutrality very disturbing.”

It can be challenging for publishers to find the right terminology when drawing up guidelines relating to diversity and inclusion, said Anthony Palmiotto, editorial director at OpenStax, a publisher of free and low-cost open textbooks based at Rice University.

OpenStax developed an editorial policy relating to diversity and inclusion in 2017 and published the document publicly in 2019. The process of creating the guidelines involved consulting a large number of academic groups focused on promoting diversity. Many different views exist about the best way to approach these issues and how they should be talked about, Palmiotto said.

Both Pearson and OpenStax have introduced processes for readers to complain about problematic content. In a way, that's drawing on past practices.

“It’s something that a lot of publishers used to do, but it’s kind of disappeared in recent years,” Palmiotto said.

Feedback from readers can make a big difference in education practices, said Scott Overland, director of media relations at Pearson. An engineering student raised concerns about the use of the words "master" and "slave" to describe mechanisms where one component controls another. It resulted in a change not just in textbook terminology but across the industry, Overland said.

Changing something in a textbook doesn't necessarily mean changes in the classroom, said Shaun Harper, a professor and executive director of the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center.

"Perhaps these guidelines will result in the production of textbooks that are more diverse and inclusive," Harper said. "But someone has to teach the adopters of these books how to meaningfully engage the new material. We ought not assume that instructors will teach these topics well simply because the publisher updated the book."

It will take more than a new textbook edition to change old teaching habits. Faculty members must also be asked to change.

"Beyond new textbooks, faculty members need rigorous professional learning experiences on the teaching of diversity, equity and inclusion topics," Harper said. "Just like we require students to buy books, we should be required to participate in workshops on teaching DEI more effectively in our courses."

Some textbook publishers, including Pearson, are already investing in training for instructors, but not all are so public about their efforts. At New York-based Macmillan Learning, for example, efforts are well underway to recruit more diverse staff members, audit existing content and support instructors in teaching new content. Publishers Cengage and McGraw Hil are also working on multiple diversity, equity and inclusion efforts internally. 

"We're not focused on publishing guidelines right now," said Charles Linsmeier, senior vice president at Macmillan Learning. "We're focused on implementing them."

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