The controversy over the UNC Lifetime Fitness course’s online textbook, “21st Century Wellness,” this past summer brought up questions over the approval processes of course materials — how exactly does a textbook get the thumbs up at UNC?
For most courses, textbooks don’t actually need approval.
In general, professors have autonomy when choosing course materials. The course must first get approved by the Office of Undergraduate Curricula. Once that approval takes place, the professor is free to choose whatever course materials they want, according to James Thompson, the associate dean for undergraduate curricula.
“We trust colleagues to pick appropriate material,” Thompson said. “I would never want to be in a position to say, ‘You can teach this and you can’t teach that.’ That seems entirely inappropriate.”
Thompson said this system places confidence in the professor’s expertise and protects academic freedom.
“My field is 18th-century British fiction — I don’t feel like I should tell physics and astronomy what texts they should use, or exercise and sports science,” Thompson said.
However, for a course with multiple sections taught by different professors, the department faculty often form a committee to determine course materials for such classes, Thompson said.
This is the case for LFIT. Darin Padua, the chairperson of the department of exercise and sport science, said a faculty committee reviews course materials and provides recommendations on content to be covered.
“21st Century Wellness,” first used in fall 2017 for the required LFIT course, included controversial claims about Holocaust victims and diseases like cancer.
Referencing a theory by a Holocaust survivor, the book said Holocaust victims “succumbed to the brutality” in concentration camps if they did not tap into strength that comes from “recognizing their intrinsic worth.”
The book claimed some experts have begun referring to cancer, dementia and other illnesses as “diseases of choice.” An excerpt also said: “When obsessed with weight, many if not most women and some men have become habitual dieters.”
Abigail Panter, the senior associate dean for undergraduate education, issued a statement in July saying edits of the textbook were not able to be made in time for spring 2018. She said the EXSS department was reviewing the textbook in collaboration with the publisher Perceivant for fall 2018.
In August, Associate Vice Chancellor of University Communications Beth Keith released a statement confirming edits were made to “21st Century Wellness” for fall 2018.
“Among other changes, the publisher has confirmed that references to the Holocaust and to cancer as ‘a disease of choice’ had already been removed from the fall 2018 edition,” the statement said.
Thompson said the general response by him and his colleagues was shock and disappointment at the LFIT textbook’s excerpts.
“The administration and faculty that I know were appalled to see these sections of the text that the student described as blaming the victim, and it certainly sounded like that,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he isn’t aware of another incident in the University’s history similar to this summer’s events. He doesn’t think it will become a common occurrence, so the process of course material approval will not change.
“This is the first time that something like this has emerged,” he said. “I’d really love to believe and, in fact, do believe that this isn’t the tip of an iceberg, and there’s all kinds of zany stuff out there that we should catch in a review.”
In regards to an EXSS class besides LFIT in which multiple sections are taught by different professors, the process of forming faculty committees is the same as other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“In some cases, the faculty committee has recommended to use the same text book across different classes,” Padua said. “For example, in EXSS 175 (Human Anatomy) and EXSS 276 (Human Physiology), the same textbook is used across all course sections for both courses. This allows students to use the same textbook for both classes, which we hope helps to keep textbook costs as low as possible for students.”
Sherry Salyer, the director of undergraduate studies in the EXSS department, said the department’s processes will not change in light of this summer’s events related to LFIT.
Panter's July statement said the EXSS department received feedback about the LFIT textbook in spring 2018. However, Thompson said the first he heard about the controversy was the original News & Observer article in July, in which a student approached a reporter about the textbook’s excerpts.
“A student had a legitimate, appropriate objection, and it got aired, and we responded to it,” Thompson said. “I’m glad that this student brought this to light, however they did it, whatever platform they used. It was a problem; they identified it, and it’s now corrected.”
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