For students of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Assistant Professor and Athletic Training Clinical Education Coordinator Lynette Carlson, the proverbial picture is worth a thousand words. Or many more.
Two years ago amid the pandemic, Carlson hatched the idea of single-slide graphic novels—four-panel comic strips drawn by a now-former student—to teach cultural competencies such as ethics, compassion and humility.
One comic shows a female, wheelchair-bound basketball player who moves from the basketball court to a school hallway. Another student assumes she needs “help” and insists on pushing her chair.
“Let go of my chair!” the disabled athlete yells. The wannabe good Samaritan says: “Chill, I was just trying to help. Geez.” The woman responds: “If I wanted your help I would have asked! And you can’t just touch people or their chairs without their consent, okay?!” The good Samaritan apologizes and concedes, “I shouldn’t have assumed.”
Another graphic slide shows an older woman on an airliner asking a tall, beefy stranger to retrieve her bag from the overhead bin and asking him what football position he plays. “I’ve never played football … but thanks,” he responds.
The point, Carlson said, is to make students think before acting on any preconceptions.
“So I’m doing a study right now, where I’m having them take a pre-survey and a post-survey, and asking them about their cultural competency—questions like, ‘Do you believe that bias can impact patient care?’ for example. And so I’m starting to measure how well the graphics move their cultural humility forward,” Carlson said.
“Also part of that survey is how much did you like this activity? So compared to reading paragraphs or being lectured on something, did you enjoy reading a comic strip and discussing it? ‘Yes’ is the answer, of course. Anything that’s not traditional methods, students tend to like.”
Bry Edwards, who graduated from UTC in 2021 with a Master of Science in athletic training, began doodling at a young age. After seeing her sketches, Carlson enlisted Edwards to help illustrate her comics.
“Anime, Netflix and graphic novels have had a huge impact on my generation and age group,” Edwards said. “It’s bringing that kind of idea of teaching these harder concepts to make it easier to interpret. It’s an easier gateway than reading an essay article about something you don’t understand. It has a little bit of personal anecdote.”
Edwards, who is now a high school outreach athletic trainer through Emory Sports Medicine in Atlanta, said Carlson has done a great job tailoring her lessons to the times.
“I hope the comics give that same energy to people and help people to understand others better,” she said.
Carlson shares her comics with other universities, such as research partner University of California Long Beach. Also sharing her comics are Carthage College in Wisconsin, the University of South Carolina, Michigan State University, Lee University in nearby Cleveland, Tennessee, the University of Mary in North Dakota and the University of Alabama.
UTC students come from all over the country and from diverse backgrounds, she said. The graphic comics are an icebreaker.
“A lot of us grew up looking at comic strips,” Carlson said. “This is just a really fun way to talk about differences.”
The assistant professor grew up four miles outside the village of Woodhull, Illinois, on a pig farm. She graduated from AlWood High School and finished her undergraduate degree at Southern Illinois University. She fell in love with the forest and rolling hills and wanted to move further Southeast.
“UTC had one of the few accredited graduate athletic training programs at the time and I was lucky enough to get a spot,” she said. Then it was a master’s in athletic training from UTC and a doctorate of health science from Midwestern University near Chicago, where Carlson spent a half season as a trainer for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky.
Eric Smith of Marietta, Georgia, graduated from UTC on May 5 with a master’s degree in athletic training. He said Carlson would display the graphic comics and have one student read as one character while another read the other role.
“We would give our own unique perspectives on what we were talking about,” he said. “I think it’s interesting. The No. 1 way you can have these conversations is by talking with a person who has these circumstances. The next best way is to visualize it.
“People have such unique backgrounds. We assume certain things about behavior or how people perceive things. There are so many different scenarios and situations where you really don’t know,” Smith said. “When you bring us these graphic novels, you go, ‘OK, this is how I would have perceived it.’ It opens up the discussion a lot easier.”