Mad at School

This text forces us to take a close look at some of our deeply held assumptions about the academy and those who are included within.

Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Higher education often depends on the work of a rational mind. Aristotle’s famous declaration that man is a rational animal is so ingrained in our understanding of education and scholarship today that concepts such as reason, rationality, and critical thinking have infiltrated what we consider to be a good liberal arts education. The academy as a place of reason is a bellicose trope so familiar that it has become definitive of what it means to become an scholar. But what happens to those who are not rational animals? Margaret Price wants us to consider the flip side to Aristotle’s proclamation. What happens to those who do not always think rationally? What becomes of the faculty member who has such severe, crushing anxiety that she abhors teaching or presenting under the bright lights of a professional conference. What happens to the student who suffers from such debilitating chronic depression that he cannot make it to class on a regular basis? There is an obvious bias towards ableism in higher education and this is a book about the ways in which academic institutions, as they are currently designed and organized, exclude people with mental disabilities. Using rhetoric as the frame, each chapter outlines an area of institutional practice that needs to be reformed, rethought, reconfigured, and revised in order to provide all students, faculty, and staff with access and inclusion in higher education. In six chapters, this book covers a range of subjects pertaining to the erasure of the mentally disabled in academe. Price focuses on definitions of mental disability, how conceptions of space and time intersect with the work of mentally disabled students and faculty, the concepts of collegiality and productivity as they pertain to faculty roles, media representations of mentally disabled individuals in the wake of school shootings, mental disability as autobiography and memoir, and independent scholars and mental disability.

Price analyzes the rhetoric and discourse surrounding mental disabilities in higher education. She is interested in the ways that mental disability affect the lives of students, faculty, and staff and the ways that mental disability is identified and valued (or devalued) in this space. She notes that academics with mental disability are largely excluded from academic discourse: “The instruments of exclusion are not visible or dramatic—men in white coats dragging people away—but quiet, insidious: We flunk out or drop out. We fail to get tenure. We take jobs as adjuncts rather than tenure-track faculty. We transfer schools; we find a way to get a job or a degree elsewhere. Or not” (p. 6). Price reveals how individuals suffering from mental disabilities—which she defines broadly to include not only intellectual and developmental disabilities, but also autism, learning disabilities, and mental illnesses—are excluded, ignored, and targeted in higher education, which is an institution that privileges ableism through “the construction of rigid, elitist, hierarchical, and inhumane academic system” (p. 8). And those who are not excluded are “presumed not to be competent, nor understandable, nor valuable, nor whole” (p. 10). Persons with mental disabilities are often viewed as nonhuman. Not only are the irrational/the mad/the mentally disabled often barred from participating in academe, they are not rational animals in Aristotelian sense. They lose their personhood.

In the first chapter, “Listening to the Subject of Mental Disability,” Price introduces the topic of rhetoric and explains that it is not only the way that we communicate with one another, as in speaking and writing, but it also works in visual ways and even the subtle ways like the expression on our faces or the attitudes that we bring to each other. She argues that to be disabled mentally is to be disabled rhetorically. She asks us to consider “what happens to the rhetor who cannot be ‘listened’ to—because ze is not present, or fails to participate in discussions, or fails to ‘make sense’ on a neurotypical scale” (p. 44). Price is working from a perspective drawn from disability studies. She carefully deconstructs the values that are privileged and embedded within the academy. Among these are the idea that all educated minds are rational and are able to “make sense” of the world around them. Price argues that many individuals who are mentally disabled lack rhetoricity, the ability to be received as a valid human subject, barring them from fully participating in the institution. She contends that the mentally disabled are viewed as “Other” in academic discourse because academe is premised on the idea of reason and rationality as normality.

The second chapter, “Ways to Move: Presence, Participation, and Resistance in Kairotic Space,” examines what Price deems “kairotic spaces,” which draw on the rhetorical concept of kairos, a Greek word that is often translated as “the opportune moment” or “the right time.” Kairotic spaces are informal sites of close personal contact (often face-to-face, but not always) in which power (she draws on Foucault) and knowledge are exchanged, and which have high stakes for one or more of the participants. She argues that these spaces are made even more challenging for those suffering from mental disabilities. Kairotic spaces are marked by “the real-time unfolding of events; impromptu communication that is required or encouraged; in-person contact; a strong social element; and high stakes” (p. 61). In this chapter, Price also calls into question the unstated assumption of what it means to be “present” in the classroom. Price raises paradigm-challenging questions, for example, asking how do we accommodate students whose participation in the classroom falls outside of normative expectations. Often composition instructors will assign group work in the classroom to give students more opportunities to engage with the material and to create a participatory space, but students who are anxious and neuroatypical may find that group work produces barriers to engagement with ideas and texts. These small groups may be fraught for students with mental disabilities rather than offering greater opportunities for participation. Price calls for professors, campus administrators, and staff at universities to imagine that students who do not attend class, do not send emails, do not register with the office of disabilities may be students with mental disabilities. Rather than assuming these students are merely lazy or unmotivated, we might think that they are being denied access to the classroom through the assumptions about rhetoric.

The third chapter, “The Essential Functions of the Position: Collegiality and Productivity,” focuses on the ideas of collegiality and productivity in the context of faculty expectations. Price discusses two kairotic spaces: the job interview and the academic conference and how those faculty with mental disabilities may find themselves punished in these spaces. The pressures associated with academic life, especially the triumvirate of “teaching, scholarship, and service,” make academic life more stressful for members of the professoriate with mental disabilities. She asks whether people with schizophrenia or agoraphobia can be professors. It is clear that she wants to answer yes to this question, but she admits that the institutions and structures “will require enormous, paradigm-shifting changes to some of the academe’s most dearly held tenets” (p. 112). In the classroom, she suggests that we look to the principles of Universal Design to reform the structures that keep the mentally disabled from being fully accepted.

In the forth chapter, “Assaults on the Ivory Tower: Representations of Madness in Discourse of US School Shootings,” Price looks at representations of “madness” in reports of school shootings. She focuses on Cho Seung-Hui (who killed thirty people at Virginia Tech in 2007) and Steve Kazmierczak (who killed seven people at Northern Illinois University in 2008). In both cases, the academy is represented as a “sanctuary of reason” (p. 145), while the shooters were clearly demarcated into the realm of insanity against the normality around them. She shows how representations of Cho and Kazmierczak relied on stereotypes of mental disability in order to explain the violence. She addresses the faulty causal link between madness and violence instead promoting accurate statistics that show how individuals with mental disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. This chapter should be mandatory reading for college administrators and college public safety departments.

The fifth chapter, “Her Pronouns Wax and Wane: Mental Disability, Autobiography, and Counter-Diagnosis,” examines how pronoun references in three autobiographic texts from writers with mental disabilities challenge the conventions of the autobiography genre and challenge the relationship between ableist and mentally disabled perceptions. Price examines three “memoirs of affliction” for her analysis. She claims that these are examples of counter-diagnosis, narratives “that claim authority not in spite of, but through and because of, their mental disabilities” (p. 179). Counter-diagnosis produces narratives through a couple of strategies. The first of which is called creative coherence which generates dissembling and structural features of a text that work against the usual ways we rely upon disability narratives. The second strategy is proliferation which tells a story through multiple voices. Counter-diagnosis is a way of challenging, attacking, and queering standard institutional mental disability narratives.

The book’s penultimate chapter, “In/ter/dependent Scholarship with Leah (Phinnia) Meredith, Cal Montgomery, and Tynan Power,” examines independent scholars “whose views are not readily accessible through conventional academic scholarship” (p. 201) because they do not teach, because they do not publish in academic journals, or because they are outside of the conventional academic norm in some other way. Much of the writing done by independent scholars is viewed as only personal and not scholarly. It may be assumed that many independent scholars have chosen a life outside of the academy. “However,” Price points out, “given the inaccessibility of teaching (and speaking, and writing) spaces available in academe, it becomes evident that avoidance of these spaces may be a survival strategy rather than a true choice” (p. 228). Price proposes that we rethink scholarship from both inside and outside the academy as interdependent scholarship.

I found this book to be powerful and relevant because I am a graduate student with a mental disability who strives to be a part of and endeavors to carve out an academic career in an academic institution. As compelling as I think this text is, I also find it difficult to imagine what the alternatives to some of the issues she raises are. One powerful suggestion she made was that of creating a collaborative environment in the classroom for those with mental disabilities. Instead of simply meeting the legal obligation of putting a statement on disabilities within the syllabus, Price suggests that we invite all students to consider how class assignments might be modified to accommodate and encourage their access and participation. At the same time, as funding for public education is being cut and as high-stakes testing is becoming the pinnacle of assessment, it is difficult to see how things can drastically change. Instructors who are committed to accommodation and access for those with mental disabilities may have their hands tied by administrative forces. I am left wondering in what ways might instructors organize their classrooms, class activities, assignments, and policies to recognize and be inclusive of students with disabilities? In what ways might students with disabilities approach faculty about their disability (how much is too much to share) and what might they expect in return?  I am also wondering how do we critique the biomedical model of psychiatry that fetishizes genes, brain structure, and neurochemical chemistry over the lived experience of individuals with mental disabilities. I believe this plays a huge role in how we think about the “Others” with mental disabilities.