Margaret Price. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. xiv + 279 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-472-07138-8; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-472-05138-0; ISBN 978-0-472-02798-9.
Reviewed by Corrine C. Bertram (Shippensburg University)
Published on H-Disability (February, 2012)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison
Can Higher Education as Discourse and Institution “Measure Up to Us?”
I have taught in four higher education settings, all public. Two were large undergraduate colleges, one was a Research 1 university, and one was a university with a teaching emphasis. The setting that was most unwelcoming and undermining of students and faculty members with mental disabilities was the most elite. In that institution, colleagues were served with restraining orders without cause. Upon closer inspection, the reason seemed to be for challenging the decision-making of administrators and department chairs through appropriate channels. Their mental health status and classroom demeanor were used as evidence of a lack of collegiality. University police officers and faculty disciplinary committee members were warned about “unstable” students who had filed formal grievances even when those being informed were serving on committees where they would need to be impartial to hear the students’ cases.
In my current appointment, mental health and disability issues pervade my work routine, most obviously in my interactions with students. In the past semester alone, I have encountered several students with health conditions--some mental disabilities, some physical health concerns--students who are managing cystic fibrosis; who are bipolar and working with psychologists and psychiatrists to regulate medication; who have undergone an unanticipated C-section; who have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder; and who are coping with post-traumatic stress after combat experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan. This was not an unusual semester and these are only an accounting of the students who have e-mailed me privately, talked to me during office hours or between classes, disclosed their mental health diagnoses and neuroatypicalities in formal classroom papers, reading responses, or in-class discussions. These students that I describe have been excluded from, strive to be a part of, and endeavor to carve out academic careers within academic institutions. They, as well as the institutions that they occupy, are the topic of Margaret Price’s compelling book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Price’s title carries a double meaning--referring to both people with mental disabilities in higher education, and their/our frustration with educational settings which marginalize people with mental disabilities after the American with Disabilities Act, Brown v. Board of Education, and Title IX.
Price’s work explores the ways in which academic institutions, as they are currently organized, exclude people with mental disabilities. Using rhetors and rhetoric as a frame that holds the book together, each chapter outlines an area of institutional practice that needs to be transformed, rethought, reconfigured, and revised in order to provide all students, faculty, and staff with access and inclusion in higher education. In chapter 1, “Listening to the Subject of Mental Disability,” Price argues that disabled subjects, perhaps particularly those with cognitive, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities, challenge the assumptions of liberal subjectivity through their salient interdependence and collaboration. Some of this chapter was rough going for this social scientist, particularly the sections on the history of Greek/Roman meaning and usage of reason. I found Price more “relatable,” as her students say, in other chapters. Price tackles the informal spaces and practices of higher education in chapter 2, “Ways to Move: Presence, Participation, and Resistance in Kairotic Space.” Here, she suggests that less formal academic spaces such as conferences, meetings, and class discussions operate under a set of assumptions that exclude students with mental disabilities. Price moves to a discussion of these kairotic spaces that faculty occupy as subjects in chapter 3, “The Essential Functions of the Position: Collegiality and Productivity.” Chapter 4, “Assaults on the Ivory Tower: Representations of Madness in the Discourse of US School Shootings,” should be mandatory reading for college administrators and campus police departments. In this chapter, Price revisits the discourse surrounding the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois shootings and the faulty causal link between madness and violence. She also challenges a dual assumption of the media coverage and institutional responses--1) that the academy is free from both mental disabilities and violence, and 2) that we might intervene in response to these occurrences and return to settings free from these Others. She presents the compelling data that students with disabilities are more likely to be at risk of suicide, and harassment from their classmates and roommates, and that 86 percent withdraw from college. In chapter 5, “Her Pronouns Wax and Wane: Mental Disability, Autobiography, and Counter-Diagnosis,” she examines three texts which she claims as examples of counterdiagnosis, narratives “that claim authority not in spite of, but through and because of, their mental disabilities” (p. 179). Counterdiagnosis produces narratives through two strategies. Creative incoherence generates dissembling and structural features of a text that work against the usual ways we rely upon disability narratives and proliferation tells a story through multiple voices, some or all of which may be part of self. Chapter 6, “In/ter/dependent Scholarship with Leah (Phinnia) Meredith, Cal Montgomery, and Tynan Power,” calls for an application of universal design principles to qualitative research through her interview-based research with three interdependent scholars. Although some scholarship describes independent scholars as choosing their marginal role to academic institutions, Price challenges this by arguing that access to the academy has been denied to many of them. In fact, much of the writing of people with mental disabilities is viewed as only personal and not scholarly because of the tendency to link disability with decreased cognitive ability; as affective components of writing increase, suspicion of the intellectual merits of the arguments also increases.
My review of Price’s book is partial; it is situated by my academic discipline (psychology) and my recent rediscovery of disability studies work and its overlap with my teaching and scholarship on the psychology of social justice and injustice. Over the last year and a half, I have participated in a disability studies reading group on my campus organized by Allison Carey, the author of On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth Century America (2009). Through this group and Price’s text, I know that my academic discipline is often critiqued for its role in marginalizing people with mental disabilities. Although I do not wish to be an apologist for psychology, there are locations within academic psychology where emotion is considered an epistemological reservoir rather than “noise” that must be controlled for in scientific research or evidence of symptomatology that meet DSM criteria, places where we resist the “appetite for diagnosis” (p. 190). For one example, in research on survivors of sexual violence, emotions are described as sources of knowledge by survivors, researchers, and students. Critical and feminist psychologies have a host of well-respected scholars who challenge the “diagnose and treat” approach to mental disabilities, including Gail Hornstein, author of Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness (2009). That said, I do recognize that mainstream psychology has significant problems with understanding disabilities and neuroatypicalities as anything other than pathological.
Price’s book was simultaneously humbling for me to read and empowering. Although I felt challenged by her analysis of classrooms that do not accommodate, recognize, or configure themselves to work for and with students with mental disabilities, she also provides sections of the book that guide a motivated reader to consider alternate classroom practices and arrangements. For example, Price outlines a set of recommendations for teachers that provide a roadmap for professors. For example, rather than simply meeting the legal obligation to provide a statement on disabilities within our syllabi, Price suggests that we invite all students, those who have registered with the campus office serving students with disabilities and those who have not, to consider how class assignments might be modified to accommodate and encourage their access and participation.
My overwhelming reaction to Price’s book is feeling challenged and convicted by her analysis of classroom practices, even well-intentioned ones, that exclude students with mental disabilities. For example, many faculty members, myself included, incorporate group activities and assignments, sometimes happening within the classroom, one of the many academic locations Price describes as kairotic space, “less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (p. 60). We often assign group work to create more opportunities for students to engage with classroom material, to create participatory space, but group work for students who are anxious or neuroatypical in other ways may produce barriers to engagement with ideas and texts. Small groups may be fraught for students with mental disabilities rather than offering greater opportunities for participation. At times I wished there was more of a critique at a structural or cultural level. It seemed as if Price’s criticism of classroom practices often rested on the shoulders of teachers, failing to acknowledge the burdens of teaching in higher education at the beginning of the twenty-first century when funding for public education is being cut while administrative positions are expanding, as high-stakes testing as the pinnacle of assessment migrates from high schools into colleges and universities, and as class sizes and faculty workloads increase. Many of us have commitments to social justice and meaningful inclusion for students with disabilities within institutions of higher education and are also challenged by the additional responsibilities we have, perhaps particularly in teaching institutions.
Perhaps the most challenging piece of Price’s argument for me occurred in her chapter on the classroom. I saw myself in many of her examples and felt moved to change the way I respond to students amid my reading of the book. Price calls for professors, administrators, and staff members at colleges and universities to imagine that students who do not attend class, do not send e-mails, do not register with the office for students with disabilities on campus may be students with mental disabilities. Rather than assuming that these students are lazy or unmotivated--that they lack some internal trait that is necessary to succeed in higher education--we might think that they are being denied access to our classrooms through the assumptions about rhetoric. What many would label “classroom disruptions” may, in fact, be communications from students indicating that they cannot keep up with the pace at which material is being presented, that the material being presented is provocative, and that their "selves" are more complex than the classroom environment allows. Here, I believe psychology as a discipline can be helpful to disability studies with the concept of the fundamental attribution error--people overestimate the degree to which others’ behaviors are due to their personalities and dispositions rather than to their contexts, situations, and circumstances.
I am left with questions at both the level of theory and praxis for disability studies scholars critical of my disciplinary framework, questions for Price herself. How do we both deliver a critique of the biomedical model of psychiatry and psychology--its fetishizing of genes, brain structure, and chemistry--and acknowledge the lived experience of many mentally disabled people who find their lives more manageable and satisfying with the aid of psychotropic medications? This question runs parallel to other work in disability studies that has begun to acknowledge the pain and suffering accompanying some forms of disability. In terms of teaching, in what ways might we organize our syllabi, class activities, assignments, classroom policies, etc. that recognize students with disabilities and neuroatypicalities to allow multiple forms of participation in the process of education?
. Corrine C. Bertram and M. Sue Crowley, “Teaching about Sexual Violence in Higher Education: Moving from Concern to Conscious Resistance,” Frontiers (forthcoming); and Rebecca Campbell, “Emotionally Involved: The Impact of Researching Rape” (New York: Routledge, 2002).
. Lee Ross, “The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings: Distortions in the Attribution Process,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. Leonard Berkowitz (New York: Academic Press, 1977), 174-221.
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Corrine C. Bertram. Review of Price, Margaret, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life.
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