Higher education often depends on the work of the mind: thinking, studying, researching, teaching, learning, and interacting. But what happens to college and university faculty and students when their ways of being diverge from general expectations? This question drives Margaret Price's book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, and the answers Price provides are stark and surprising. Through incisive analyses of a broad range of academic discourses and practices, Price reveals how individuals with what she terms mental disabilities—which she defines broadly to include not only intellectual and developmental disabilities, but also autism, learning disabilities, and psychosocial disabilities and mental illnesses—are persistently excluded, ignored, and targeted in higher education. In addition to calling attention to this discrimination, Price actively narrates and reimagines a broad range of exclusionary discourses and practices in order to effect productive change in colleges and universities.
Price shows the workings of mental disability in the academy by examining what she calls "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." For Price, kairotic spaces are informal sites of close personal contact (often face-to-face, but not always) in which power and knowledge are exchanged, and which have high stakes for one or more of the participants (60-61). She argues that such spaces can be particularly challenging for those with mental disabilities. A broad range of kairotic spaces are examined in the six chapters that comprise Mad at School: college classrooms; job interviews and academic conferences; news and media discourses about mental disability; memoirs; and independent scholarship and activist research.
I found the notion of kairotic space to be resonant with my own experiences negotiating the academy as a disabled faculty member. As Price argues, those who easily move through kairotic spaces often fail to notice the ways that these spaces exclude or marginalize other ways of "making sense" in the academy. When I make accommodation requests, for instance, people are often surprised to find out that a particular seating arrangement is problematic, or that I have trouble following certain types of interaction. Furthermore, as Price points out, the high stakes and power dynamics involved in kairotic spaces can make it difficult for individuals to enact necessary changes or even to pursue accommodation at all. For example, in Chapter 2, "Ways to Move: Presence, Participation, and Resistance in Kairotic Space," Price notes that "being present" in class usually has a specific definition that includes physical appearance in class, vocal participation in class discussion, and eye contact, and excludes various forms of virtual "presence," active listening, and awkward or unusual body language. That the kairotic spaces of the academy are inhospitable to mental disability is most starkly illustrated in Chapter 6, "In/ter/dependent Scholarship," where co-authors Leah (Phinnia) Meredith, Cal Montgomery, Tynan Power, and Price shed light on the work being done outside the bounds of academe by independent scholars actively writing, publishing, and disseminating academic research. The unfolding interviews—as well as the research methodology employed by Price in constructing this small-scale qualitative study—showcase how these faculty function as independent scholars, in part because they are excluded by academe's relatively restricted set of acceptable practices.
Kairotic spaces are not solely physical sites, though much of Mad at School focuses on arenas with high face-to-face contact. In Chapter 4, "Assaults on the Ivory Tower," Price considers kairotic spaces that are created by popular discourses. I found this chapter's analysis of violent episodes on two college campuses to be utterly groundbreaking. On April 16, 2007, undergraduate student Seung-Hui Cho killed 30 people on the campus of Virginia Tech University. Not quite a year later, on February 14, 2008, graduate student Steve Kazmierczak walked into a classroom at Northern Illinois University and opened fire, killing six people. Price's analyses of popular media discourses surrounding these incidents of school violence reveal how stereotypical representations of mental disability are and were constructed and circulated in order to explicitly separate these students from "normal" students. As Price notes, news accounts of Kazmierczak rarely called attention to his whiteness, while accounts of Cho frequently remarked upon his ethnicity and nationality, but for both men, mental disability figured prominently in representations of them. In this way, mental disability functions as a dividing line, reinforced by the unstated assumption that mental disability is that "other," that sign "of deviance that will separate the killers from 'us'" (151). These discourses frame mental disability as the antithesis of what it means to succeed in academe.
But Mad at School does far more than critique academic discourse. Within each chapter, Price works to transform kairotic spaces within the academy by offering specific strategies for making academic discourse more inclusive. Faculty at all levels will find particularly useful the set of recommendations for transforming pedagogy at the end of Chapter 2, as well as Price's pointed suggestions for making professional activities more humane at the end of Chapter 3. For example, in addressing what it means to be present in the classroom, Price urges teachers to rearticulate pedagogies and classroom practices through digital technologies so students might attend class virtually; she also suggests ways that academic conferences might consider schedule and space modifications that would expand presence and enhance accessibility.
In her introduction, Price calls her book a "smorgasbord" rather than a single argument threaded throughout six chapters (21). I found this to be both one of the book's strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, as Price takes readers on a tour of different kairotic spaces within academic discourse, she shows that contested interpretations within kairotic space are ubiquitous: no two people experience the same kairotic space in identical ways. Price analyzes a wide range of materials, and she adapts her analytic process accordingly. However, as Price leads readers through different kairotic spaces, I found myself wanting more explanation of her methodological choices in order to better connect her analyses. In Chapter 1, Price identifies her primary methodology as critical discourse analysis, citing Ellen Barton as a key influence (Barton), and in each chapter she carefully defines her objects of analysis. But I wanted more discussion of how she came to identify the "rich features" within the data, particularly in Chapters 4 and 5. The most thoughtful description of her method and analytic decisions appears in Chapter 6, which is drawn from an empirical interview study with three independent scholars.
Chapter 5, "Her Pronouns Wax and Wane," takes a careful look at three memoirs of mental disability. Following on the heels of Chapter 4, which looks at the ways mental disabilities are constructed by public discourses, Chapter 5 offers "counter-diagnosis" and self-advocacy as ways for speakers to contest the insidious and pervasive public discourses surrounding mental disability. However, there is relatively little explicit linking between this chapter and the others in the book. Consequently, for readers making their way through the book, a chapter analyzing pronoun use in three different memoirs is an anomaly for readers who have—up through the first four chapters—been firmly grounded in the physical and virtual spaces of university life: academic research, teaching, professional discourses, and popular writing about the academy.
These are, however, minor quibbles. The book is a must-read, with appeal for both general academic and disability studies audiences, and is designed to have maximum impact within university culture. The readability of Price's prose makes hers an important book to put in the hands of university administrators and teachers of all stripes. Further, to my eyes, Chapter 2 would be especially useful for a graduate seminar or teaching practicum, and Chapter 4 would be a terrific inclusion in a wide variety of undergraduate courses. As I read this book, I found myself making notes detailing ways that I plan to revise my teaching and my academic practices and develop strategies for self-advocacy. Above all, Mad at School renewed my commitment to making the academy a welcoming place for those who are "mad at school." I believe this book will radically transform the terrain of academic life for the better, for everyone.
- Barton, Ellen. "Inductive Discourse Analysis: Discovering Rich Features." Discourse Studies in Composition. Ed. Ellen Barton and Gail Stygall. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002. 19-42.