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Composition Forum 25, Spring 2012

Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2011. 279 pp.

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Christina Fisanick

Over the past several decades, writing scholars, such as Diane P. Freedman, Kristi Fleckenstein, and Jennifer Bay, have explored the impact of the mind/body split that is so prevalent in the Ivory Tower, but in her book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price explores the effects of the mind/mind split on teaching and writing. Using disability studies and rhetorical theory as tools, she illuminates some of the issues facing mentally disabled university students and teachers. Ultimately, she explores the presumptions teacher-scholars have in regards to the totality of the rationale mind and recommends strategies for embracing multiple ways of being in academe.

Price opens her book with an analysis of medical and academic discourses and points to the ways in which these often disparate epistemologies collide. She argues that there is little room in the academy for mentally disabled students or professors, insisting that they are all but erased from the acceptable ways of being and doing higher education. She makes her argument through the lens of rhetorical theory, noting that “persons with mental disabilities are presumed not to be competent, nor understandable, nor valuable, nor whole” (26). Obviously, as a self-described professor with a mental disability, Price is deeply concerned about the erasure of mentally disabled persons. She asserts that this erasure begins in the very definition of what it means to be a professor.

Using the rhetorical term topoi to frame her investigation, Price sets out to examine the means by which being a successful professor is normalized. Given that topoi help determine the rhetor’s character, understanding the ways in which a “good professor” is defined is essential to her argument that mentally disabled persons are effectively silenced in the academy. A few of her topoi include rationality, presence, participation, and collegiality. Failure to be able to perform any of these tasks well results in exclusion from the Ivory Tower. She notes, “The instruments of exclusion are not visible or dramatic—men in white coats dragging people away—but quiet, insidious: We flunk out and drop out. We fail to get tenure” (6). In other words, Price is not arguing that universities overtly discriminate against mentally disabled persons, but rather, the infrastructure that supports the existing university system leaves no room for persons who do not fit these silently expressed norms.

Determining these norms, however, is another task altogether and one that Price takes up in chapter three. As she notes, “Most people agree on the traditional triad teaching-scholarship-service, but some would add a fourth requirement—collegiality—and others do not agree on what constitute appropriate forms or quantities of teaching, scholarship, or service” (107). Although some persons may argue that the line must be drawn somewhere, Price insists that the implied job description of “university professor” can be expanded to accommodate mentally disabled persons while still maintaining a sense of the professoriate as community. For instance, professors suffering from social anxiety who cannot present papers at conferences might find equally public, but less disturbing, venues for discussing their research findings. Price suggests that workshops and special interest groups (SIGs) fill this void by allowing participants with disabilities a chance to discuss their research with colleagues without being in situations that might worsen their disabilities. Both opportunities showcase scholarly work in ways similar to a panel or solo presentation.

Price’s focus, though, is not squarely on the classroom, the space where we imagine the “real” business of the university taking place, but rather in what she calls, kairotic space (60). Borrowing again from rhetorical theory, in chapter two she defines kairotic space as “the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (60). She gives as examples question and answer sessions at conferences, on-campus interviews, and departmental parties. In these spaces, where a person is judged on his or her ability to interact “appropriately” (62), Price argues that mentally disabled persons often lose their ground in the academy. An inability to interact in a way perceived to be normal according to current university standards limits the success of students and teachers who suffer from a range of mental disabilities, including depression and anxiety.

Chapter four is perhaps the most compelling section of the text. In it, Price analyzes the rhetorical aftermath of two university shootings and their infamous gunmen: Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech and Steven Kazmierczak at Northern Illinois University. In addition to providing a compelling analysis of the newspaper coverage about the shooters and their states of mind, Price takes to task the role of writing teachers as psychiatric diagnosticians. She states that for years compositionists have called for writing teachers to avoid playing the role of therapist when reading student writing. Even scholars, such as Wendy Bishop, who encourage teachers to pay closer attention to emotion caution instructors to avoid “‘rushing out and practicing without a license’” (167). Nonetheless, following the shootings, many academics and non-academics alike argued that the sinister nature of these students and their lethal rampages could have been discerned from their writing. The publication and wide circulation of their writing “brought forth a torrent of speculation between teaching, therapy, writing, free speech, and violence” (168).

As partial evidence for what she sees as a turn in the field, Price critically examines the May 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education that included responses to Cho’s writing. Written by writing teachers, these responses show an extreme bias against mentally disabled students and reveal what Price argues has been in the backdrop of higher education all along: “how deeply held is the widespread desire to dig a moat between madness and academic discourse” (170). In the end of this chapter, she discourages writing teachers from speculating on the mental well being of students by examining their writing. Not only will the diagnosis be inaccurate; it only further entrenches the binary between normal and not.

Of the few limitations of Price’s study, the most concerning is a lack of direct connection between each section. Particularly, I would like to have seen more associations drawn between the first four chapters and the last two. For example, chapter five’s focus on pronouns in autobiographical writing and chapter six’s analysis of three inter-dependent scholars could have been better linked to the teaching of writing. Instead, Price leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about how these pieces tie in to the predominant thread of the book. Nonetheless, both chapters provide a compelling look at how mentally disabled writers teach and engage in scholarship. In chapter five she examines pronoun usage in three texts: A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World by Susanne Antonetta, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater, and “Her Reckoning: A Young Interdisciplinary Academic Dissects the Exact Nature of Her Disease” by Wendy Marie Thompson. Specifically, Price argues that the meanings of “I,” “you,” “she,” and other pronouns cannot be taken for granted in autobiographies written by disabled persons but provide a rich linguistic tapestry that explores the vast complexities of living disabled. In chapter six she provides analysis of the lives of three disabled, independent scholars: women who are not affiliated with an institution of higher learning but continue to engage in rigorous scholarly activity. In light of the limitations the academy places on disabled persons, Price calls for a recognition of such scholars and their work as inter-dependent. In other words, she argues that scholarship that contributes to a field of study but takes place beyond the boundaries of traditional academic affiliations co-exists with, but is not subsumed by, the Ivory Tower.

Most importantly, however, is that Price gives concrete suggestions for how readers might respond to students and colleagues with mental disabilities. She includes a discussion of Ticket2Talk, a device used to display the names and interests of conference goers on monitors when they stand next to specially designed electronic readers. Price argues that the use of such monitors will encourage comingling amongst participants and will help persons who struggle with mental disabilities be able to better participate in one of the key kariotic spaces of conferences, the break-out sessions. At one point Price says, “We might justifiably ask why it is deemed acceptable to design conferences as events that involve expensive airplane travel and accommodation in elegant hotels, but not as events at which all participants can access the information exchanged once there” (127). As a frequent conference goer, I can see the benefit of such a device to engage as many participants as possible in fruitful academic exchanges. It seems that Ticket2Talk would work just as well for disabled persons as it would for graduate students and other attendees new to their fields. Instead of being seen as bodies or as reputations alone, participants could be introduced as ideas.

Ultimately, this book is a pedagogical tool that teaches writing teachers to understand their students and their colleagues. As a teacher-scholar who suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), I was already sensitive to the range of mental states of my students, but until I read Price’s book, I had not given my colleagues the same consideration. I am certain that I will be a better community member and teacher for having read it. In addition, Price’s audience is not bound to disability scholars alone. Anyone interested in understanding their students and improving the working lives of their colleagues can learn from her research. In the sixteen years I have worked in this field, I have learned that tradition is valuable only when it serves all of us equally. If what is needed is a reimagining of the kariotic spaces of academic life, then we should certainly look to scholars like Price for suggestions on how we can work together to embark on those changes.

Works Cited

Bishop, Wendy. “Writing Is/And Therapy? Raising Questions about Writing Classrooms and Writing Program Administration. JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory. 13.2 (1993): 503-16. Print.

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