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Margaret Price's Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life

An Active Mind's picture

I just started reading Margaret Price’s Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life.   It came out a few weeks ago and I quickly ordered a copy on Amazon after a professor at Haverford who specializes in disability studies suggested that it would be an interesting read for my independent study.  Price is a professor of English at Spelman College and is interested in expanding disability studies to include those with mental disabilities or what she also calls “psychosocial disability” (a term she likes because "it bumps psych (soul) against social context", bridging the mind and world).  She is particularly interested in how the academy comes to exclude those with mental illnesses.  The book relates to a lot of what I (and the other Active Minds presidents) have been talking about with Anne in regards to mental illness and how the academic structure of colleges and universities often exacerbates students’ mental health problems.  For those who are suffering with a mental illness, coming to class, completing assignments by deadlines, or contributing to class discussions can be difficult. Price writes, “Academic discourse operates not just to omit, but to abhor mental disability—to reject it, to stifle and expel it” (8).  Like much of the work done in disability studies suggests, she tells us we must not think of certain individuals as having a problem, but look at how the institution itself may be faulty. 

 Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life

Margaret Price, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life

She suggests that academia is full of what she calls kairotic spaces, “less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (21).  These include the classroom atmosphere, where both presence and participation are often required, as well as conferences and job searches, where academics are expected to behave in a particular way, to follow the “rationale” of intellectual thought and conventional codes of social behavior in both their teaching as well as conversations with colleagues. 

When we think of the academy, we imagine liberal ideals and a longing for diversity and inclusion, rather than engagement in oppression or exclusion.  Doesn’t the academy prefer a multiplicity of minds that see various concepts and ideas from different perspectives?  Wouldn’t it be boring and perhaps even stifling if everyone were taught to think in the same way, to develop the same types of arguments, to employ the same organizational frameworks for expressing their thoughts?  Price suggests that the structure of the academic essay with its demands for “coherence”, logic, and rationale doesn’t allow for more “active minds” who may not be able to articulate their thoughts in the way the academy demands.  She asks, “…does the demonstration of coherence indicate a stronger mind?” (6).  What if students could start submitting pictures instead of essays, bullet points instead of paragraphs, or oral presentations instead of a final paper?  Price asks, “What transformation would need to occur before those who pursue academic discourse can be ‘heard’ (which I take to mean “respected”) , not in spite of our mental disabilities, but with an through them?” (8).  Like the “super crip” stories we’ve seen in the media that feature the disabled individual who overcomes his or her disability (a legless man running the marathon, etc), what if we thought of students with mental illnesses not as merely triumphing their illness by surviving the academy, but as using their illness to deepen their own work?  In the classroom, we often consider different genders and races to add diversity to the discussion, but what if someone’s experience with bi-polar disorder, depression, or anxiety, could illuminate academic conversations?   

More to come as I continue to read Mad at School during break!   


Anne Dalke's picture

"The rigour of the game"

Like Alice, I am moved by your evocation of the possibility of mental illnesses not merely "surviving" in the academy, but deepening the intellectual work of individuals. And I would add: thus expanding the potentialities of the larger institution, the possibilities that it offers to all.

I was also struck by Alice's introduction of the word "rigor" into this conversation. Our faculty working group on assessment has been talking (among other things) about the limited sphere of application of that word
(which generally drives me crazy and makes me think mostly of the stiffening of rigor mortis after death). So I went to wikipedia and found some further lines of exploration: might your bringing Margaret Price's work into this conversation invite us to think some more about concepts like double standard, uniform principles, consistency, pedantry, self-importance, quality control, accuracy, skepticism, intellectual honesty, principled positions....?

("Rigor" also has a particular physical valence for me this week, btw, because I seem to have torn some cartilage in my knee--so am thinking about --well, feeling, viscerally!-- the increasing lack of flexibility in my body as I age: I've got cracked rubber bands inside, ready to snap @ any too-quick pivoting... I am also realizing, viscerally, all the gates that prevent the free range of movement of this aged, increasingly stiff, body on the world stage: steps, for example, are very tough to negotiate right now. Also any task requiring much walking. And so I am thinking of all the gates that are keeping folks out of both physical and mental activity, all the barriers in academia preventing full play of varied human capacities...)

Anyhow, back to wikipedia:
Intellectual rigour: suspicion of double standard be allowed: uniform principles should be applied. This is a test of consistency, over cases, and to individuals or institutions ... Consistency can be at odds here with a forgiving attitude, adaptability, and the need to take precedent with a pinch of salt.

"The rigour of the game" is a quotation from Charles Lamb about whist. It implies that the demands of thinking accurately and to the point over a card game can serve also as entertainment or leisure. Intellectual rigour can therefore be sometimes seen as the exercise of a skill. It can also degenerate into pedantry, which is intellectual rigour applied to no particular end, except perhaps self-importance. Scholarship can be defined as intellectual rigour applied to the quality control of information, which implies an appropriate standard of accuracy, and scepticism applied to accepting anything on trust.

Intellectual rigour is an important part, though not the whole, of intellectual honesty — which means keeping one's convictions in proportion to one's valid evidence...questioning one's own assumptions, not merely applying them relentlessly if precisely. It is possible to doubt whether complete intellectual honesty exists — on the grounds that no one can entirely master his or her own presuppositions — without doubting that certain kinds of intellectual rigour are potentially available....

The setting for intellectual rigour does tend to assume a principled position from which to advance or argue. An opportunistic tendency to use any argument at hand is not very rigorous, although very common in politics, for example. Arguing one way one day, and another later, can be defended by casuistry, i.e. by saying the cases are different.

In the legal context, for practical purposes, the facts of cases do always differ. Case law can therefore be at odds with a principled approach; and intellectual rigour can seem to be defeated. This defines a judge's problem with uncodified law. Codified law poses a different problem, of interpretation and adaptation of definite principles without losing the point; here applying the letter of the law, with all due rigour, may on occasion seem to undermine the principled approach....

more @


An Active Mind's picture


The issue of "control" also seems to come up a lot in the Wikipedia entry on "rigour".  Illness often seems to be the antithesis of control--it takes over the body/mind and calls for the self to surrender.  A lot of the stigmatization of individuals with mental disabilities comes from those who can't understand how certain behavior can't be controlled, how you can't come to govern your own mind or body.

I also looked up "rigour" in the OED (our favorite resource!) and found that, like your reference to "rigor mortis", "rigour" has a medical definition (which I believe was its original meaning), which states, "the sensation of numbness, tingling, or prickling" in addition to "stiffness" and also "coldness."  All of these definitions imply bodily (or actual biological) restriction, which suggests how the term "rigour" is not so much about endurance as it is impedment and disability.  We have a tendency to think of "rigour" as being positive--as offering a challenge that is meant to be overcome.  But, as Price points out, for those with disabilities, academic rigour becomes exclusionary and eliminates those from the academic sphere who may have insightful things to say, but are unable to abide by the demanding rules of the "rigorous" system.  

The etymology of "rigour" is derived from the Middle French "rigeur" and "riguerer" which mean "inflexible security."  This reminds me of your comment on my last post, where you talked about all bodies being leaky.  How can we alter the academic system to allow for a fluidity, rather than "stiffness"?  What might emerge form this relinquishment of the academy's drive for "control"?  

P.S. --  Also, I'm so sorry to hear about your leg!  Hope you're feeling better!

alesnick's picture

response to "Mad at School"

 I am moved by the final two sentences of your post.  When students of mine presented on a book about how children cope with chronic illness, In Sickness and In Play, last spring, it opened discourse in the class about many students' experiences as learners with asthma, severe allergies, anxiety.  There was a space of personal disclosure, and it also became a place of learning through and about those experiences.  The silencing around these things runs so deep: "touchy/feely -- too much like therapy -- to personal, not rigorous . . . " And yet, if all of our lives are stories our brains tell, then our differences, brain-wise, must be a great part of that storymaking, and our differing experiences as "brained" people a potentially great resource.  Of course, this really cuts to the bone of "assessment."  For one thing, the assessors are never figured as mentally different, let alone ill.  They/we are supposed to be standard-bearers for the culture, right?  And the "ill" are only assessed, never assessing -- though of course, much of their "illness" could be read itself as a form of assessment.  

An Active Mind's picture


 Thanks so much for your comment.  You've brought up a lot of interesting ideas. Your point about silencing that which is too “touchy/feely – too much like therapy” reminds me of the first chapter in Price’s book when she laments professors’ assertions that they are not therapists and that they opt instead for a distanced and objective view of the work at hand. To be scholar is to then assume a sort of gruff attachment and a refusal to succumb to personal woes.  Price writes, “However strongly our theories might welcome emotion in to the classroom, in practice,…we still treat emotionality and intellectuality as adversaries. Therefore, if we (teachers) feel strongly compelled to assert that we are not therapists, we ought to question why that compulsion is so strong, and why we feel that it would be dangerous to explore the link between teaching and therapy” (10). Like you suggest, I wonder what might emerge if those with mental disabilities let their illness do the assessing, their personal narratives becoming a lens through which they can come to read their academic work. 

I think that incorporating narratives of mental health and illness in the academy would actually help to reduce or alleviate those suffering with various disorders. With more of an open dialogue surrounding these issues, teachers can work on structuring the classroom to become a more easily navigated “karotic space” that incorporates all types of learners. This way, as you say, students can use the entirety of their brains to tell stories without feeling as if they have to use the rational and logical thought that the academy demands while hiding the parts of their minds that seem unruly in an academic setting.