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As its title suggests, Margaret Price's discussion of mental disability and academic life employs the insights and emphases of the newly-minted scholarly area of Disability Studies to cast a spotlight on the less visible, less well-understood, and – she believes - less sympathetically treated, range of disabilities she names mental, which include psychiatric and learning disorders and a loosely indicated range of other conditions with psychological features.
About the fact that the burgeoning scholarship of Disability Studies has thus far paid little attention to psychological disorder, Price is absolutely correct. And her book is an important and welcome acknowledgement of this. 'Atypicalities' include those that are more and less obviously physical. Although there may be differences too, these atypicalities might all benefit from construal as forms of disability, and there are shared themes, principles and practical and policy innovations, Price shows, that apply very broadly across these divisions. Some of the best parts of Mad at School provide us with examples of these; I'll note three in particular. First, revealing the author's sensitive ear as a rhetorician, an initial chapter entitled 'Listening to the Subject of Mental Disability' discusses the importance of the labels we choose for these kinds of disorder (although after a thought-provoking analysis of the term 'disability' the equally problematic 'mental' is rather strangely let off the hook). Second, what is in many ways the central chapter of the book (Chapter 3) exposes the culture of modern day academia as it serves to exclude atypicalities (neural and otherwise), exclusions that are irrelevant - or even detrimental - to the fundamental goals of effective teaching and learning. And finally, employing the principles developed within the disabilities movement, there are quite practical recommendations for making the classroom more welcoming and accessible to 'mentally disabled' students in particular.
The breadth of 'mental disability' has been noted. Similarly, although her main focus is the college classroom, Price's 'School' in her title spans several levels of educational endeavor. And adding to the range of subject matter, these questions are pursued in relation to mentally disabled teachers, of whom Price identifies herself as one, as well as students. Despite the valuable premises on which it rests – that attention must be paid to these neglected 'mental' disabilities, and that many aspects of academia can be made more accessible for disabled students and teachers alike - the book falls victim to its over-broad subject matter, in my opinion. Granted, some compelling examples are adduced from the conditions included in the catch-all 'mental disabilities,' several of them from the author's own experiences navigating academic life with a disability. But in the absence any effort to justify supposing commonality here, the use of seemingly disparate examples remains insufficient, and too thin. (The scope of what counts as a disability offered by the law, particularly the Americans With Disabilities Act, is hardly sufficient, since it notoriously awaits challenge through the courts on this very point. And not all consumers of mental healthcare even agree they suffer a disability.) Then, although a provocative and interesting discussion of cultural stereotypes about madness and violence, the single chapter devoted to school and college shootings fails as an attempt to include non-college level educational settings as allowed in the broad 'School' of the title. A chapter on independent scholars who happen to have mental disabilities says more about the plight of independent scholars, disabled or not, than about disability. And while there is shown to be some convergence between the situations of mentally disabled professor and student (developed through the interesting conception of kairotic space), the differences of perspective dividing these two groups seem to be as notable as the similarities. (This becomes apparent when features essential and inessential to the professorial role are explored.)
Part of the problem here may be that rather than framed to support the coherent themes announced at the start, Price's book comprises a series of loosely connected, separate essays of uneven relevance to those themes. This may be a stylistic choice on the author's part, a form of storytelling that, as she puts it, should "improve access to academic prose." But if so, give me academic prose every time. Price has found an important and neglected topic, and by drawing attention to these issues, it can be hoped that she has opened the way for other scholars. They will need to provide the more thoroughgoing and adequately defended treatment the topic deserves, however, since she does not.
© 2012 Jennifer Radden
Jennifer Radden, University of Massachusetts, Boston