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

Although awareness of mental health has increased in recent years, finding information on how to make classrooms more accessible is still not particularly easy.  Price’s book is therefore a welcome– and much-needed–addition to the discussion about mental health in the academy.  Mad at School address four related issues: accessibility in the classroom for students, accessibility in the academy for instructors, representations of mental health as related to school shootings, and independent scholarship.  Each issue centers around Price’s overriding argument that the academy’s privileging of “rationality” excludes from its halls those who are perceived to be overly “emotional,” those who do not communicate in standard ways, and those who are otherwise seen as not able to “speak well.”  Price proposes that the way the academy views mental disability must change, so those who are not perceived as “normal” do not continue to be squeezed out of academia, whether through dropping out of school, being forced to work part-time instead of receiving tenure (and the health benefits that come with it), or being forced to work outside the university altogether.

For many, Price’s treatment of the classroom as the site of “rational” discourse may seem the most relevant. Not everyone will go on to work in academia, but most people have been to school. Price challenges typical notions of what is “acceptable” in a classroom and how students “best” learn. For instance, why is discourse and argumentation seen by many as the key to higher learning? What happens to students who have difficulty following oral/aural exchanges? Or who feel uncomfortable sharing ideas in a forum where they can expect someone to argue with them? Is it possible for instructors to open up alternate avenues of participation so students who do not want to speak off the cuff can demonstrate that, yes, they have learned the material and they are paying attention? Price gives a few similar examples and suggests way instructors can modify their teaching practices, arguing that making the classroom accessible ultimately benefits everyone, not only those who identify as having a mental disability.

Price’s treatment of accessibility is also thought-provoking. She notes that most institutions follow a practice of accommodations, where individuals must take upon themselves the burden of going to an office to explain their situation and then have that office follow up with their accommodations, to be given to the instructor. An accessible classroom, however, is designed from the outset with different learners in mind. It is not just a matter of giving more test taking time, but an entire way of teaching that removes the burden of a student having to “Other” themselves or do things differently than everyone else. It is also a way that will doubtless continue to develop and transform over time.

Mad at School challenges the way we view teaching and learning. Although not every reader will find every argument compelling, and not every reader will wish to put all of Price’s recommendations into practice, Price does a valuable service by simply reminding readers that mental disability has to be part of the discussion. There is no “us” vs. “them,” no “normal” learners and the rest–the rest who are to be excluded because they disrupt the way in which we have traditionally viewed the academy, and who is allowed access. The conversation is long overdue. Price is beginning it. It is up to everyone else to continue it.

4 stars

2 thoughts on “Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life by Margaret Price

  1. DoingDewey says:

    This sounds like a valuable read! I’m interested in teaching as a possible second career and I’ll definitely keep this in mind if I’m ever working in a classroom.


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