Keeping the Keys to the Kingdom

In February, Margaret Price published a thought-provoking piece at Inside Higher Education arguing for systemic reforms to the recruiting and promotion of faculty in order to mitigate or eliminate discrimination against professors “with mental disabilities such as bipolar disorder, severe depression, autism spectrum disorders, or AD/HD”.

I’ve been thinking about her essay over this spring. As she points out, this is not about bringing a new group of wholly excluded people into the academy, given the evidence that such individuals have long played an important role in university life. Rather, she argues, we could make formal accommodations for this range of psychological orientations, particularly in the interviewing process, and do so across the board for all candidates so as to avoid putting the burden on disabled candidates to self-identify in order to receive such consideration.

As I read over her suggestions, many of them amount to simply being considerate and structuring on-campus interviews to be less grueling. Other suggestions might be helpful for any candidate, such as having everyone wear name tags during the candidate’s visit.

There are a range of objections to make as well. First, that there are non-arbitrary reasons to prefer “the good man speaking well”, as Price puts it via Quintilian, in a teaching position. The job requires clear communication, though within some fairly broad parameters, and a good teacher needs to adapt somewhat well to a range of emotional needs among students. Second, that I’m not sure what the evidence is that “quirky” styles of presentation and conversation that relate to variant mental orientations are in fact being progressively discriminated against in contemporary academia.

But I don’t want to object too strenuously, because I don’t have any problem with most the kinds of adaptations she suggests. I think I worry more about the process by which we get to those practices. We ought to be more generous in our vision of the range of humanity encompassed in our workplaces, our friendships, our lives. That’s the paradigm shift implied in some calls for diversity, but it goes beyond the concrete categorizations that project often focuses upon. In many ways this is less about vigilance and more about relaxation. If Price is right that some academics suffer from standards of communicative skill that too narrowly privilege one type of self-presentation, the answer is for each of us to be less entitled in the demands we make on each other.

Here I’m very much with my colleagues in their call for a renewal of practical wisdom. But in their view–and mine–one of the consequences of such a turn would be that we’d stop trying to make systems, rules and structures do to us, for us, with us, what we ought to do for ourselves. That’s my concern with the call that Price makes, that a reminder to be a more decent human being easily curdles into an institutional imperative to do so, and from there into a set of rules, strictures and requirements that are tasked with taking away our discretion, remediating our failures, serving as a guarantee against our fallibility.

This turn is a much bigger issue than one area of accommodation for disability. I’ve been repeatedly struck in conversations with some students this year about our planning process that some of them expect the college to have or acquire robust structural instruments that will automatically accomplish long-term objectives. Some of them add that they do not trust individuals to arrive at the same goals through repeated exercises in discretionary judgment. The system must do the work automatically, it must create a blanket of rules and laws, in order for projects like diversity or sustainability to avoid subversion and accident at the hands of individuals.

That push comes from a lot of places: an embedded haze of perpetual suspicion that suffuses academia, an inability or unwillingness to investigate whether some goals are hard to achieve whether or not anyone opposes or impedes them, and most of all, a touching but naive faith in the power of institutions to do anything if only we can find the correct systems to secure an objective.

Whatever the source, though, the consequences can be pretty baleful. The impulse that makes us want to set rules that strictly circumscribe acceptable conduct, remove discretion from deliberations, and compel processes to run along foreordained tracks towards necessary results are the same impulses in other kinds of governmental and institutional practices that lead us to favor metrics and quantities over observation and interpretation. That’s when the cry goes out for quantification not as an investigation of the world but as a buttress against slippery words, judgment calls, the variability of people. We are trying to protect ourselves from ourselves, to hand over our custodianship of our everyday human obligations to some larger, more distant machinery. Small wonder that in some cases as these efforts advance, adjustments in process that seemed like small reforms blossom into managerial prisons of the kind that now blight higher education in Great Britain.

What especially frustrates me is when the call for these kinds of rules and constraints comes from a concern for how we treat human beings, or from ways of knowing that I think excel at exploring and complicating what it means to be human. I’m with Price about loving and valuing a wide range of faculty temperaments in academia, but if we can’t get there by the constant reexamination of decency and fairness, we’re not getting there with rules and requirements. If we can’t get the results we want from the discretionary judgment of people we trust to teach students, publish research, know their fields, decide on tenure and promotion, we’re not getting there by compelling those people to take up fixed positions or preset obligations.

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2 Responses to Keeping the Keys to the Kingdom

  1. Doug says:

    “given the evidence that such individuals have long played an important role in university life”

    Who says this isn’t a funny blog?

  2. north says:

    While I sympathize with you on the rule issue in general, there are some simple accommodation ‘rules’ which can be really helpful without being intrusive. Like nametags. And regular offers of 10-minute breaks. Why not do these things? Why wait until the candidate arrives and see how he or she feels, relying on your ability to read a stranger who is desperately trying to keep you from being able to see panic? Just do them for everyone. That’s what Price suggests, really. It’s a way of being considerate of everyone.

    The broader problem is that academic interviewers, like other interviewers, are trying to learn whether candidates are considerate, empathetic, responsible, and otherwise good to work with in a long-term collegial relationship. Instead, they’re learning about candidates’ temperaments and chatting skills. Price’s student with autism will suffer from this. I have a friend (who will probably interview just fine, honestly, since he’s pretty self-aware) who puts all his flaws upfront. He’s belligerent and loud and (sometimes) comes off as a slightly mean know-it-all. I would want to work with him any day, because when people are actually in distress, he is reliably there to help. You can’t know that in an interview; you can know if people are good conversationalists; so people hire based on the latter when they want to know the former.

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