It Shouldn't Be So Hard

February 7, 2011

After the cover letter and CV, there is probably no single criterion more critical to job candidates’ success than their ability to demonstrate collegiality. The ideal job candidate must be able to smile, make eye contact, and converse smoothly on topics ranging from her own research to her favorite light reading. He must be able to give a formal presentation of research, but also deliver a quick "elevator speech" on any aspect of that research at any moment. She should be wearing something more interesting than the traditional black suit, but not so interesting that a search committee might deem it outlandish.

The process involves mnemonic gymnastics such as remembering names and faces, keeping in mind the details of one college's (or several colleges') programs, and — while retaining these data — locating Hotel Suite X. Should he be so lucky as to visit a campus and receive an offer, he must continue to be a master of logistics, personability, and negotiation. The attitude required is a razor-thin pathway between respectfulness and deference, enthusiasm and babbling, skepticism and agreeability.

You don’t need me to tell you that few job candidates find this balance of traits easy to achieve. But I want to call attention to a population of scholars whom we rarely consider: those with mental disabilities such as bipolar disorder, severe depression, autism spectrum disorders, or AD/HD. What does the three-ring circus of the job market feel like to these candidates? What are the particular barriers raised for persons who may not perform best in heavily social environments like interviews and campus visits? And what are those barriers costing all of us — all of us in academe?

I'll back up for a moment, because I'm aware that the first reaction to my question might be, "Well, those people don’t belong in academe." But the numbers tell a different story. According to the U.S. Department of Education, persons with “disordered” minds are entering — actually, have entered — academe in unprecedented numbers. The question is no longer whether persons with mental disabilities should or will enter academe. The question is what to do about it, now that they — that we — are here.

By using "we," I indicate that I am among the scholars with mental disabilities. I’ve received a range of DSM diagnoses, including major depression, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), agoraphobia, and borderline personality disorder. What this means, in my ordinary life, is that I am hyper-reactive to stimuli of all kinds, physical and emotional. Sitting under fluorescent lights is hard on me; in fact, sitting still in any environment for more than about an hour is difficult. (I knit at conferences and faculty retreats.) Travel is exhausting, not in the ordinary sense of "Jet lag sucks," but in the sense of "I must schedule an extra day after trips during which I probably won’t be able to walk around very much."

Now that I’m tenured, I have the privilege of arranging my work so that it accommodates my particular impairments. For example, I rarely schedule face-to-face meetings for more than a couple of hours per day. I teach a 3/3 load, but spend at least three days a week (one weekday and both weekend days) recuperating at home, in complete quiet. I need the physical rest, but more, I need relief from the constant overstimulation of in-person academic life. I hold office hours by instant message as well as in person; this particular accommodation has the happy outcome that my students seem to benefit from IM conferences just as much as I do.

Am I one of the lucky ones? One of the privileged few who managed to navigate graduate school, tenure-track work, and the tenure review through a combination of luck, support, and sheer doggedness? Yes, I am. But I submit — and this is the main thing I want to say here — it shouldn’t be so hard. It shouldn't be so hard for our students and colleagues with mental disabilities, or any of us, and God knows there are few defenders of the academic tenure and promotion system as it stands.

If this system were revised to become more accessible for academics with mental disabilities, all members of the academic world would benefit. A few relatively simple changes would have dramatic impact. Mostly, such changes come down to asking the question, "What do you need in order to perform well in this environment?" — and then doing what we can to provide that, while not telling snide jokes about candidates who can't look an interviewer in the eye.

For example, at the interview stage, a committee could ask candidates if there are any accommodations that might make the interview more accessible. At the campus-visit stage, they could ask questions having to do with a candidate’s stamina (at what points would a 10-minute block of "quiet time" be most useful to the candidate?), dietary preferences (what sorts of restaurants would be best?), and memory (would it be helpful if members of the search committee wore name tags?). The beauty of simple access measures like these is that they don’t require any (illegal) discussion of whether a candidate is or is not disabled; they focus on the environment rather than the person. And nondisabled as well as disabled candidates will benefit.

Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as providing rest breaks and name tags. Now I turn to the story of another academic, a graduate student at a Research I institution for whom I serve as a mentor. This student has Asperger’s syndrome. He has great difficulty interacting face-to-face; if he had his druthers, he would stare at the floor, speak extremely softly, and flap his hands while speaking. But these behaviors are unacceptable in public space, and he knows this. Therefore, he does his best to perform in interviews and job talks in ways that conform to “normal” academic speech. You can probably recall, anecdotally, instances when a candidate’s odd personal habits killed his or her candidacy, and empirical studies from psychology and the humanities emphasize that, in the words of Walter Broughton and William Conlogue, “The candidate with the best interpersonal skills — all else being equal — is offered the job.”

In the particular case I am describing, the candidate happens to be brilliant. As a graduate student, he has won prestigious awards, and, while teaching and completing his dissertation, is also carrying a service load more akin to an advanced assistant professor’s job. And yet, his inability to smile at the right times, to make eye contact, to manage phone interviews without panicking — these factors are undoubtedly going to affect his candidacy. There’s no way around it: In the academy as it now exists, we simply don’t tolerate weirdness. A certain amount of acceptable weirdness (usually called "quirkiness") does prevail within each discipline or field, of course, but overall, if someone can’t hold an engaging conversation over dinner, she is far less likely to succeed as an academic.

Are these the criteria we want? Is this the academy we wish to build? I want to offer a vision of a different kind of academe. This would be a world in which all of us — disabled or not — admit that we are exhausted by 12-hour conference days, we are terrified in some social situations, we are unsure whether our personal traits come across as charmingly quirky or bizarrely off-putting. This would be a world in which access meant more than whether everyone could log on. It would mean questioning the very foundations of academe, our relentless use of social spaces to test scholarly merit, our continued valorization of what Quintilian called "the good man speaking well."

We’ve got to begin talking about it. Surely, in an academic world concerned with knowledge and justice, there must be a solution beyond “Suck it up and deal.” It’s not just those with mental disabilities who need this; we all need this.


Margaret Price is an associate professor of English at Spelman College. She is the author of Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (University of Michigan Press, 2011).

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