Making room in the academy for everyone: Margaret Price on kairotic space

Photograph of an array of rainbow-colored pencils
"Pastel-Colored Pencils," by Pink Sherbet Photography

Last week, I went to see the rhetorician and disability studies scholar Margaret Price lead a discussion about her new book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Disability and Academic Life. I was curious for a lot of reasons. Mostly, I’ve been interested in disability studies lately, for the simple reason that I keep learning stuff that makes me say, “Huh. I never thought of it that way.” And isn’t that really what the best scholarship does?

Anyway, I took a lot away from Price’s talk, which was about finding ways to accommodate and acknowledge psychiatric difference in the academy. The concept that’s especially stuck with me is something that Price calls “kairotic space.”

Here’s Price’s definition, from an essay called “Access Imagined“:

Kairotic professional spaces are characterized by all or most of these criteria:

  1. Real-time unfolding of events
  2. Impromptu communication required or encouraged
  3. In-person contact
  4. Strong social element
  5. High stakes

A conference is a kairotic professional space, as is a single panel or session at a conference. … So, for instance, a professional discussion taking place via instant message, or a job interview held by conference call, could qualify as kairotic professional spaces despite the lack of in-person contact. … The key element is the pairing of spontaneity with high levels of professional impact.

Price points out that these spaces can be especially difficult to navigate for people with mental disabilities. For example, people who can’t easily process many kinds of stimuli at once will have trouble negotiating the rapid-fire, high-stakes atmosphere of a large academic conference.

I’m compelled by this notion of kairotic space because it puts a name to something that we’re all aware of but haven’t been able to really identify. These events — departmental cocktail parties, lunches with your adviser, Q & A’s after academic talks — are often cast as opportunities for collegiality, which they can be. But we seldom (formally) acknowledge the fact that these events also involve high stakes and real power differentials.

As Price spoke, I thought about a truism of accessible web design: that the principles of making a website accessible are just good design principles. It seems to me that the simple modifications that Price suggests, like allowing more time between conference panels and being understanding of different styles of interaction, would be good for all of us.

And perhaps we can also think about creating different kinds of spaces in the academy: environments where the stakes aren’t so high, where we pay closer attention to each other, and where differences in power can be minimized. Maybe THATCamp is one; I hope DiSC can be another.

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