Beat the system, win the game: Response to Mooney and Cole’s Learning Outside the Lines

In their hybrid memoir/self-help book, Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give you the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution (2000), Jonathan Mooney and David Cole reflect on their experiences as LD/ADHD students who endured educational failure and went on to succeed in the Ivy Leagues, not by conforming to the mold of traditional education, but by accepting their unique strengths as atypical learners and beating the academic game. They aim their book at other LD/ADHD students who are poised to make the leap into college; using a playfully wry tone, they deflate the hype of college as a utopian environment for learning, instead calling it what it is, a landscape that can be as restrictive and disempowering as elementary schools often are for LD/ADHD students. Learning Outside the Lines offers readers a set of models for confront the challenges of being an LD/ADHD college student realistically, showing that academic success is possible and within the grasp of even people who have faced extreme educational failure in the past.

The first section of the book is the most akin to genres of creative nonfiction. The first two chapters present biographical narratives from the two authors, documenting their traumatic experiences in elementary and high school and their eventual acceptance to Brown University where they met. In both narratives, the authors recount how they were demoralized and alienated from prescriptive educational systems sadistically bent on matters like spelling, handwriting, and sitting still. Despite the authors’ considerable creative skills as storytellers and artists, they were made to think of themselves as lazy, crazy, or bad — identities they were only able to dispel as unfair later in life. Here Mooney, who had discovered his talent for English studies, finds himself once again failing under an instructor who believes spelling and handwriting trump creative skill and inventiveness:

“I wanted to tell all of [the other students] that good handwriting and spelling and following the rules of some pathetic high school English teacher did not make them smart. But the most frightening thing that I grew to understand that year is how intelligence is a construct, and the rules of that environment, where form is the gatekeeper to content, did make them smarter than I was” (42)

Thanks to the autobiographical focus of the book, theoretical observations like Mooney’s musing on the constructed nature of intellignece emerge as reflections on lived experience, rather than theory for theory’s sake. In the chapter that closes their autobiographical segment of the book, “Institutionalized,” the authors reflect on how they met at Brown university and came to recognize their experiences as indicative of skewed institutional priorities in the educational system. In particular, they characterize most elementary education as being about moral and behavioral training, wherein students are taught that whose who learn easily and behave appropriately are rewarded and thought of as good, and those who learn poorly in the received environment and disrupt the order of the classroom are punished and treated as morally bad. While diagnosis of learning disability and ADHD in some way justifies this “bad” behavior, it does not identify the problem of the system in the environment, but instead locates it in the deficient/medicalized student.

Based on this experience, the authors lay out a curriculum for self-empowerment aimed to help their readers achieve academic and personal success. The key features of their plan are as follows:

1. Confront the trauma of educational failure, including lingering psychological effects

2. Understand individual strengths and weaknesses

3. Understand the tasks and rules of academic success in this new educational environment (colleges and universities)

4. Build skills and work habits that work with individual strengths and weaknesses

5. Build a positive self-image outside of academic performance

The majority of the book is devoted to number 4. In “Schooled,” the authors break down the necessary academic skills needed for success into chapters on topics like note taking, class participation, exams, and writing. In each one, they offer multiple routes to success, each articulate to match different learning styles. Employing Howard Gardner’s model of multiple intelligence, they allow readers to mix-and-match the study habits that will work best for them, including a heavy emphasis on oral, social, kinetic, and multisensory approaches to learning. In addition to these learning and performance tips, they also advocate self-advocacy skills, such as arguing for appropriate accommodations, and also recommend the usefulness of student support services like writing centers and campus mental health services.

I was impressed by many of the recommendations Mooney and Cole make in their extended skills section. Most compelling to me was their breakdown of the difficulties LD/ADHD students face with writing. In essence, they identify writing as a constraining linear practice, which opposed LD/ADHD ways of making/thinking which tend to be visual and multidimensional. Here’s an exemplary passage:

In short, our thoughts are three-dimensional, but the medium of writing is at best two-dimensional, drawing primarily on logical and sequential skills. . . . The second reason writing is so difficult is a historical one going back to elementary school (you could have guessed that one). Those feelings of shame and emotional distress while writing come from the fact that at an early age, we learned that writing is the gatekeeper to intelligence, right up there with reading. . . . However, writing is a confused and dishonest academic discipline.” (159)

Taking this skeptical view of academic writing, the authors break down the “game” of successful performance on a large writing task into tiny parts, offering students multiple alternatives for navigating the writing process designed to suit their individual writing processes. To make the process more manageable and less anxiety provoking, they advocate a system of multiple drafts, incorporating a range of visual outlining and brainstroming practices, peer feedback, and mental focusing activities. Their suggestions strike me as pedagogically sound, and their breakdown of the specific difficulties LD/ADHD folks face in writing will be useful for me later on in my research. I could imagine assigning this chapter to introductory writing classes at almost any level.

While I’m talking about writing, I should mention a growing trend I’m noticing in these memoirs, namely the way they reference their own composition. Looking back, Harry Sylvester, who described himself as a total non-writer, made much of the dictation/peer editing process he used to compose his memoir. Similarly, Temple Grandin describes her own compositional process changing over time as she comes to understand NT and ND people better. In his foreword, Oliver Sacks comments on the licidity of Grandin’s most recent memoir compared to her earlier work, which needed editors and co-writers to be coherent to an audience.

In Learning Outside the Lines, Mooney and Cole describe their composition process in similar terms, citing collaboration as a key factor in their success. Mooney and Cole collaborated on the book’s outline, but Mooney wrote the majority of the actual content, they explain. Cole (I gather from his narrative) has more extreme writing anxiety and less interest in literary expression (he is a visual artist). Mooney, however, explains multiple times in the book that he is entirely reliant on his mother for proof reading and copyediting, and he has a practice of faxing her manuscripts for correction, including the MS for this book.

I am not sure what to make of these moments where attention is drawn to the composition process. In one sense, they are unusual only in that the authors are drawing attention to a process that is typically erased by able-minded authors. Another author might give their editor a polite thank you in the acknowledgement, but they will typically not reveal the full negotiationan and revision process the work went through: this is all erased in the process of taking on the authority as “author” of a finished work. However, in the case of these memoirs, they are speaking to an audience of ND outsiders, who might see a project like writing a book as impossible. By foregrounding the collaborative composition process that went into making the books, these authors combat the idea that one kind of mastery alone is acceptable credential for writing a book that others can read, learn from, or even love. It’s perhaps a quality that identifies these memoirs as specifically disability memoirs.

One final point I want to mention is about the presence of institutions in this work. They focus much of their attention on the problems in elementary education and how restrictive opportunities for intellectual and creative engagement often result in trauma and disengagement from LD/ADHD students. They also comment on college environments, which they claim have the ability to be more open and accessible, but often fall into the same ruts of uniformity and oppression.

One important aspect of making education more open and effective, according to these authors, is the use of multisensory, project-based learning as opposed to uniform, standardizable means. They speak to the power of experience in the learning environment, building things, epermimenting, rather than simply relying on reading and writing to conduct learning and evaluation. They claim that there is no model in higher education that would institutionalize practices of multisensory, experienced-based learning — though I can think of a few methods that I admit have not taken on massive application, like service-based learning, digital-humanities-style making and building, blog and design projects, and the like. I imagine building a stable writing program around these kinds of experiential learning styles and building the kind of institutional environement Mooney and Coles ask for.

My final observation about institutionality is one that I noticed from other memoirs by LD educators, that is pull toward making new, alternative educational environments as the natural extension of theory based on lived experience. Mooney and Cole founded Eye to Eye, a national mentoring program that offers afterschool support to LD/ADHD children around the nation by linking them with LD/ADHD tutor/mentors at local colleges and universities. Likewise, Paul Schultz in his memoir My Dyslexia ends his narrative of self-discovery by describing how he founded an alternative creative writing school based on his insights about LD literacy talents for creative writing. This move to establish new learning spaces seems key for LD authors especially. More than simply succeeding in traditional academic environments, these authors seeks to model better environments by inventing novel systems of support and new ways to define success.

In the next few days, I will be posting some shorter blog entries on two more theoretical books I’ve been working through this week, Richard E. Miller’s As If Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education, and Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. I don’t think I’ll have that much to say about either of them, based on the notes I have, so I’ll be able to keep the posts short and to the point.

Mooney, Jonathan and David Cole. Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give you the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution. Foreword by Edward M. Hallowell, MD. New York: Fireside, 2000.



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