On the new Netflix series “The Chair” and the missing adjuncts

On the new Netflix series “The Chair” and the missing adjuncts

[Pembroke Hall, Brown University, Providence, RI (Lost New England) Pembroke College was the coordinate women’s college for Brown University. Pembroke was founded in 1891 and merged into Brown in 1971.]

This essay was submitted to some local publications. At this time, the essay does not fit within their news cycles and schedules. No matter. We are submitting to Talker of the Town. We’ve tried the rest; it’s time for the best. Contributor John Roche, Professor emeritus of English at Rochester Institute of Technology offered helpful suggestions.

***

Many Rochesterians are tuning into the new acclaimed Netflix series, The Chair. Set at fictional Pembroke College, a Northeastern “second tier Ivy” private college, The Chair peers inside an English Department on the decline.

The Atlantic calls the series “Netflix’s Best Drama in Years. The near-perfect show elegantly skewers the subject of free speech on campus.” The New York Times says The Chair shows campus culture wars can be both funny and insightful. Aesthetically, The Chair works, with generous humor interwoven with serious themes.

Pembroke has beautiful buildings and spacious quads. You can imagine yourself ambling through the idyllic campuses of the University of Rochester, St. John Fisher College or Nazareth College. Pembroke is probably named after the former women’s college of Brown University, my alma mater. I was transported back to Wriston Quad in the 1980’s when the canon wars were heating up.

In The Chairs’ rendering of a slice of academic life, we get the recognizable tropes of contemporary higher education: campus censorship, viral Hitler memes, a little #MeToo, a Title IX lawsuit, onerous student loans, the collapse of the humanities, big donors, white patriarchy on the wane, women of color breaking gender and racial ceilings, professors smoking legal pot, aging faculty members who have never looked at RateMyProfessor and haven’t read their student evaluations since 1983.

Netflix, 8/25/21

But, significantly, missing from Pembroke are adjuncts: the cadre of exploited, overworked, underpaid, underappreciated teachers often with no health insurance who get laid off each summer. The proletariat of the academy. According to FactsAboutAdjuncts, just over 50% of instructors in higher ed are part-time.

But at Pembroke there are none. When it comes to verisimilitude or veracity, The Chair is sorely lacking. At one point, an aging female Chaucer scholar is exiled to a basement office, a department scandal. In the real world, that basement office would be stocked with adjuncts sharing a desk and a computer.

We do have one celebrity adjunct. David Duchovny (playing himself). In real life, Duchovny began work on an English Literature Ph.D thesis at Yale that remains unfinished. In the show, Duchovny seeks to get back into academia, offering to take over a Death and Modernism class early in the semester (for free). Duchovny wants to change the syllabus – so he offers to both buy back the students books and give them new ones!

One tenured professor faces getting blackballed from university teaching as well as financial ruin. In the real world, he might fall into the dreaded adjunct class, radically downsizing his lifestyle, perhaps selling his elegant college town upper middle class home, hoping to pick up courses at some community college 30 miles away. Spoiler alert: at the last moment, he is saved from this downwardly mobile fate.

In the real world, like Monroe County, legions of adjuncts take any classes they can get, usually labor intensive introductory courses with too many students and very limited opportunities for career advancement or to teach in their field. These intellectual migrants (“Road Scholars”) shuttle back and forth between the local schools, juggling multiple curriculums. One man traveled between RIT and SJF – on his bicycle!

(left) I am an adjunct professor in the Department of English at Keuka College; (right) Keuka College pin given to adjuncts as a Holiday gift. Keuka has always treated me fairly, but the College would agree the whole adjunct system needs reform. See “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” And how much of this will you read?

The Chair tackles many campus issues, but fails to address the “adjunctification of higher education” that creates serious class divisions between the tenured Haves and the masses of Have Nots. I’m not saying we should cancel The Chair, but watch it with a grain of adjunct salt.

PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS IN THE COMMENT SECTION AT END

UPDATE The Academic Anachronism That Is Netflix’ The Chair from Professor John Roche

The Academic Anachronism That Is Netflix’ The Chair from Professor John Roche

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About The Author

dkramer3@naz.edu

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY and Lake Affect Magazine.  My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.

4 Comments

  1. Ed Wiltse

    I totally agree that the erasure of part-time faculty is a terrible, perhaps fatal flaw. I’d add that its bizarre fantasy of a cancellation obsessed student body out there waiting to turn 2 seconds of professorial video into a campaign against a modernist hottie is equally troubling. It sells our students and their actual, important activism short and feeds into right wing versions of “cancel culture ” in higher ed.

    • dkramer3@naz.edu

      Well put. Yes, it caricatures cancel culture. As for “2 seconds of professorial video into a campaign against a modernist hottie is equally troubling,,” you are right. I read somewhere that the series evades the real issue behind Bill’s supposed anti-semitism when the students accuse him of being a Nazi. Often Professors who support the Palestinian cause are accused of anti-semitism. Bill acts as a displacement for that far more common charge. Interestingly, there is real life example of a Hitler salute upon which the series draws. https://www.timesofisrael.com/this-real-life-nazi-salute-incident-may-have-inspired-netflixs-the-chair/

  2. Nancy O'Donnell

    Happy the writer mentioned adjuncts. Had the entire series revolved around these “Road scholars,” it would probably have had more suffering, exhaustion and self-loathing and injustice. Since I’m nearing the end of my adjunct career, a long and hard thirty-one years, I’m less passionate about slights from the admin and full-timers. Are people even becoming English professors anymore?
    I’m grateful that one area college has a union, and I’m in it. Who knows what will happen in the future?
    The students I’m seeing at both a private and a community college are dazed by social media, but they’re willing to awaken (or pretending to be this early in the semester) to a bigger more glorious world of personal expression with bits of literature thrown in.
    And while I love Sandra Oh–will she end up with Eve or murdered by her?!!!- I felt the tenured professors were all stereotypes. Wild haired ancients. Tough old broads. The students were stereotypes too. Thrilled that an old white woman drops the f-bomb? Really? Everybody was a little goofy. I also somehow missed the Nazi salute, so I’ll have to go back and watch it again.

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