[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.
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!
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.
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