[Netflix, 8/25/21, -Our first lady chair, – Our first woman chair Photo: David Kramer from The missing adjuncts]
On the new Netflix series The Chair and the missing adjuncts discusses a gaping hole in Netflix’s representation of contemporary academy. Today, John Roche, Professor emeritus of English at Rochester Institute of Technology offers his review of the series.
The Academic Anachronism That Is Netflix’ The Chair
The new Netflix series The Chair, starring Sandra Oh, has been receiving quite a bit of attention from academics. Not surprisingly, since higher ed is still a rare topic for television, more typically glutted with shows about detectives, doctors, forensic scientists, and lawyers.
Does the show warrant such critical attention, including elaborate analogies to Moby Dick (1) and impassioned discussions of its portrayal of current censorship controversies and its representation of college governance? Probably not.
The eminently watchable show is, at heart, an academic farce combined with a romantic comedy (or the subset of that genre focusing on “daddy shopping” by a single parent’s precocious child). The Chair relies on formulaic plot configurations, exaggerated scenarios, and even slapstick (e.g., the new chair falling off her chair in the opening scene) for its humor, as a number of reviewers have noted. The writers, themselves, signal to us early on not to take it too seriously, as they have Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) check off the ways her former chair (and romantic interest) Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) fits the stereotype of the charmingly dissolute novelist.
What makes The Chair work is not its verisimilitude but its accomplished cast, especially Sandra Oh, whose facial reactions as she copes with the escalating demands of being a new chair in a failing department, all the while a single mom, are Emmy-worthy. Professor Kim’s valiant struggles form the show’s emotional core, and provide its central truth.
Yet it’s fair to point out several things: 1) As Alessa Dominguez observes, The Chair is not satire, but a comedy that usually takes the easy route (e.g., Dobson vilified for a lame Hitler salute while lecturing on absurdism, rather than tenure denial of an activist professor)(2) ; 2) There are political ramifications to reliance on caricatures. As Emory University Professor Dan Sinykin notes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I fear that the show is engaged in a bad-faith depiction of undergraduate activism, joining the pile-on of pundits who declaim the thin skin of students today, rather than recognize the patient and deliberate organizing students do on behalf of, say, combating climate change or the Israeli occupation.”(3) 3) The show is focused almost exclusively on tenured or tenure-track faculty. As David Kramer has persuasively argued, The Chair conceals the central underpinning of the academic economy: Adjunct labor;(4) 4) The Chair misrepresents the actual position of department chairs at most institutions. As UC Berkeley Professor Grace Lavery points out in The Chronicle, “Chairs aren’t line managers, thank God, and introducing the language of the corporation into the departmental relation obscures the real political and economic fault lines”; 5) Much of The Chair’s humor relies on cheaply ageist jokes about somnolence and adult diapers; 6) The very setting of The Chair, an idyllic Northeastern liberal arts college, represents the experience of only a tiny percentage of faculty and students, considering that public and private liberal arts colleges, combined, only teach 15.4% of the U.S. student population.(5)
But what strikes me as most significant is the basic anachronism in The Chair’s premise. While sprinkled with contemporary pop references to Tik Tok, rap, cellphones, etc., the show portrays a cultural and generational battle that occurred thirty or forty years ago. After nearly a half century of cutbacks and institutional retrenchment, the elimination of many programs, including Classics departments, offers of early retirement, and even the elimination of tenure at a growing number of colleges, one would be hard-pressed to find a department anywhere that is currently dominated by octogenarians and nonagenerians like those portrayed in The Chair. Even if there are departments still run by what the show calls “dinosaurs,” these would likely be professors who received their terminal degree in the 1970s or 1980s, not the 1950s or 1960s. So they would more likely be feminist, deconstructionist, or post-colonial studies scholars than formalist Chaucerians or new critical Melvillians.
Those excusing that anomaly are likely to claim the show is taking certain liberties for the purpose of dramatic tension and comical hyperbole. And it’s certainly true that the starkly drawn contrast between the older and younger faculty makes the show’s themes transparent, but at a cost. What if The Chair had tackled the complexities of faculty who had helped open up the academy but were now confronted by new challenges, not only from the “Woke” students portrayed in the show, but, as is more often the case at non-elite schools, by students much more conservative than their teachers?
The Chair’s most satisfying move occurs at the end of the final episode, when a female professor who has endured decades of patronization, only to be literally consigned to the basement, is finally given a chance for leadership. As played by Holland Taylor, Professor Joan Hambling transcends the cardboard caricature we see in the first episodes, and signals a reversal of The Chair’s old-young duality. If the show is given a second season, perhaps this precedent could point to a more nuanced and more courageous series.
1. Winant, Johanna. “Moby Done: Are the Professors in The Chair the Whalers or the Whales?” Slate 25 Aug 2021
2. Dominguez, Alessa. “The Chair isn’t the Satire You Think It Is”. BuzzFeed News 24 Aug 2021.
3. “Spoiler Alert: The Chair Recaps” (Panel Discussion). The Chronicle of Higher Education 20 Aug 2021.
4. Kramer, David. “On the New Netflix Series The Chair and the Missing Adjuncts.” Talker of the Town 25 Aug 2021.
5. “History of Liberal Arts Colleges, Characteristics of Liberal Arts Colleges”, Education Encyclopedia. State University.com
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Editor’s note. At one point, in a seeming anachronism, the Joan Holland character mentions she has not read her student evaluations since 1983. Professor Hambling appears too young to have stopped reading her course reviews 38 years ago. Although, Brown University’s Professor Arnold Weinstein still teaches full time at age 80 (even if he doesn’t use an IPhone).