One of the fun things about Netflix’s The Chair is that it’s inspired so many people to come forward with their stories. Department chairs have reviewed it from the perspective of chairs. Adjuncts have pointed out the absence of adjuncts. Asian-American women have especially resonated to it. What stood out for me was the generation gap. In my 40 years at Scripps College, the women’s college of the Claremont Colleges, I’ve lived both sides and everything in between.
Scroll back to 1974, the year Nixon resigned, and if you can’t remember, try to imagine. Imagine a young woman, wind-blown and sun burned, wearing short shorts and a bikini top, just arrived on campus, having driven her 1964 Mustang convertible 400 miles down the California coast. A new hire, a last-minute appointment to replace the Modern Brit Lit prof who’d left suddenly to become the first woman provost in the Cal State system. Imagine the look on the face of the old classics professor as I sashayed into the Humanities building and began dragging boxes from my car into the office next to his. The classics professor was a tall, austere figure, cigar clenched between his teeth, and he seemed to be trying very hard to keep his face expressionless, though his eyes, wide as saucers, said it all. I now know he was thinking what I’ve thought, meeting some of our pierced, tattooed young hires—that’s a professor?
Ji-Yoon, played by Sandra Oh, is the first Asian-American woman chair of Pembroke’s English department, a department with a 30% decline in enrollments. No sooner has she assumed her post than the dean presents her with a list of professors who have the lowest enrollments and the highest salaries and tells her to find a way of thinning them out; he suggests that Yaz, the hip young Black Americanist (played by Nana Mensah) won’t be getting tenure until one of them leaves. Ji-Yoon must also deal with Bill, an old friend and potentially more than a friend, played by Jay Duplass. Bill’s a bit of a wreck since his wife’s death, and, presuming too much on his popularity, shows up drunk to class; as he’s making a point about fascism (not sure what point), he makes a mock Sieg Heil salute—which students (more than one) capture on iPhones and spread over social media, sparking furious student demonstrations.
Complications ensue, and the six half hour episodes are a thoroughly enjoyable romp. But I came away thinking— whoa, wait, what did we just see?
The co-creators of the show, Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman, got a lot right. Wyman, a recent Harvard PhD, has first-hand experience and speaks fondly of academia; and Peet, in her research, interviewed many professors. But they got something wrong, and I don’t mean details (like the chair, most places, isn’t really a “boss”; she’s more like a paper pusher, a position one doesn’t aspire to but gets stuck with). I mean, something big, something that matters at a moment when English departments are “hanging by a thread,” in Ji-Yoon’s words; actually, “free fall” might be a more accurate description of where English is, along with the rest of the humanities and the liberal arts.
The Pembroke English department seems to be about evenly divided between dead wood and lively, engaged young faculty, Ji-Yoon, Bill, and Yaz. But so much dead wood —really? Elliot at his podium with his yellowed lecture notes (played by Bob Balaban), I recognize from Columbia, where I got my degree, but that was a long time ago. But at Scripps? Today? We don’t even have lecture halls like those, where the professor dispenses knowledge from a podium and the students passively receive; we have seminar rooms, where faculty sit at a table side by side with students, and students are more likely to be engaged.
Anyone who’s been in academia any length of time has encountered dinosaurs like Elliot. But The Chair reminded me more of Claremont in the days of yore, way yore, than Claremont today. There were a few blowhards who boasted of laurels long since withered. There were four elderly white men who ran one of the other Claremont English departments, with their old school airs, tweed and leather elbows, and dwindling enrollments. But most of the dead wood was washed away within a decade or so of when I arrived. And some of what looked dead had surprisingly green sprigs. The old classicist I met my first day had the respect and affection of many students, and so did the medieval historian, who, though definitely old school, was much loved. Of course, love and respect were easier to come by then than now, when students ruin professors’ careers for the fun of it. (Phew! If that’s what they do to a professor they like, imagine if they didn’t like you.)
I arrived at Scripps with a newly-minted Ph.D. and 7 years of experience as an adjunct at CUNY. I had written a dissertation on rhetoric in Shakespeare’s Roman plays, but I realized immediately that arcania was not what Scripps students needed, and designed feminist courses more in line with their interests, and my own. Woman scholars who became feminist scholars those days inevitably had run-ins with the old guard. A drunken male (from one of the other colleges) fell asleep at the first feminist paper I presented, on Anna Karenina, then woke up at the end to snarl patronizing remarks. I crossed swords with the formidable Shakespearean Maynard Mack over the first paper I gave at a Shakespeare conference, a feminist analysis of Othello; Mack stood up at the Q and A and pontificated to the audience about how I’d got it wrong (actually, he’d got it wrong, as I pointed out). Oh yes, and I was nearly sued by the father of a student I’d flunked for plagiarism, a wealthy lawyer who called me a “feminist on a vendetta against his boy” and threatened litigation if I refused to change his son’s grade (I did not; he backed down; I got obscene phone calls for years). But this was small potatoes compared to the tenure and promotion battles I saw women at other colleges embroiled in; that part of the struggle, I was spared.
But the old duffers in The Chair seemed just too old, decades old. And worse than anachronistic, they were caricatures— ageist caricatures, at that.
Joan, the department’s medievalist, is played for laughs, and played beautifully, by Holland Taylor. She boasts of publishing the first feminist reading of Wife of Bath. (Having published some of the first feminist criticism of Shakespeare, I felt, uh oh, there’s an affinity.) I wanted her not to be ridiculous. I wanted to see her teaching a class and not be so… clueless. I wanted her to interact with a student or two in a way that showed she’s not a complete waste of time. The scenes with the IT guy she gets to hack into RateMyProfessor.com are priceless. This guy, who looks like he hasn’t been out of the computer lab in a really long time, is smitten. Might there not be a student who’s smitten, too? Oldies have groupies, too.
Elliot’s “Survey of American Letters from 1850 to 1918” doesn’t stand a chance against Yaz’s “Sex in the Novel,” but he still has the power to make and break careers (not sure how that works, but never mind). Mightn’t he have some redeeming feature, some remnant of what once gave him standing, something more than ego and ice and the colonoscopy he boasts of in the faculty lounge? (“American Letters”? I don’t think I ever saw a literature course described as “letters,” even at Columbia). There are a few human touches, as when Yaz opens a book of his and sees that it’s dedicated “to my students.” And at the copy machine, which she knows how to operate but he does not (nice touch), she says, “you know when Moby Dick was first reviewed, the reviewer spelled it Mobie. That really pissed me off”; and Eliot meets her eyes and says, “that pissed me off too”; and there’s this recognition that here are two human beings who take literature seriously.
I wanted more moments like this, moments that showed characters, not caricatures. I wanted more complex students, more than the “entitled little shits,” in William Deresiewicz’s memorable term, who are out to crucify Bill. I wanted them to be human and vulnerable, to see them interacting with faculty and see faculty interacting with them—isn’t that sort of what teaching is about? I recall only one such moment. Lily, the debt-ridden, anxious graduate student working with Bill, whose future hangs on his good standing, has blundered, telling a reporter that she’s been told not to talk to the media; the reporter distorts her statement— as the media have been known to do— putting the most sensationalist, incendiary spin on it, saying she’s under a “gag order” from her chair. This makes Ji-Yoon the target of student rage. Lily apologizes, and there’s this moment when Sandra Oh’s empathy shines through: “it wasn’t your fault,” she says, instantly and from the heart. Sandra Oh is splendid in this role.
I realize, comedy often deals in types; but there’s complex comedy and there’s cartoon, and this doesn’t seem to know which it wants to be. The TV series Silicon Valley is pure farce, and it works; who cares if these absurd wannabes crash and burn? But with an English department, there’s something at stake, though you might not suspect it, from these silly people running around with egos big as barns, defending their territories, incompetent at what they’re paid to do. The family scenes with Ji-Yoon and her prickly daughter (played brilliantly by Everly Carganilla) and her father (Ji Yang Lee), who seems a bit dazed by the child care he’s called on to do—these worked well, in a sitcom sort of way. But the academic world is painted with too broad and cartoonish a brush. Doofusses with jobs for life, students so rigidly and stupidly PC (shouldn’t English departments be teaching them something about context and irony?)—we’ve seen these stereotypes before.
I try to imagine what a general audience would take from The Chair, viewers who know nothing about academia except what the media tell them. The charm and charisma of Sandra Oh and Jay Duplass notwithstanding, seriously—what would they see that’s worth saving? “Really nailed it.” “Truth hurts,” “Got it right,” are responses I’ve seen in Facebook threads. But if it seems “right,” that may be because it confirms what people already know, the stereotypes the public has been fed by a media eager to “nail” us. These are stereotypes we don’t need and don’t deserve.
Think back to the opening scene, where Ji-Yoon has just become chair and is warning the department of their dire straits. She states the case for English: “What we teach cannot be quantified or put down on a resume,” along with remarks about critical thinking and the cultivation of empathy. This is the kind of thing we in the humanities often hear ourselves saying, and true as it may be (it is true), it often comes out sounding pious and platitudinous, as it does here. Only here, it’s ridiculous, interspliced with slapstick scenes of Bill swilling beers at an airport bar, having seen his daughter off to college, pissing in the parking lot, capsizing a trolley, making Ji-Yoon’s elevated sentiments sound overblown and out-of-touch. It might help if nonacademic viewers were clued in to that word “quantified,” why it matters: faculty have been forced to produce quantifiable “student learning outcomes,” to reduce our classes to measurable “outputs,” to demonstrate to our overlords that we have a right to exist —this is how vulnerable academia has become, how colonized by what Silicon Valley pioneer and whistleblower Jaron Lanier calls computationalism, a quantifying mentality that sees everything as reducible to what can be computed. (Full disclosure: Immeasurable Outcomes is the title of my next book.)
I’ve sensed that academics have been generally less enthusiastic about this show than nonacademics. Some loved it, but others couldn’t take more than ten minutes, and some wouldn’t go near it, having seen the trailer. Forgive us if we’re a bit sensitive these days, but in 1990 there were 212 liberal arts colleges; by 2012, there were 130. Between 2016 and 2019, at least 22 closed, according to Chris Newfield. Liberal arts programs, departments, regional branches of state systems are going belly up by the dozens, tenure and academic freedom with them. With Covid, the liberal arts are facing what some have called “an extinction level event.” And it’s not only the liberal arts, but higher education itself on the chopping block (except for programs with “product-market fit”), denounced as “unsustainable,” student debt exceeding credit card debt, while all around rage angry voices— what use are we, what product, what profit?
I get it, a 3-hour television show might not want to go into all that; and on television, the enemy needs a face. But stodgy old professors and money-minded deans are not what’s brought us to our knees. The enemy is much larger, more complex, and has no face. A steady acid drip of detraction from right-wing think tanks and media has been eating away at public funding and confidence in higher ed. Lawmakers are waging war on the liberal arts, insisting that we turn out workers “job ready on day one,” in the words of Barack Obama (this is a bipartisan assault, one of the few things Republicans and Democrats agree on— higher education matters so little, they can afford to agree). An ed tech industry with billions of dollars and some of the most powerful people on the planet pushing it are waging publicity campaigns to persuade us that the future of teaching is online. Students are fleeing the humanities for STEM, where they’ve been told jobs are more plentiful than they actually are. I higher ed has not always been its own best friend, but it really doesn’t help to show us incapable of tying our shoes.
Finally, at the end of the last episode of The Chair, we hear words that indicate that the creators of this show do know what the enterprise about. We’re at the hearing that’s been called to fire Bill, offer him up as a sacrificial victim to the students, still on the warpath about his Nazi salute; Ji-Yoon, as chair, is forced to preside over this inquisition. Finally, Bill speaks for himself, not exactly defending himself, which he’s extraordinarily inept at, but just sort of musing:
I was thinking this morning, that to be an English teacher you have to fall in love with stories and with literature, and what you’re doing when you do that is, you’re always trying to see things from someone else’s point of view, you’re trying to occupy a different space, and when you’re in the middle of a story you’re in a state of possibility as opposed to whatever state of oppressiveness you’re in in real life. The text is a kind of living thing, and it’s a dance, an ongoing conversation you have with it. Sometimes you love a poem so much you, every time you read it, you feel something new and you feel transformed by it. It’s a complicated but faithful relationship.
It’s as though somebody opened a window and let in some air. We see that Bill is the real thing, dysfunctional as he’s been. And so is Ji-Yoon, because she hears him, and denounces this show trial, saying to the dean, “If you think Bill is a Nazi [which nobody does], fire him. But firing Bill isn’t going to change the culture. Those people—those are our students. Our job is not to trick them or manage them or make them fall in line—our job is to offer the refuge from the BS, to level with them. The world is burning and we’re sitting up here worrying about our endowment or our rankings.”
Yes, the students are what English department is about, what any department at a college or university ought to be about—but why is this the first time we’ve heard?
Finally, in the last episodes, we see some actual teaching. Ji-Yoon is teaching an Emily Dickinson poem, “hope is the thing with feathers,” inspiring her students’ curiosity and wonder, capturing their imaginations. (Interestingly, they’re in a seminar room, a small classroom, where interaction is possible, not those ghastly lecture halls we’ve seen before.) We see that Yaz, too, is capable of teaching something other than the Hamilton knockoff her students made of Moby Dick. We see professors doing the real work of bringing complex texts alive, stretching imaginations, doing the kind of “dance” that opens a space for possibility, allowing an intimation of alternatives. It’s not easy to get kids to focus on words, mesmerized as they are by visuals, but it’s the heart of what we do. Because teaching students to read the word is teaching them to read the world, a world thick with lies, distortions, disinformation, full of people urging them to buy something or buy into something that may not serve them or society well. The liberal arts are not frills; they’re survival skills.
Amanda Peet tells how, interviewing professors “What struck me the most… is how much a lot of these people are in love with teaching, and see their students as real people from whom they can learn…. I wanted to convey the passion that I heard in the voices of these professors I spoke to, and that they feel it’s a calling. That was very moving to me.” It is moving, and it’s true, and true of K-12 teachers as well. A Claremont colleague, John Seery, in a cathartic diatribe against administrative bloat (“Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy”), describes what is valuable beyond all price about real teaching:
At my little college [Pomona], notwithstanding the national noise to the contrary, I find myself surrounded by incredibly hardworking, conscientious, bright, creative, curious students—anything but the slacker or snowflake or sheep-like images of college millennials you see portrayed by professional cynics and anti-education propagandists. I’m also surrounded by many fellow professors who are intensely dedicated, principled, broad-minded classroom teachers who see their job not primarily as a job but as a vocation.
Such teaching goes on at places less pricey than the Claremont Colleges, in large state universities, at community colleges, at regionals you’ve never heard of, anywhere educators can find ways of enabling conversation, exchange, engagement. As Seery says, there is “something tremendously right, something inextinguishable, something akin to a spark of sacred sentience…in many out-of-the-way college classrooms today, and we need to dwell and build on those quietly catalytic encounters.”
The Chair had a chance “to dwell and build on those quietly catalytic encounters.” It has access to a much larger audience than any academic can ever hope to reach. But it let it slip away, gave too much away for cheap laughs—until the end, that is, when it redeemed itself, for this viewer, anyway. It did finally get to the heart of the matter, but too little and too late. It is to the credit of this show that it has sparked so many responses, invited so many people in, to find versions of themselves in it (will we be hearing from students? I wonder). But I wanted more. I wanted to see the magic earlier, to get a glimpse of what’s worth saving, so we’d know there’s something more at stake than these paltry players.
We often hear that academia is a place where the battles are as fierce as the stakes are low, and watching The Chair, we’d have to agree. But the stakes are low only if you think it’s okay to turn out graduates who know nothing about their fellow human beings, their world, the past. Our students will be facing challenges beyond what we can begin to imagine, if these past few years are any indication, crises that require far-ranging intelligence, imagination, sensitivity: cataclysmic climate change, the toppling of democracies, rampant inequality, refugee populations, pandemics, a real four-horsemen horror show. They’ll need more than computer science or business administration to be up to that. But these may be the only programs left if the humanities go down in flames.