The Academic Department as Ticking Time Bomb

By John Evelev

The Chair. Daniel Gray Longino, dir. Created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman. Netflix, 2021.

The Netflix dramedy The Chair premiered in late August 2021, and immediately academic social media was atwitter (pun intended). A television show that addresses workplace conditions  in US higher education? How would it depict the many hot-button issues that plague the sector? Unsurprisingly, the consensus has been that what makes for good TV, especially good comedy, does not necessarily do justice to the problems facing contemporary academics and US higher education, particularly in the humanities. Despite its superficialities and anachronisms, however, The Chair speaks to some of the absurd and painful realities of the experience of women and people of color in the academy. It also addresses the dysfunction of the contemporary US university’s hydra-headed role as bastion of humanism, contact zone between different generational standards of racial and political consciousness, and quasi-corporate entity concerned as much with PR and how it might affect the endowment as with education.

The show opens as Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) begins her first day as the first woman chair of the fictional Pembroke University’s English department. Meeting with her dean, she is full of plans to help support her junior colleague Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), the only Black faculty member. Instead the dean presents her with evidence of the department’s collapsing enrollments and tasks her with finding ways to induce the three most senior colleagues, who have the highest salaries and the lowest enrollments, to retire. One of the three, Joan Hambling (Taylor Holland), the department’s first woman hire and an early feminist scholar of Chaucer, initiates a Title IX complaint after her office is moved to the basement of the gym. Meanwhile, a popular midcareer professor, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), struggling emotionally in the aftermath of his wife’s death, makes a Nazi salute during a lecture on modernism and fascism. A video clip of the salute goes viral, and Dobson faces being “canceled” by student activists. Thus, The Chair introduces a range of timely issues in US higher education in the relatively narrow compass of its six episodes.

The Chair is not without its serious moments, but it is a comedy, and the impulse to find humor undercuts the importance and complexity of the serious issues it treats. The story arc of Dobson’s Nazi salute, the student-led protests against him, and the administration’s effort to fire him attempt to reflect contemporary controversies about free speech on campus and what has been decried by the Right as “wokeness” and “cancel culture.” But the story line distorts the real stakes of the free-speech debates in contemporary academia: in no way is Dobson a Nazi or supportive of alt-right or Fascist ideologies, and the student protests come across as superficial and misguided—even if Dobson’s attempts to address student concerns highlight the real dangers of complacent assumptions by members of an older generation that their own politics will find support among a new generation of campus activists. The show’s version of this dynamic trivializes the way political expression in the classroom and on social media has come under threat, especially (but not exclusively) for professors on the left and from underrepresented groups—including supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions and Black Lives Matter movements—who are attacked on social media and sometimes face disciplinary action or dismissal by university administrations concerned about negative publicity.

The story line about Joan Hambling’s Title IX case also downplays serious issues. Over the course of the series, Joan describes a career deeply affected by institutional sexism, including inappropriate sexual relations with department members in positions of authority over her. Yet her Title IX complaint is about being relocated to an unpleasant office space, and in the process of filing her complaint, she makes sexist judgments about the young woman who is the university’s Title IX officer. Her experience of sexist mistreatment is ostensibly redeemed by her being appointed chair at the end of the season, but her story line is symptomatic of how the show repeatedly frames the failure of institutional structures to address injustices, with ad hoc gestures  replacing those systems created to ensure equal treatment in US higher education.

Many academic viewers have commented on the minimal role that graduate students play in the narrative and on the complete absence of adjunct faculty members in the show as significant lapses in verisimilitude. The show’s cocreator, Annie Julia Wyman, has recently written for Inside Higher Ed in defense of these omissions, observing that “all works of art” make “choices about whom to represent and how,” but she goes on to describe her own experience as an adjunct instructor and to assert that “adjunctification is destroying higher education.”

Although aspects of The Chair have been called out as unrealistic or anachronistic, it has been notable to see scholars from underrepresented groups push back against initial online critiques. For example, commentators such as Rebecca Wanzo, Karen Tongson, and Koritha Mitchell have seen Ji-Yoon as representative of a recent generation of women and faculty of color promoted into academic leadership positions, only to discover that promotion has meant something very different from what it meant for their white male predecessors. As Ji-Yoon says late in the show, “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.” Ji-Yoon’s story line includes not only professional struggles but also personal challenges as a single parent of an adopted child, negotiation of her Korean heritage with her father, and glimpses of her classroom, where she tries to bring the ideas of feminist writers Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde into dialogue with the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Although the series seems to celebrate such moments of intellectual engagement, it holds out little hope for the transformation of higher education.

In the final episode, Ji-Yoon poses Audre Lorde’s famous dictum, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” to her students in the classroom, and the show demonstrates its truth in Ji-Yoon’s final acts as chair—Pyrrhic victories in refusing to take part in the dean’s action to fire Bill Dobson and in nominating Joan Hambling as her replacement after she is unseated as chair. Although the end of the series leaves open the possibility of future seasons, the show effectively signals the inherently limited possibilities for change within the corporatized, superficial, PR-sensitive, and conservative contemporary US university.

John Evelev is professor of English at University of Missouri. He is the author of Tolerable Entertainment: Herman Melville and Professionalism in Antebellum New York and Picturesque Literature and the Transformation of the American Landscape, 1835–1874. His email address is [email protected].