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Monday, August 23, 2021

The Chair

My wife and I work in academia, so we are the target audience for Netflix's The Chair. We plowed through the six half-hour episodes and found it an enjoyable story and funny--worth watching and worth a second season. But neither of us shared the conclusion that it was Neflix's best drama in years or that it gets academia right. Take what follows as one point of view. Neither of us works in English or the Humanities and neither is a person of color, although my wife is a woman and holds a non-tenure-earning position, a different prevalent inequity in the academy.

I think my not loving the show more than I did comes to this: The show skewers multiple foibles of academia, but those foibles are inconsistent, the narrative has continuity errors among those foibles, and the hero's solution misunderstands or conflates them. Spoilers after the jump.

Here are the problems thrown in the lap of Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) in her first days as chair:

    • A very senior career-Associate Professor (the first tenured woman in the department) has her office moved to a box without wi-fi in the basement of the gym. She also began her career paid $ 12k less than the men hired at the same level and has lived a career of having extra service thrown on her. She goes to the Title IX office several times, but finds the office ineffectual. Here is one continuity problem--the office move gets blamed on Ji-Yoon, although the move occurred before she took over  and seems to have come from the dean's office.

    • The dean orders Ji-Yoon to convince the three most-senior faculty (the woman above and two men, all white) to retire. New lines and other funds come only if she succeeds. The targeted faculty teach to empty classrooms, get bad evaluations, and seem to have stopped caring about teaching well or about engaging with their students. The woman spends time having someone hack into a database to identify the source of a negative review, then confronts the student in public (with a passionate defense of Chaucer that, if she made it in the classroom, might make her a more-engaging teacher). Two have stopped writing.

    • The mid-career superstar (and Ji-Yoon's sort-of love interest) Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) has been drinking and taking pills and phoning-in his teaching and everything else in since his wife died a year ago. Late for class and hung-over while lecturing on fascism and absurdism, he drops a passing "Heil Hitler" with a Nazi salute (I have not decided how inexcusable that was in context as a light aside). Students surreptitiously record it and the video becomes a meme with a Nazi hat and uniform superimposed on him. That triggers a campus uproar, with students calling for his head while chanting about "getting Nazis off campus." A "town hall" on the campus quad goes off the rails. Some have criticized this story line as a caricature of student protests cum cancel culture, but the scene does not look so different from the Nicholas Cristakis or Bret Weinstein encounters. This  threatens to pull Ji-Yoon under when the student paper reports (disingenuously) that she imposed a "gag order" on the department to cover for Dobson.

    • The department's lone African-American woman is up for tenure and the senior prof (one of the three on the chopping block) chairing her committee is out to get her, seemingly because he resents her "modern" teaching methods that attract students to packed classrooms. Ji-Yoon exerts what I think would be inappropriate influence on that professor and that process, although in what we are supposed to see as a just cause.

    • Led by the three aging faculty Ji-Yoon is supposed to push into retirement, the department holds a no-confidence vote with Ji-Yoon sitting in the room, in consultation with the dean; the vote succeeds, 6-5. When she ceases to be chair, Ji-Yoon pulls a parliamentary move in naming the new chair that perhaps sets-up a second season. This is the show's other continuity problem. At times, characters speak about Ji-Yoon being chair by virtue of a departmental selection, while other times she is described as being appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the dean (the latter being how life works). And, of course, no-confidence votes are advisory to the dean. It would not take effect immediately after the votes are counted. Nor would we expect the dean to take seriously a no-confidence effort led by the three faculty members he had ordered the challenged chair to get rid of.

    • The student outrage against Dobson leads to a kangaroo proceeding that could not work against anyone, least of all a professor with tenure, putting aside that nothing he did would be grounds for losing tenure.

And here is the big spoiler and what rang false for me: In the finale, Ji-Yoon defends Dobson at the proceeding by going off on the dean's and the university's obsession with money and the way they ignore what the students want and need. But what the students want and need is what the dean (and central administration figures) are pushing for and Kim opposes or refuses to do: Fire the "Nazi" prof. Get rid of  the deadwood profs who do not care about teaching or their students, which offers the additional benefit of clearing a departmental obstacle to the tenure grant of the popular teacher. Spend money on areas of study that students are interested in--not the undersubscribed humanities but those that lead them to lucrative careers. The show is trying to tell a story of Kim standing up to power--but the power structure is actually on the side she purports to stand for. I do not believe this is the message the show intended to send. But by conflating inconsistent stories, that is the resulting story logic.

Again, we enjoyed the show. But I think we were expecting/hoping for more.

Finally, a pitch for an often-forgotten show about academia: The Education of Max Bickford (2001-02), about the reluctant (old, white, male) chair of the History/American Studies department at a women's college. It aired during my first year in teaching and while my wife, who attended a women's college, was in grad school. It is a network show, so it is generally unambitious and has similar plot holes to The Chair. But it is worth a rewatch, if you can find it streaming.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 23, 2021 at 09:31 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman, Television | Permalink


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