By Pat Zumhagen
“The Chair,” the six-episode series written by actress/writer Amanda Peet and writer/academic Annie Julia Wyman, and produced by Game of Thrones duo David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and Chair star Sandra Oh, has garnered much attention in recent weeks. Reviews mostly hailing the Netflix show as “brilliant,” “timely,” and “hilarious” have flooded the media. And the show’s release also lit up academic Twitter with a flurry of tweets that weighed in on what the series got right about academic life and what was left wanting in its depiction of the English department at Pembroke, the fictional college that provides the setting for the playing out of the culture wars on American college campuses today.
The series deals specifically with challenges faced by Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the newly named Chair of the Pembroke English Department––challenges made still more intense due to Kim’s status as a first-ever-woman of color to hold the position. Within a hierarchy held in place by Dean Paul Larson (David Marsh), woke students and junior professors, and their more antiquated counterparts called “dinosaurs,” play out their opposing roles on a stage defined by the elusiveness of tenure for women of color, the lack of faculty diversity, gendered salary discrepancies, competing teaching philosophies, and a dwindling enrollment. All that is missing at Pembroke is a cadre of poorly paid adjuncts and graduate student instructors who stand in for more costly tenure-line professors, and whose labor currently makes up more than 60% of the teaching in real humanities departments in the US.
The story unfolds in a plot that develops around three of Kim’s main challenges as Chair. The first: to bring Pembroke into the 21st century in terms of diversity and feminism by supporting Black Americanist assistant professor, Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), during her run-up to tenure. Part of Kim’s plan involves suggesting that McKay co-teach Moby Dick with Melville scholar (and dinosaur), Eliot Rentz (Bob Balaban), rather than offer her own popular and heavily enrolled course, “Sex and the Novel.” Kim’s reasoning is that making such a change would most immediately solve the department’s enrollment issues by filling vacant seats in Rentz’ course with McKay’s overflow of students. Kim’s suggestion is also motivated by the hopes that it will also create a forum in which McKay can show off her talents as a teacher and her grasp of contemporary critical theory to Rentz, who is, it turns out, the head of her departmental tenure committee. But though it is McKay who brings the students to the classroom, in Rentz’s mind it is he who is the serious scholar, and he quickly relegates his younger colleague to the level of a paper-distributing teaching assistant, as McKay had predicted he would.
The inevitable complexity of this strange-bedfellows merger isn’t the sole cause of Kim’s defeat in her struggle to bring the department into the 21st century. Her plan to select McKay for the year’s Distinguished Lecturer Award is soon derailed by Dean Larson, who, seeking to appeal to alumni and donors, instead taps celebrity and former Yale ABD Beckett scholar, David Duchovny (played by himself), for the honor––though he had left the profession 30 years ago. Though Kim does manage to convince Duchovny to withdraw his candidacy, she doesn’t do it quite fast enough to head off a job offer from Yale to McKay, an offer which comes with the promise of an endowed chair, an expedited tenure process, and a hefty salary. McKay, of course, considers the offer, accusing Kim of abandoning her mission to diversify the faculty by kowtowing to an antiquated academic structure and value system.
Kim’s second and central challenge as the new Chair arises from her dealings with the charming and popular professor, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), who after arriving late and quite hung over for the semester’s first meeting of his course, “The Death of Modernism,” performed a cocky mock Seig Heil gesture while defining fascism as a cause for modernism’s demise. His students, with cell phones at the ready, snap photos of him in mid-gesture. Eager to identify a scapegoat and to publicize Dobson’s faux pas (in a way that seems ironic in their quasi-fascistic use of PC language and behavior), they cast him as an anti-Semite in the memes they create on the spot and post on social media even before the class has ended. Predictably, “No Nazis at Pembroke” protests break out immediately among students. This terrifies the Dean, the board, and the donors, already worried about low enrollments and thus more attentive to student discontent. Make a public apology, they tell Dobson, or lose your job. But–and here’s the rub–it isn’t enough for the students that he apologize for offending them. He must apologize for being a Nazi, or minimally, for being anti-Semitic. Enter Cancel Culture at Pembroke!
Seeing both accusations as unfounded and untrue, Dobson resists the demand for apology, and thereby puts his job in jeopardy. Doing so, he compromises the legitimacy of his colleague and current boss, Kim, whose advice to Dobson’s TA—to not answer any questions from reporters--comes off as a gag order issued in an attempted cover-up. Ironically, all her efforts to stave off notoriety gets her is a front-page cover-photo and an above-the-fold story in the campus newspaper.
As if that weren’t enough, Kim’s difficulties as a first woman of color in her position are further complicated by her private life as a single mother of a smart, charming, but rather difficult adopted daughter, Juju (Every Carganilla). The Chair’s depiction of Kim’s work/life balance signals the stress that working mothers face when childcare is not provided by the university, babysitters outside the workplace are in short supply, and parents must depend on resistant grandparents and/or friends to watch their children, sometimes with no advance notice.
Kim is faced with the additional stress of her unresolved romantic relationship with Dobson, former peer, former boss, and current subordinate. Recently widowed, he assuages his pain by self-medicating with every drug and drink known to man in an attempt to “get his shit together.” In the meantime, Dobson’s antics compromise Kim’s need to maintain professionalism with the Dean and impartiality with department members.
And this series is supposed to be funny?
Well, in fact, it is funny. Very funny. Aside from the humor sparked by the show’s realistic treatment of academic politics, Kim’s personal relationship with Dobson often plays out like a zany rom com. The show highlights their undeniable chemistry and the banter that attests to their clear enjoyment of one another, even through their mighty disagreements. Similarly, Kim’s struggles with Juju, who terrorizes babysitters, befuddles teachers, and worries her amused, though understandably exhausted mother, often spark guffaws.
But the heartiest laughs are prompted by Kim’s third challenge—her attempt to locate a proper workspace for the tenured medievalist professor, Joan Hambling, brilliantly played by Holland Taylor. Hambling, a bawdy, outspoken 70-year-old, has recently been moved to the basement of the Athletic Department, following an administrative decision to make room for young blood by inciting older professors to retire. Hambling’s attempts to be restored to an above-ground office by means of a Title IX claim, her burning of her negative student evaluations in a waste basket bonfire in her office, and her successful flirtatious conspiracy with a newly acquired IT buddy to “out” an outrageously ageist and misogynist “Rate my Professor” critic––are easily the most hilarious moments of the season.
But as entertaining, heartwarming, and poignant as the series is, and as apt as its depiction of the mindsets, policies and politics of academia seem to be, I found the show to be nonetheless somewhat wanting. Or, perhaps, it’s better to say, I found myself wanting––for a bit more. As a former English professor in a respected university suffering from some of the same problems, the shock of recognition and the agony of the situation having been captured exactly as it unfolded in my experience, elicited not only my laughter but also my frustration. I found myself wishing the show had been bolder in its treatment of the complexity and sometimes thorny aspects of some of the behaviors it depicts. The question that remains for me is how the portrayal might have been done more effectively and more successfully.
I’d been impressed with the way a comment by McKay added to the representation of her situation, and humorously, to the critique of racism in the department. However, I found myself longing for a more obvious denouncement of the students’ series of actions following Dobson’s ‘Heil Hitler’ joke and dismissal. The Chair’s writers did a splendid job in composing the zinger that McKay delivers, in which she points to the absurdity of Kim’s protection of Rentz, in his loss of stature, at the expense of his junior, Black woman colleague. “I can see why you feel sorry for him . . . he only got to rule the profession for the last forty years,” she snaps. I applauded the critique of racism and cronyism of academe that the script levels in that comment. Unfortunately, however, there was no such challenge leveled at Dobson’s students’ own brand of absurd behavior in his class or at his town meeting beyond a straightforward depiction of the scenes.
In today’s universities, when PC responses by students in English departments are so typical that neither guffaws, nor awareness of the absurdity of a situation are guaranteed responses for viewers, lampooning these normalized behaviors might require more work than the use of hyperbole. If critiques of students’ inability to either distinguish between a joke and a slur, or resist a questionable orthodoxy, are points “The Chair” is interested in promoting (though to what extent they are is perhaps still the question), the choice to include a critical or humorous visual or verbal response from an unconvinced onlooker could help. Perhaps a non-conformist student’s point that Dobson’s gesture was made while illustrating a link between fascism and absurdism would have offered a viewer an alternative to students’ certainty of Dobson’s commitment to Nazi politics and identity. Perhaps a student’s use of feminist theory for a humorous woke-on-woke critique of protestors’ misrepresentation of Dobson, could have provided a clearer critique of the students for putting a Nazi cap on his head in their memes. And, lastly, adding an awestruck professor to the group at the town meeting might have shed light on the consequences of not challenging what Anne Applebaum calls Modern mob justice techniques in her recent Atlantic article, “The New Puritans”––such as students chanting memorized lines in sync with each other and with their choreographed moves to insist on only one truth– that Dobson is a Nazi because it serves their purposes, and because they say so. There are never enough of such faculty members in real English Departments; but there is always at least one.
And could that one be introduced in Season Two?
If not, the series could be wanting for a slightly more obvious satirical stance when it comes to the students, so as not to reproduce the fear provoked by cancel culture in the actual telling of this story. As it stands, the series critiques the easy issues well—the ones with which most people agree. It succeeds at condemning ageism and coerced retirement, a lack of faculty diversity, the dreaded “Rate My Professor” website, gendered wage discrimination, and the lecture as valid pedagogy on its own.
But, speaking of pedagogy, where was a critique of McKay’s? Unless there is a spoofing too vague to notice, I did not catch a satirical tone taken about her competence vs. her marketability. And the story could benefit from something more than incessant praise for her pedagogy, even considering her beyond rapturous response to the students’ theatrical performance of Moby Dick. I am a lover of using drama and the arts in the classroom, and engaging students in creating responses to comprehend and more easily relate to older literature especially. But, while the students are engaged and have ostensibly learned some things creating the pieces, the exercise cries out for a follow-up to that experience if it is to warrant applause. University students need to go further, and for them, this Hamiltonesque coverage of the novel is seriously wanting as it stands. Would Yale really be satisfied with this lightweight coverage of Moby Dick accompanied by neither necessary reflection nor discussion from its newly endowed chair, or is that question being deliberately–yet clearly too faintly–raised by the show’s writers? I found it hard to tell. The brief rack focus documentation of Rentz’s stunned reaction to McKay’s lesson was the sole response registered and could easily have been interpreted as an indictment of Rentz as the un-woke “dinosaur.”
In addition to issues with her lesson plan, McKay’s demonstrated questioning style, designed for only the response she is after, is problematic without a critique clearer than the juxtaposition of her style with Kim’s open questions and subsequent brief discussion with her class in the final episode. McKay is hailed as brilliant by Kim on about five occasions over the six episodes. And reviewers across the board have also emphasized her brilliance, most likely echoing Kim’s fictional endorsement. But where is the brilliance evidenced in her teaching in the show– the one place we could have seen it? Or are we meant to question her success based on alternative perspectives possibly running through viewers minds? – the idea that women of color currently enjoy an edge over white contenders in being hired or promoted in the academy– despite holdover statistics? If so, we have been given no indication of that. All we know is that the writers provided the opening for a critique, and then didn’t take it up.
That said, I do understand that the brevity of the series and the writers’ desire to be humorous as well as heady are reasons for not taking up extremely controversial political topics. That and the risk of being canceled themselves as racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic. Also, some possible real world opposing issues––complaints of “token” hirings and promotions and/or accusations of lowered requirements and expectations for women and minorities––are impossible to lampoon in today’s environment. This is true however clearly stated or masked such feelings may be on college campuses, or however appropriate they may be for a satirist focusing on campus wars. It is also difficult for creators to achieve a balance between representing a reality and including jibes to spoof that reality in the smartest way. This is especially true when the series is ongoing and when episodes are likely in development for future seasons, with opportunities for the inclusion of much that I am wanting for– to be introduced later.
I will admit, however, that I was encouraged that my desire for a stronger critique of complicated politics was partially fulfilled at the end of Episode Six. This occurred at the final hearing on Dobson’s fate, when his value to the English department is set in stark contrast to the committee’s concern for endowments and the college’s obsession with its latest US News and World Report rankings–concerns that only breathe life into cancel culture. And, I was especially encouraged by the cautionary statement Kim made to the committee at the end of the hearing, following her decision not to vote for Dobson’s dismissal.
“If you think Bill is a Nazi, by all means fire him,” she said. But, “firing Bill isn’t going to change the culture here or stop what’s going on out there.”
In conclusion then, I find that I am willing to wait and see. I am also optimistic that with a slightly clearer satirical tone to complement great storytelling, humor, a terrific cast, and a realistic commentary on university life and its current challenges on all sides, Season Two, and others that I expect to follow it, will be more satisfying.
Therefore, re-engaged and curious, I am moved to follow up on Kim’s last cautionary statement with the question that it prompts. A question that may, in some way, guide successive episodes:
What will change the culture here at Pembroke––and beyond?