Education

Is the Department Chair the Boss?

You’re reading a recap of Episode 3 of the Netflix series The Chair with the writers Alison Kinney, Grace Lavery, Dan Sinykin, and Rebecca Wanzo. Find our other episode recaps here.

Dan: Sorry, I’m just going to open this discussion with David Duchovny, author of The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett’s Early Novels.

Rebecca: When I was in grad school, a TV crew filmed a few scenes representing a fictional Ivy League college at Duke University. One of my colleagues was going to try to be an extra, and I joked with him that he was trying to “pull a Duchovny.”

Dan: Love it.

Rebecca: Obviously one of the themes here is the possible effects of donor and trustee interference — this is comical, but might hit differently for viewers unfamiliar with this phenomenon until Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Grace: Dang. True.

Dan: The scene we’re talking about — in which Ji-Yoon dines with the dean and a trustee, and the trustee insists on giving the annual distinguished lectureship to Duchovny (whom she ran into at the local farmers’ market), despite the fact that Ji-Yoon has already offered it to Yaz — is, like so much of this show, at once funny and demoralizing. “He’s the kind of person who can revitalize the study of literature,” the titillated trustee declares. Later, trying to talk Ji-Yoon down, the dean points out that Duchovny is a writer who will excite students who, he says emphatically, “want to produce content.” It’s a devastating line. For all its intellectual bankruptcy, it illuminates a fault line in the show (and in real life): technology, social media, the internet. In the most recent issue of the journal PMLA, Aarthi Vadde calls us to transform the discipline to make it adequate to the internet. Whether this is a good idea — and I think it is — is part of what’s at stake in the show’s intergenerational tension, showcased in the pedagogical disagreements between Elliot and Yaz.

The town hall at episode’s end confirmed my worst fears about how the show imagines students: They are bad readers in a world where bad reading is the worst crime. They incarnate, as Grace writes, the paranoid fantasy of a Fox News host, crucifying a white man who doesn’t deserve it. Meanwhile, universities are rife with actually badly behaving white men who never are held to account.

We rounded up four scholars to chat about the show’s portrayal of academe, and they did not hold back. Read the recaps:

Grace: Aye. For one thing, why would you have a “town hall” outside?

I realize that the questions to which The Chair seems to drag me — which are, broadly, what does this show think a humanities education is, and on what grounds is it apparently worth reproducing? — are not those which it wants me to think about. After watching “The Town Hall,” I’m, like Dan, concerned that the “cancel culture” story is going to be the show’s master plot. You don’t namecheck Adorno unless you’re fairly confident of the moral high ground. In the last recap, I got all moralistic myself about the condescending portrayal of students. This time, I’m livid about Bill’s utterly incoherent defense of his position. “Do you think it’s acceptable to joke about Nazis?” — Dean Larson throws him a soft one — and rather than respond, for example, “Yes, of course it is,” or, “Depends on the joke,” Bill both concedes that joking about Nazis is always bad and then launches a hacky joke of his own. Would it have been too much to script a decent joke about Nazis — there are plenty to choose from — other than Bill’s (I assume intentional) misquoting of “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers? One might wonder whether this is all a clumsy attempt to address the censorship of scholars sympathetic to Palestinian liberation. If so, stronger arguments were needed on both sides.

Alison: The way the Hello Kitty reference with Ju Ju spiraled upward was wonderful. Speaking of Ju Ju, I noticed in the first episode that the Title IX officer’s previous job was in a nonprofit that placed immigrant children in foster families. For me, this was a red flag about the upcoming adoption narrative with Ju Ju. Immigrant children separated from their families are supposed to be reunited; nonprofits promoting fosterage and adoption for them are, often, humantrafficking outfits. Did the writers not know this? In Episode 2, I appreciated the focus on the lies that Ji-Yoon had to tell to market herself to the agency as a fitting adoptive parent. Ji-Yoon wonders why Ju Ju’s birth mother chose her, but she doesn’t seem to reflect on the fact that those very lies were part of her appeal. It’s an odd lapse in self-awareness for a character so rooted in textual analysis and close reading.

Grace: I’m sure I wasn’t alone among English professors in yelling “No you’re not!” at the screen when Ji-Yoon tells Bill, “I am your boss.” 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. Whose university? Our university.

Rebecca: I suspect my reading of this show is shaped by the fact that I am a chair. You’re right, the chair is not the “boss” of tenure-track faculty — nor do most of us want to be. But are you sure we are not often line managers? I was in a meeting on leadership once where there was unhappiness about having to focus on minutiae like the level of copier ink. That’s not really leadership, right? And another colleague said, well, yes, keeping things running is the gig. This is not why we got into this academic career, to do such work — the copier and course scheduling and payroll and reports to the dean. This can be the sticker shock of going into administration — the cost of not being able to use your brain in the ways you most enjoy, and the damage you know it might do to treasured relationships with your colleagues. Ji-Yoon being at a small school and in a small department is important. Some people have staff to manage some of these things. A lot of people don’t. So I think this is the point: Robust intellectual engagement with ideas is thwarted by, well, management.

Alison: So much of the show’s unruliness comes from the question of how we are supposed to manage colleagues who display such poor judgment and entitlement. Is a chair’s responsibility to keep a whole department intact (and unchanged), or to transform it to better support its most bureaucratically vulnerable and most brilliant and productive members? I’m thinking of how Yaz says that she never goes home and is basically on call 24/7 for office hours, and of how Ji-Yoon nonetheless throws her under the bus to save Elliot.

Rebecca: Ji-Yoon comes in with desires and is thwarted by being thrust into crisis mode. How do you articulate a future when you’re busy trying to provide basic services? Joan’s displacement from her office thus signifies something more than just attacks on older women faculty. Do you think any of us want to be harping on enrollments?


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