Netflix’s The Chair, provides a rare mainstream representation of life in contemporary (US) academia. In this cross-post, Oya Zincir, reflects on the show and discusses how far it reflects the reality of life in academia more widely.
Shows that accurately represent academia are rare. The Chair’s co-creator Annie Julia Wyman received her Ph.D. in English from Harvard. That’s why I was so excited when Netflix series The Chair came out recently. The synopsis was very promising: “At a major university, the first woman of colour to become chair tries to meet the dizzying demands and high expectations of a failing English department.” The series takes place at the fictitious Pembroke University, “a frigid northeastern school that’s supposedly a lower-tier Ivy” as Sophie Gilbert described in her post at The Atlantic. It touches on many issues such as marketisation, free speech, concern with reputation, appropriate behaviour, intergenerational tensions, sexism.
Let’s start with marketisation… In his book La Société Malade de la Gestion Vincent de Gaulejac argued a toxic business ideology shapes our society with an objectivism that aims to make everything measurable, a functionalism that treats the organization as predefined data, a technocratic instrumentalism based on the indisputable position of expertise and a utilitarianism that accepts the worker as a human resource for the firm’s effectiveness. This ideology has also spread to academia as well. Frank Furedi argued that “since the late 1970s the culture of academic life has been transformed by the institutionalisation of the policies of marketisation… Quaint academic rituals and practices have been gradually displaced by management techniques as departments mutate into cost centres often run by administrators recruited from the private and public sector.”
As a research and teaching assistant who works for a business administration department at a university, I believe I have the first hand experience. Nearly all of the courses are designed for how to find a better job, to be an enthusiastic entrepreneur, to learn a useful program such as MS Project… how to increase business performance, to motivate employees in terms of increasing financial outcomes, to innovate rapidly, to sell much more products/services… Students are customers, university must serve for them… Professors who work very closely with private sector and neglect to do some serious academic research are welcome… market subjectivity and neoliberal governmentality in Foucauldian terms.
In the series, the organization is the university, managers are the dean and the brand new department chair, the workers are professors and the customers are students. When Dean Larson said there will be forced retirement because of budget cuts, marketisation shows itself. And when Prof. Joan Hambling says the department chair that she will not treat students as mere consumers; she tries to resist it.
Being a department chair… being a teaching assistant…
What is being a department chair like? Ji-Yoon’s “first act as the department head is literally to fall out of her broken office chair” as described by Karen Tongson, pointing out the metaphor behind it: “what is going on here?” Her expressions look like she has no idea what to do at first. Then, she faces many issues such as declining enrolment, tightening budgets, gender and racial discrimination, politically sensitized students, and the increasing lure of celebrities. In fact, Tia Noelle Pratt wrote that “Oh’s position as the department chair is unrealistically depicted as one that wields power and prestige that will ultimately result in measurable impact. In reality, it’s more of a middle-management position that requires balancing the competing needs of faculty and students with those of senior administrators. Too often, faculty and students want more resources and money for hiring and programming, while senior administrators want new and innovative ways to cut costs.”
A recent study found that department chairs are embedded in two worlds: the world of hierarchy and the world of collegiality. Both have their own rules and moves – hard to get both right. Another study found that department chairs act as ‘umbrella carriers’ who protect faculty from unnecessary/damaging initiatives/information from the top to allow for good professional work to take place below. In another study, the author found that chairs often struggle to balance common sense in decision making, humanity in working with others, and savvy in the overwhelming political landscape, all while possessing limited authority. We can see that Ji-Yoon is stuck between her peers (actually with the dean’s own words: “they are not your peers anymore”) and faculty administration. This situation is pretty anxiety-provoking indeed.
What about teaching assistants? A recent study already addressed that graduate teaching assistants are likely to encounter challenges in their work such as maintaining authority in their interactions with students, being subordinate to the course instructor, worried about making mistakes and contradicting the course instructor, limited autonomy, and lack of formal academic status at the university, etc. Hence, I would also like to focus on Lila’s character. She appears in some episodes very briefly, but I saw myself in her shoes every time she appeared. Full of anxiety, feeling unsafe? Check. Anxiety about finishing Ph.D. thesis? Check. Anxiety of covering supervisor in some awkward situations? Check. Debt? Check. The list goes on and on… When Bill said that Lila is writing a brilliant thesis, I immediately thought that Lila will be offered a job at the university. But in reality, is it so? This issue raises some questions about marketisation, again.
Free speech on campus, concern with reputation… and how to define appropriate behaviour
The storyline around Prof. Bill Dobson raises some questions about free speech, concern with reputation, and how to define appropriate behaviour. He arrives late to class and accidentally broadcasts an intimate video of his deceased wife. Later in the class, he uses the Nazi salute in teaching absurdism and fascism. Some students record this gesture on their phones and start circulating the video to each other. Afterward, some of the students protest against him outside Prof. Ji-Yoon Kim’s (the department chair) office window. When he is requested to write a public apology for the salute at the disciplinary proceeding, he refuses to do so. Instead, he organizes a public speech addressing students and says that he is proud of their dissent. He also tells students that they are misinterpreting what he did and he compares himself to professors who fled Nazi Germany. His words dissatisfy students, and the incident becomes bigger and bigger. Later, he learns that he is being suspended, is not allowed on campus and he must write a formal apology. His attorney advises him to take a settlement and move somewhere else.
When the attorneys for the university tell Ji-Yoon that she must speak out against Bill, she refuses to do so. That’s when she says something very important in terms of free speech. She tells Dean Larson that firing Bill won’t change the underlying culture at the school. Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman asked the question of can free speech coexist with an inclusive campus environment and addressed the tension between the desire to protect the learning experience of all students and the desire to safeguard freedom of expression. While one side focuses on all efforts to protect students from the effects of offensive or disrespectful speech as coddling and political correctness, the other side believes that free speech rights are secondary to the need to protect the learning experience of students, especially minority students. They believe that each one is of the same importance; colleges and universities must create inclusive learning environments for all students and protect freedom of speech. I am on the same page with them. As a candidate for the assistant professorship, I am feeling extreme anxiety about what can happen in the class. My reputation and also university reputation will be on the table… But what about free speech? When Bill told Ji-Yoon that he refused the settlement offer and will fight for his job back, I put myself in his shoes and I realised that I would do the same.
Baby Boomers are trying to “deal with” younger generations: Intergenerational tensions…
In the series, we can see that a young black female professor, Yazmin McKay, is up for tenure and budget cuts are in the air. There are three senior faculty members (who are all white) that are high-salaried with low course enrollments. One of them has to go so that Yazmin can get a Distinguished Scholarship. That’s what the dean said. One male professor is literally always asleep. Elliot Rentz, another male senior faculty member, treats Yazmin like a teaching assistant rather than a co-professor. This issue shows that there is a visible intergenerational tension between Elliot and Yazmin.
When Elliot sees that Yazmin’s class is full of students, this situation surprises him. As if that wasn’t enough, during a discussion about Herman Melville in Yazmin and Elliot’s joint class, a student asks about allegations of Melville beating his wife; he refuses to discuss the matter, but she says she will do the discussion in her section! When he witnesses her teaching style… this is another shock to the system! We can see that he disdains contemporary teaching methods. Later that day, he shares how he feels about the world he now lives in and his aging body with his wife, but doesn’t criticize his own teaching abilities at all. Similarly, Joan’s attitude for checking student evaluations shows that she is not interested in students’ thoughts (they think that Joan’s classes as well as Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales are very dull and boring). She is not aware of the fact that while those evaluations can be a bit harsh for her, some of them can be really valuable in terms of pedagogy. What does she do? She even meets with the IT guy to figure out who is posting negative reviews of her online and tracks the student! A study points out that many educators feel frustrated that millennials are especially difficult to reach and to motivate, so that teachers must engage them actively in the learning process. Yes, Joan hasn’t lost her passion for her subject but she’s clearly lost the ability to communicate that passion with the students. In a wider lens, older academics should be able to understand what younger generations request in terms of pedagogy. It is usually at this point that tensions between generations come to the fore.
Sexism in academia
The series touches on another point as well: being a woman in academia. I believe most of us can say that being a woman in academia is two times harder than being a man. We can see these issues in the example of Joan for instance. As Tia Noelle Pratt beautifully described, “she never applied for promotion to full professor because like so many women, she took on a disproportional amount of departmental service such as committee work, at the expense of her research.” And yet, she is the one who was picked to move to that damp basement office, not one of her male colleagues. Ji-Yoon’s own words tell so much for sexism in academia as well: “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.”
When pandemic is over, will there be serious changes in academia? I doubt so. Here, I cannot help but quote Ji-Yoon again: “The world is burning and we’re sitting here worried about our endowment.”
This post first appeared on the Post-Pandemic University Blog, as THE CHAIR: A WALK THROUGH THE HALF-DIM CORRIDORS OF ‘THE ACADEMIA’? (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).
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Image Credit: Uberform via Unsplash.
Thanks. The Chair series was funny and interesting. I suppose watching it during a really long lockdown, rather than being on campus, I was more sensitive to the issues. Around me, thousands of academics were losing their jobs. In the UK and Australia, reliance on student fees is everything. No students because of the pandemic? Then no money for salaries, and fewer lecturers needed. Get rid of them. Away from the US universities depicted on screen, there is no tenure except in very few jobs. We have ‘permanent’, ‘fixed term’ or ‘casual’ contracts. So bad teaching, as shown in The Chair, would probably result in swift and damning censure from a Departmental Head, a ‘Deanlet’ responsible for teaching, and most of those older faculty members would probably have been made redundant or taken early retirement long ago [although we do have Unions in all public universities in Australia and the UK, and hardly any private institutions] . So UK lecturers in particular, used to bringing in their own salaries by teaching hundreds rather than tens of students a semester, would have been puzzled how those guys still had a job.
What really rings true is the bright, cutting edge Black scholar Yazmin disconcerting the less innovative or productive older faculty, and while she was discriminated against, immediately getting another lucrative job offer. This discrimination/lack of discrimination binary rings true. Many universities I know are trying to redress over a century of racial and gender discrimination and indifference and are absolutely desperate to diversify their faculties now. They simply have to, as attitudes and regulations about discrimination change. Whether those of us who are non diverse older men who have supported diversity and change for decades [unlike the resistant professors show in the series] should just step aside and make way now, is a sore point. Perhaps they should tackle that in a second Series. “should we stay or should we go?” Along with: should a Department be forced to be financially self-sustaining? I think so, but at many US colleges teaching humanities, sadly this is not the case.
We white boomers should go. I did. We can go in our 50s or early 60s while we still have skills to sell as freelancers. Young folks should get their chance.
Thank you for this interesting commentary and analysis on “The Chair”. Although coming from Germany “our” academia has some significant differences from the one depicted in this series, it nonetheless depicts so many so relevant topics and issues that I sometimes found it hard to continue watching, because – even though it is of course, condensed in order to fit the format – the representation is incredibly realistic.
If I may, I would like to add one remark to you analysis. You pointed out Prof. Joan Hambling not taking the students’ evaluations of her class seriously, in fact, not reading them at all at first, and then tracking down the student who made a negative comment. I agree that her attitude towards the evaluations is not appropriate, but I’d like to point out that at least 2 of the comments we learn about where not at all about her teaching, but about her looks, her body. In fact, the student she tries to track down is not one that criticised her class or material, but that categorized her as an unattractive woman, to say it politely. Of course, I do not think that this excuses her tracking him. But this is actually another example of sexism in academia. In about 7/8th of the semesters I received my evaluations, there was at least one comment about my body (I am female), whereas none of my male colleagues ever received such remarks in their evaluations. In my case, they were all positive, but that is besides the point. A professor’s body, looks etc are not up for evaluation, yet somehow students regularly feel entitled to do so. I do believe that given Prof. Hambling’s history this kind of comment is particularly insulting and hurtful.