Why Are Academics So Busily Writing About “The Chair”?

A hurricane is tearing up New Orleans and much of Louisiana, then spiraling north. COVID hospitalizations are spiking exponentially. Wildfires are tearing up the west coast. Chaos has reigned over the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And what are we humanities-oriented academics (especially English-Department and American Studies types) seemingly talking about most energetically on twitter and beyond? A new Netflix comedy about ourselves: The Chair.

How come? Have we lost our commitment to real-world engagement?

Are we so self-absorbed that we’d rather watch hours of comedy about ourselves fighting battles that pale by comparison with the society’s larger concerns?

Are we so exhausted by our dwindling social power in the face of those gigantic, perhaps intractable problems all around us that we just want to escape?

Maybe one or more of the above is true for some of us.

But I suspect what’s driving many folks to watch—and then obsessively interpret The Chair to each other—is a more nuanced combination of hopefulness and anxiety. We’re drawn, I think, to the complex satire of the six-part series because it offers some encouragement to humanities faculty members, trapped in the midst of so many overwhelming woes on a global scale, that in our own institutional spaces, some change for the better might be possible, if elusive. In The Chair’s characters, none of them really evil, all of them recognizably human in their foibles and their underlying appeal, we see challenges that could be addressed successfully.

Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim

Many of the tensions at play in The Chair could happen in any workplace: generational and gender-based conflicts, cancel culture woes, financial stresses, and more. But part of academics’ fascination with The Chair is its move to pull the curtain back on the pitfalls of university culture interacting with concerns that are more universal. Co-creator and showrunner Amada Peet affirms that, although she started imagining a series that would be a workplace comedy consistent with other institutional spaces, such as the entertainment industry, the many conversations she had with academics as the show started to take form convinced her that a university setting would be do-able—indeed, “rich with possibility,” as she told Variety. In another conversation, with Vanity Fair, Peet referenced the many interviews she did with academics as convincing her that university workplaces “are just psychotic family dynamics happening over the course of many years,” and thus “a no brainer for a comedy.”

Academics Seeing Themselves in the Storyline

There have been enough response pieces from academics circulating around The Chair by now that it’s clear their watching has happened from varying specific standpoints. Each is certainly worth noting. All of them, taken together, point to a spot-on portrayal of university culture as embedded in the show’s scripts.

In a blogpost on his personal webspace (with a complementary link on twitter), Amardeep Singh, an English Prof at Leheigh, homed in on ageism as one point of The Chair’s critique. On Slate, Karen Tongson offered a thoughtful “A Chair Reviews The Chair” essay. Nancy Wang Yuen’s incisive report for the Los Angeles Times announced an even more focused standpoint in her opening clause: “When I became the first Asian American woman to chair the sociology department at my university,” thereby aligning her take on the series with a telling line from Oh’s title character: “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it exploded.” For Yuen, “Oh approaches each of Ji-Yoon’s calamities with so much verisimilitude that I [Yuen, a “real” department chair] squirmed and laughed in recognition.”

If several published responses to the series have emphasized its realism, on CNN, Koritha Michell, a professor of English specializing in African American Studies at The Ohio State University, called on folks to “Stop asking if ‘The Chair’ is realistic.” Mitchell instead asked viewers to remember that “Ji-Yoon [the title figure played by Sandra Oh] is a character, not a person,” so that we should position her as “a protagonist” whose story will “shed light on how human lives are lived.” Centering Ji-Yoon, Mitchell argued, can also affirm the importance of women of color to all our stories. Illustrating her insight by sharing an anecdote about her own teaching of Frances Harper’s 1892 novel Iola Leroy, Mitchell simultaneously demonstrated the benefits all of us academic viewers have been gaining from the wide-ranging perspectives being invoked in the slew of response pieces, academic and otherwise. These essays about The Chair have become fascinating to explore in themselves—and increasingly global in reach.

By August 29, for instance, J.D. Schnepf (currently professing in American Studies at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen) shared with twitter an assessment from her “80-year-old uncle,” who suggested she watch the series, which he’d found “quite humourous.”

Merve Emre (of Oxford) joined Annie Julia Wyman (one of The Chair’s scripters) and Sarah Chihaya (of the LA Review of Books) for a webinar on the “Departmental Drama” of the series as a cultural phenomenon.

Academic audience members continue to stake a special claim on the series, and I think one underlying reason is that we are, most of us in our hearts, optimistic educators. However much we theorize about a range of cultural texts (novels, poems, films, newspaper articles, television), we all teach with an eye toward our students’ futures. And a big part of what drives that teaching is hope. Hope that we can make our communities (both small and expansive ones) better through our students. So, when academics write about The Chair (including here) we envision readers who might learn from our teaching about the text, and in doing so prepare themselves to take on various social problems spotlighted in that narrative. After all, problems within postsecondary settings, however longstanding they may be, feel more possible to solve than the climate change driving increasingly brutal hurricanes, the inability to restore shared social contracts that might have made COVID response genuinely non-political, or the forever wars we’re again being told withdrawal from Afghanistan won’t actually end.

Watching The Chair

            I confess. I was one of the many humanities faculty members who streamed The Chair when it first became available. Initially expecting I’d watch an episode or two on a Friday night, I binge-watched the entire series of six episodes.

I laughed at the over-the-top opening visual joke of newly-dubbed-department-head Sandra Oh (Ji-Yoon Kim) literally falling to the floor when she first sat in the collapsing chair behind the polished desk of her (admittedly unrealistically gorgeous) new office. And I found more well-timed humor across all the episodes—from the exile of a longtime woman faculty member to a musty basement office to the meme-making students exhibiting excessive self-assurance about their role as the university’s social conscience.

I chuckled repeatedly at the caricatures of faculty and administration—especially since these figures often seemed firmly grounded in the (sometimes painful) realities of department life. I suspected, even when finding these portraits comic exaggerations, that some colleagues watching would find them triggering. David Morse’s Dean and his administrative “aides” were bitingly drawn. (We’ve all cringed at those folks from “marketing” whose demands for sticking to “branding” have taken over more and more university resources and power). Anyone who’s battled shrinking budgets, loss of full-time faculty lines, and the failure of upper administration to support faculty expertise and civic commitments might have a hard time generating a hearty laugh at such scenes. In one episode, Sandra Oh’s character desperately seeks some kind of solution to big-donor intervention in the academic enterprise via a takeover of what should have been an occasion to honor scholarship by replacing a worthy faculty member’s lecture with a (literal) Hollywood type. Funny? Likely both funny and familiar—and painful too– if you’ve been stuck in the “middle-management” role of trying to placate those whose dollars are increasingly essential to university budgets while maintaining some semblance of intellectual integrity.

Within the department itself, I could appreciate the satire of the sleeping-at-meetings old-timer who should have retired long ago. But I also knew, as I watched, that some of my own friends would find it triggering to track the conflict between a recalcitrant senior professor unwilling to welcome the “new” perspectives (or the student-friendly pedagogy) of a youthful rising star in the professorate. The satiric scenes of Ji-Yoon [Oh], Yasmin (Yaz) McKay [Nana Mensah], and Joan [Holland Taylor] brought pointed reminders of the ways that intersectional department politics still involve suppression of women, and, sadly, make it hard for women to support each other as fully and uncompromisingly as they would wish.

In other words, like other academic viewers, I found the gender politics on display both hilarious and haunting. Why, my daughter asked me a few days later, after she too had binge-watched, did Ji-Yoon keep leaving her sole woman faculty elder hanging, and instead prioritize the needs of white male faculty and administrators? Why did “the chair” keep pushing her only other woman-of-color colleague to accommodate a cranky white male antagonist?

             Bob Balaban

On one level, asking these (probably rhetorical) questions conveys just the kind of engaged watching the series script seems to invite. We see those assumptions about viewer response in advertising content created by Netflix and posted on a US News webspace with thumbnail sketches of the department’s main characters, ranging from Jay Duplass’s “The Troublemaker” (for Professor Bill Dobon, Ji-Yoon Kim’s kinda-love-interest who is also a pain to supervise professionally) to “The Professor Who Won’t Evolve” (Professor Elliot Rentz, played by Bob Balaban).

In a parallel presentation of Ji-Yoon’s colleagues, film critic Norman Wilner suggested, showing off a manly feminist perspective for NOW Magazine, observed that it’s maybe  not so affirmingly funny for women (academic) viewers to see characters like Yaz (Nana McKay), Chaucer expert Joan (Holland Taylor) and Ji-Yoon (Oh) herself “have their development cut off at the knees so that Bill [Duplass] can learn and grow.”

In all, whether focusing on generational differences, class clashes between the wealthier donor-administrator alliance and less-well-paid faculty, or the ways that being both a woman and a person of color create patterns of double jeopardy, write-ups responding to The Chair may reflect each author’s primary identity emphasis. Taken together, though, they (and the series) could actually serve as a far better Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional development course than the boring video training modules I had to suffer through again this summer, with due dates before the start of classes.

Horatian and Juvenalian Satire: Michael Moore Redux

            I was teaching high school in Flint, Michigan, when Michael Moore’s first “mockumentary,” Roger and Me (1989), was released. My world lit course had a satire unit that included Ben Jonson’s caustic Volpone (1606) and several more gently satirical plays by Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), along with some tried-and-true shorter pieces like Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” (1729). We also read a number of newspaper and magazine columns from our own time—with my students helping build an archive of engaging examples that, sadly, I somehow couldn’t dig out of any of my digital files as I was thinking about this essay.

            The highlight of the unit one year, not long before I headed off to doctoral studies in Ann Arbor in 1990, was a trip to a local movie theater. We all watched Roger and Me together.

For my students and me (and many of my other Flint-based friends), that film was the equivalent of The Chair in its moment. We recognized the truth in its jokes. We cringed in pain sometimes, even while we chuckled or, occasionally, laughed aloud. Later, back at school, we debated questions of realism. We even pointed to places some saw as ethical lapses, scenes that maybe crossed a line into misrepresentations of fact that were potentially counter-productive for a community reeling under economic pressures which would only grow worse in the years since then. (After all, this was a period before Flint became near-shorthand for “racist water crisis”).

            One part of our conversations made me particularly proud of my always-super-smart high school textual critics. They used Roger and Me to upend the convenient contrast we’d set up between Horatian and Juvenalian satire. As Andrew Kay observed (drawing on Heather LaMarre’s work) in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education back in 2018, but long after my secondary students’ on-the-spot film analysis, that neat division can be helpful, but it also blurs nuances. The collaborative “reading” of Roger and Me with my students illuminated how the mix of comic appeal and sometimes-frustrating discomfort in Moore’s film lay in its likely purposeful mix of satiric approaches. Some of the jokes were gentle jabs that, ultimately, gave us all hope the General Motors and Flint might actually find ways to solves many of the city’s tough problems together. Other scenes—harder to watch, because they depicted sad truths we were seeing play out in our daily lives with inexorable repetition—were much less chuckle-inducing and far more discouraging.

            Then and now, one of the joys of teaching, for me, is hearing student voices grapple with that kind of mix in memorable pieces of social satire and deciding to choose hope.

            That’s what I think the many colleagues who are writing now about The Chair are trying to do themselves. They’re zeroing in on some aspect of the comedic text’s array of social issues that they imagine might be possible to address with (at least some) success.

            Maybe next time the Yaz in our own departments won’t get so frustrated that she tries to leave for a “better” department elsewhere; the series’ critiques of her experiences also point to ways we could change the script. Perhaps the next move to “donor cultivation” might be more of a collaborative endeavor including (even honoring?) faculty knowledge from the get-go. Maybe more male faculty who in prior generations didn’t have to worry about childcare concerns could embrace that “domestic” responsibility as communal—that is, in ways more systemic (if less “cute”) than having the adorable guy hunk choose stay-at-home kid duty. Maybe the Joans of the rising generation won’t have to wait for leadership opportunities that come only when no one else can take them on.

            Then, if we can truly engage some of these systemic-level issues in our own academic houses, it’s possible we might also make a dent in the patterns of forever wars, national-level political divisions over health care, and climate change. I hope so.

One thought on “Why Are Academics So Busily Writing About “The Chair”?

  1. Martin, Nina

    Could it be that escape is irresistible?

    Nina Martin PhD MFA
    Prof. of Dance: School for Classical & Contemporary Dance SCCD website
    ReWire: Movement for the Greater Good (TCU video)
    Associate Professor of Medical Ed: TCU/UNTHSC School of Medicine
    Member: Lower Left Collective ~ Board President: Marfa Live Arts

    From: Sarah Ruffing Robbins
    Reply-To: Sarah Ruffing Robbins
    Date: Monday, August 30, 2021 at 8:53 PM
    To: “Martin, Nina”
    Subject: [New post] Why Are Academics So Busily Writing About “The Chair”?

    [EXTERNAL EMAIL WARNING] DO NOT CLICK LINKS or open attachments unless you recognize the sender and know the content is safe.
    Sarah Ruffing Robbins posted: ” A hurricane is tearing up New Orleans and much of Louisiana, then spiraling north. COVID hospitalizations are spiking exponentially. Wildfires are tearing up the west coast. Chaos has reigned over the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And what are we human”

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