Love it or hate it, 'The Chair' on Netflix showcases academia's dark underbelly in a (mostly humorous) way that we can't afford to ignore.
I am what you might call a “disenchanted academic.”
I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and finished my PhD in 2012. I only found job stability a few months ago, and it’s as a lecturer at a wonderful liberal arts college, not as the tenured professor I’d dreamed of becoming. Let’s just say, I’m still processing a lot of feelings around it.
Part of the weirdness around being an academic these days is that very few people outside the ivory tower seem to understand what we actually do. There are plenty of images of glorified tweed-jacket-wearing professors in films, but the reality is that we precarious academics account for at least 60% of all faculty positions across the U.S., according to the American Association of University Professors.
Lowest in rank and pay are adjuncts, who might be paid only $2,000-3,000 per course they teach. Their course loads are often capped at below full-time so that the university doesn’t need to give them benefits, which means living at or below the poverty line for many. I adjuncted for the better part of a decade, and it was a scramble to make ends meet.
I mention this in part because adjuncts don’t appear anywhere in The Chair, which I finally got around to watching because my parents reminded me about it. If you missed the boat like I did, it’s about the first female chair of an English department at a small liberal arts college, and the variety of awkward minefields that await her.
How can a TV show be realistic if it ignores 60% of the population that it’s about? Well, here’s where I think it gets interesting.
Vice surveyed a number of academics about what the show got right and what it got wrong, and many of those surveyed pointed out the show’s glaringly unrealistic lack of adjuncts and contingent faculty.
But I think they were there in a sense, and besides, there’s only so much you can do in a six-episode show. I see contingency in the figure of Yaz, a brilliant African-American professor who brings the classics to life for her students, even as her white older male colleague is sabotaging her. Like many contingent faculty, Yaz does amazing scholarship and has innovative teaching strategies, unlike many contingent faculty, though, she has opportunities opening up to give her a safety net when her tenure dossier falls through.
I also see contingency in the grad student left dangling by her mentor’s inappropriate actions. I bet a lot of us can resonate with that, for a variety of probably-terrible reasons.
So while the show didn’t explicitly feature adjuncts and other contingent faculty, I think it did a good job of depicting just how vulnerable we can be, especially those of us who are women, who are people of color, and who otherwise don’t fit the mold.
The show also did a fantastic job of illustrating the absurdity of academe in many ways. In theory, we’re there to live the life of the mind. And then we get derailed by all kinds of bizarre crap, from family conflicts or ego-driven dramas to medical issues or financial concerns. It’s straight-up weird to attend parties put on by the administration featuring fancy hors d’oeuvres while also worrying about how to afford childcare or other necessary expenses.
And I think the show nailed the fact that most academics are here because we truly love research and teaching. There were multiple lines where I was just like, “YES!” internally, because I was watching a character describe their commitment to teaching, or their obscure yet fascinating area of research, or whatever. Seeing those moments where characters truly connected to their vocation reminded me why I do what I do, even if this semester has been hellishly difficult.
As I’ve written, if the American public values the college experience and higher education, we should fund it. But I guess some people don’t realize how much higher ed has changed in the last few years, from drastic state funding cuts to its adjunctification. My hope is that shows like The Chair help reinvigorate interest in the topic, and get some discussions going about the reality vs. the imaginary of college.