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Monday, August 23, 2021

Netflix's 'The Chair' satirizes academic politics with troubling truths of contemporary campus culture

Netflix's The Chair is an enjoyable six-episode sit com on the absurdity of academic politics in American higher education today.  The show was created and written by Amanda Peet and stars Sandra Oh (Grey's Anatomy, Killing Eve) as the perpetually embattled chair of the English department at a small elite college.

In one storyline, reminiscent of Scott Johnston's Campusland (2019), well meaning professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) is pilloried for a mock Nazi salute, turned into a social media meme, in a class lesson on fascism and absurdism.

Comedic parody derives its beauty, of course, from its grain of truth.  Dobson's predicament is precisely one reason I have resisted routine video lecture capture.  Humor has pedagogical value, but one remark out of context is a brewing tempest in a teapot.  The risk might be worthwhile if teachers could have confidence in academic freedom.  But they can't and don't.

As depicted in the show, university administrators obsessed with appearances and virtue signaling to the near exclusion of educational mission and pedagogical merit relish any opportunity to sacrifice an iconoclastic academic to the maw of groupthink.  No shackles of investigation or professional integrity can be permitted to slow the rush to condemnation.

Jay Duplass (Peabody Awards photo CC BY 2.0
Fictional Professor Dobson defends himself to the dean: "I’m tenured.  You can’t constrain my actions in my own classroom or my speech on this campus unless I’m in violation of the faculty code of conduct.  Which I’m not."

But there's the rub: arguably, he is.  An administrator at my university has enforced against faculty the university system's "Principles of Employee Conduct." The vague principles require faculty to "accord respect" to all persons and "to accept full responsibility for their actions."

If those terms were read in accordance with others—"foster forthright expression of opinion and tolerance for the views of others"—then no problem.  But if administrators are willing to read dissent, whistle-blowing, and classroom provocation as disrespect, which they are, faculty have no real recourse.  As I wrote more than a decade ago, and others periodically observe, tenure protection grounded in procedural due process is an empty promise in practice, and courts routinely abstain from recognition of any substantive academic freedom.

Faced with dismissal proceedings, Dobson reluctantly resorts to a lawyer in the final episode of the first season.  No spoilers.

The Chair is enjoyable mostly for the comedy.  But it delivers as well periodic gems of thought-provoking truth, besides the sad state of academic freedom: the need for critical reexamination of historical subject matter and diversification of faculty perspectives, without sacrificing academic integrity; the fate of classical studies in the age of impatience; university budget cuts to unremunerative liberal arts; the personal and professional challenges of growing old amid fast-paced social evolution; and what can or should be done today to remedy past social and economic injustices of race and gender.

When the father of our protagonist Ji-Yoon Kim criticizes her work-life imbalance, an aggravated Kim retorts, "What promotion means you don't have to work as much?!"

A story for our times.

Also among the outstanding cast are Nana Mensah (Queen of Glory, King of Staten Island) and the ageless Holland Taylor.  Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic liked it too.  HT @ Prof. Irene Scharf.

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