The Chair: can Netflix series do justice to university life today?

With a new show in the pipeline, academics have many suggestions for plot lines and pitfalls to avoid

三月 2, 2020
Sandra Oh
Source: Shutterstock
Canadian-American Killing Eve actress Sandra Oh stars in new Netflix miniseries, The Chair

When Netflix announced a new six-part “dramedy” from the creators of Game of Thrones about a woman running an English department in a major university, scholars soon piled on to Twitter with their comments.

We know that The Chair will star Sandra Oh, the Canadian-American Killing Eve actress – who, given the title, might be assumed to be playing a departmental head. Co-writer and author Annie Julia Wyman has studied and taught in the English department at Harvard University – where, according to a tweet by Merve Emre, associate professor of English at Oxford University, she would have been “witness to all sorts of shit going down”.

When one Twitter user stated they had no interest in the series “unless it takes a buzzsaw to the exploitation of sessionals/adjuncts”, Dr Wyman herself stepped in to say: “I wrote it, and it does.”

So far Netflix is providing no further details. But that hasn’t stopped many academics offering their own (often bitter) experiences as storylines. Karla Holloway, James B. Duke distinguished professor emerita of English at Duke University, for example, had suggestions concerning “the black prof who gets called by the name of the only black prof the dept had who’s been dead ten years” and “the dean who pretends to be the chair’s BFF [best female friend] but undercuts her every chance she gets…Oh heck…just put me in the writers’ room with a salary”.

So what are the other unexpected stories those working in the humanities would like to see on screen? What can replace the tired old tropes about absent-minded professors? And might telling the truth about academic life today feed into the narrative of populist politicians who have universities in their sights, particularly in the US?

Elaine Showalter, the first woman to serve as head of the English department at Princeton University, now professor emerita, tweeted about the programme as she was “just so tickled to see the announcement, because [the series is] telling a story that I lived a little bit”. Yet some of the suggestions that were offered in response to her initial tweet “are not really plot lines, they are grievances”, Professor Showalter said.

“They are quite legitimate grievances, but I don’t think you want a TV series based on grievances – it would make very dull television.”

Along with the many comedies of university life, Professor Showalter hoped that The Chair would explore “the tragedies of people whose careers fall apart for reasons of alcoholism, writing blocks, somebody breaking the story before you publish the book you’ve been working on for 30 years”.

There was also scope, she suggested, for undermining stereotypes such as “the cliché about the form sexual harassment takes in a university…Every department chair comes across more complicated narratives. I’ve seen everything from somebody who was truly a sadist, in the most literal criminal way, to stories of people who actually fall in love…How do you adjudicate and forbid such relationships?”

Lennard Davis, distinguished professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was irritated by earlier academic dramas with professors living in unrealistically “lavish and opulent” houses and worried that the new series might feature “lots of identity politics, which will only confirm the hard-right’s feeling that academia is a hotbed of liberal and socialist brainwashing”. Instead, he was keen that it should address today’s crucial issues such as “administrative bloat” and “squeezed budgets resulting in beleaguered departments trying to catch up to required courses mandated by the university administration”.

Robert Eaglestone, professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, delighted in the fact that English was usually “a discipline that can laugh at itself: from fake exam papers in Victorian Oxford to our own parodies of our work [and] comic campus novels set in English departments. Let’s hope The Chair captures that vital part of our discipline.”

As for a scene he was keen to see, Professor Eaglestone imagined one where “the vice-chancellor threatens to shut down the English department because it doesn’t teach skills for the workplace: the chair, by chance, discovers many English graduates in top business roles who turn up en masse to support the department because (as Google’s Project Oxygen discovered) success comes from skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, independence and adaptability – all skills taught by English.”

Regarding the central set-up of The Chair, Professor Showalter recalled “a great deal of resistance” when she was promoted at Princeton and saw plenty of possibilities in “the particular situation of a woman chair…Female leaders, like it or not, are seen as mother figures – and a lot of people hate their mothers.”


Print headline: Can Netflix series do university life justice?



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Reader's comments (2)

I am extremely excited to see this show. More so, because of Benioff & Weiss are executive producers of the show and because they are working with experts in this field which should give me a view into a world of college life behind the scenes. It would not shock me if this show contains elements and traces of politics, shady dealings and back-stabbings, much like Game of Thrones. Again. I am really excited to see this show.
Just like college kids, Netflix and crew passed off the work of another writer as their own. #thieves