Old School: The Chair Raises Questions About What Scholarship is For
Those who study world politics spend much of their time contemplating the nature of power. One topic which comes up is the question of what power is for. Does one seek it to advance some ideal, or is the satisfaction of dominating others an end in itself? This question hangs over Netflix’s academic comedy/drama The Chair. The show’s characters provide a disturbing answer.
The Chair begins when a character named Professor Ji-Yoon Kim becomes chair of the English Department at the fictional Pembroke University. Her colleague Bill Dobson gives her a present to congratulate her on her promotion. When she unwraps it, it proves to be a desk plaque reading “f — -er in charge of you f — -ing f — -s.” The plaque seems to an express an unpleasant attitude, but Kim smiles in apparent satisfaction. At this point in the series, we as the audience may smile along with her. We may hope she will use her position as f — -er in charge to change things for the better.
Kim has two clear opportunities to make positive change. A professor named Joan Hambling is being singled out for unfavorable treatment, probably due in part to her gender and age. Meanwhile a professor named Yasmin McKay is also being treated unfairly, probably due in part to her gender and race. Kim appears to sympathize with Hambling and McKay. She promises to help both of them.
One of The Chair’s many realistic touches is that it shows how frustrating the position of departmental chair can be. Kim has less power than one unfamiliar with university life might have hoped. However, even when one takes this into account, one notes that she puts considerably more energy into McKay’s case than Hambling’s. When Kim misses a crucial meeting related to Hambling’s case she makes no significant effort to put matters right. As the series goes on, Hambling finds herself increasingly on her own.
Kim also suffers setbacks with McKay’s case. After she uses her authority as chair to award McKay a Distinguished Lectureship, the Dean overrides her and awards the honor to actor David Duchovny. At first, Kim is helpless to oppose the Dean’s decision. However, in McKay’s case, Kim persists. Eventually she confronts Duchovny in person and convinces him to give the lectureship back.
Why does Kim make more of an effort for McKay than for Hambling? The reason seems to lie in the fact that the two scholars are at different points in their careers. Hambling is, to quote another character, a dinosaur. McKay, in Kim’s words, is a dazzling new hire.
Kim describes McKay’s teaching techniques as pedagogically innovative. We may assume that McKay’s publications are on the proverbial cutting edge of academic research. McKay has, as Kim admiringly notes, eight thousand Twitter followers. Yale University is apparently aware of McKay’s potential, and is trying to lure her away. It is in Kim’s interest as chair to keep promising young scholars in her department, and therefore it is in her interest to keep McKay happy.
One could see Kim as a hard-nosed manager, caring only about her department’s bottom line. However, many of Kim’s statements suggest that that is not how she sees herself. It is certainly not how she explains her career to her young daughter. Kim tells her little girl that she chose her profession so that she could spend her life reading books.
Kim apparently has a passion for her subject. She also seems to have a sense of fair play. We may choose to see her as a well-meaning person who makes pragmatic compromises as she works toward her ideals. Since this is an appealing way to interpret her highly relatable character, it is discouraging to see how she articulates those ideals when talking with people older than her child.
When Kim called on Duchovny to relinquish the Distinguished Lectureship, she might have focused on the injustice of snatching it away from its previous owner. Instead, she led by attacking him as unfit for the role. This was bold, since Duchovny appeared to have relevant qualifications. He was a best-selling author, and as the Dean pointed out, many of Pembroke’s students were studying creative writing. Moreover, he had studied at Princeton and written a thesis about the author and playwright Samuel Beckett. Although no one mentions this on-screen, the real-life Duchovny’s Twitter followers number over four hundred thousand.
Kim dismisses all of this. She slams Duchovny’s thesis against the table in disgust. The only way Duchovny can make a contribution to scholarship, she declares, is to efface himself and donate money. (Amazingly, he agrees to do exactly that.) The reason why Duchovny’s thoughts are worthless seems to be that he has not been keeping up with the latest trends in academia. He, like Hambling, is a dinosaur.
Duchovny asks what important knowledge he has missed out on. Kim rattles off a list of theoretical concepts which have become influential in recent years. She does not, however, explain what any of those concepts are good for. How might those who are up to the minute on affect theory, digital humanities and new materialism be better equipped to comment on Samuel Beckett than those who have spent their time reading the works of Samuel Beckett himself? Kim not only does not answer that question, she does not seem to consider the possibility that anyone might ask it.
When one fails to ask what contending approaches to an academic discipline are good for, it becomes morally and intellectually impossible to justify exalting one as cutting-edge while discarding others as dinosaurian. Under such circumstances, university power struggles become no more than a never-ending contest to determine who will be the f — -er in charge and who will be treated as f — -ing f — -s. This is presumably not what Kim wanted for the Pembroke English department, but her belief system offers her few instruments with which to oppose it. The final scenes of The Chair’s first season feature another shot of the crudely worded plaque, and this time its significance is unambiguously ominous. The kyriarchy is dead, long live the kyriarchy.