Swarthmore College

Before The Chair premiered on Netflix on August 20th, academics were already stirring with a combination of excitement, dread, and office-envy. The show is about Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh), the first woman and Asian American chair of English at Pembroke, a “lesser Ivy” somewhere, presumably on the East Coast. She inherits a department with an extensive list of familiar problems (enrollment trouble and disaffected well-salaried senior faculty) and some less familiar ones, mainly those brought on by her perpetually disheveled colleague, Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass). This provides the ingredients for a workplace romance plot familiar to 30-minute television serials, but its academic setting has predictably led to a particular mode of critical scrutiny regarding its verisimilitude and the wider political and social implications of its depiction of an institution in “permanent crisis.”

We thought the best way to talk about The Chair and its reception was to assemble a panel of, well, chairs. Eric Song (associate professor and chair of English literature at Swarthmore) Jamie Taylor (associate professor and chair of literatures in English at Bryn Mawr), and Karen Tongson (professor and chair of Gender & Sexuality Studies at USC) gathered a few days after the show’s release to watch the first episode together on Zoom. We recorded part of their conversation as an audio commentary, which you can listen to in sync with the first episode. 

After the episode, they had a lengthy chat about the conversation around the show, why it has provoked such a reaction, and what has potentially gotten lost in that response (spoiler: watching television as television!). There are a few light spoilers below.

We find our chairs in medias res, reflecting on what to make of the decision to make a Nazi salute the gesture that triggers the campus controversy around Bill Dobson. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

Karen Tongson (KT): Someone asked me why the Nazi salute seemed to be the gesture. People are saying that’s dated, that’s so completely unrealistic. 

The show wants to be centered around campus culture, this fraught and crackly political environment of campus life, but, because it’s for TV, there’s no way they can make gestures that would trigger the cascade of bad shit that happens in the wake of a more dramatic and timely gesture. This would be something like a non-Black professor using the n-word in the classroom while teaching Huck Finn, or a discussion about Israel and Palestine. Inserting those things in the context of a TV show would not fly for network management, continuity teams, and standards and practices. Those people who vet the details in network or streaming television who would say such details wouldn’t fly, because the content would absorb all of the attention. That’s why you have something so silly.

I don’t think the creators of the show are trying to frame the students as overreacting to something so silly, but I do think the gesture has to be a universally acknowledged bad gesture, so that all of the other parts of the show won’t get lost in the thing itself.

Jamie Taylor (JT): That gesture lets cancel culture stay within the show. 

The show is about cancel culture, I think, in as much as it is attaching cancel culture as a feature of young university-goers in contradistinction to older university teachers and administrators. That’s not an incorrect distinction to make, but those lines aren’t so stark.

Eric Song (ES): This is a super fascinating discussion because I was struck by how the show constantly makes decisions about which racial justice issues to push hard and which to push softly. Some are played for comedic effect and others are super important to the show.  

I wonder in terms of the actual Nazi salute: it doesn’t seem as irrelevant, or as absurd and ridiculous when Laura Ingraham or another right-wing person gave the Nazi salute. And sure there’s always that game of denial about that’s not what it was and that coy wanting to be a Nazi thing and saying that the gesture was not the gesture. I don’t mean to make it profound or anything but it’s kind of the moment. 

KT: It can signal as something that people recognize, as still relevant and of the moment, while defanging its impact in the setting that’s provided. 

ES: We definitely don’t get into Israel and Palestine. What we get instead is a momentary shot of a bagel shop. At least in the first episode, that’s the closest you get to any question of Jewishness.

 JT: The other thing I think the gesture does well within the interior of the show is that it tells us something about the character of Bill Dobson. He feels like he can playfully or performatively inhabit things with control. And then he realizes—at least to a certain degree—two things. One, that he doesn’t have control over those performances whether that’s playful sexism or playful hot messism. And two, then women around him have to take control and fix those mistakes.

KT: That’s something the show does better than it’s being given credit for. The show lands in a critical place around Bill, eventually. Even though his existence is there to anyone who wants to recognize a version of academia that they’ve seen elsewhere in popular culture, whether it is Wonder Boys or some other caddish, hot mess, scruffy but attractive literature professor. And actually a lot of white male professors still try to build their brand around that — I’m sorry I’m going to have to say it out loud!

That said, the place where I come up against a lot of my own frustration about the debate surrounding those choices is that people aren’t realizing that this is after all a television show. There’s a whole production process involved where it’s maybe not Amanda Peet or Annie Julia Wyman or even the writers room that’s landing on the Nazi salute as the gesture. It may be those folks at different levels of network continuity, standards, etc. who come in and say “Actually, this is what we think will work,” “This is what we focus grouped.” 

It is interesting that we as a group of scholars who generally are used to looking at the details of the modes of production, forms, and aesthetics are leaving all of that behind and establishing an authorial read of this text that is The Chair. 

Jamie Taylor (JT): Is that what you are seeing in the chatter? What kind of things have people been complaining about or noting about the show?

 Eric Song (ES): Even before the show came out, there was so much chatter about accurate representations. That’s what everyone was sick of even from the start. We couldn’t help doing it. We wouldn’t stop ourselves even though we were sick of it. It was “My office doesn’t look like that!”

I really liked when Karen said that if they wanted controversy, they could have done a professor using the n-word in the context of teaching literature. I like those “what they could have done” questions, because they have been guiding my experience of watching the show. 

For instance, they could have had Sandra Oh’s character actually teach Asian American stuff. They didn’t want to go there, whether it was for authorial reasons, production reasons, or the idea that it wouldn’t sell as well. 

I’m interested in what made the show work and how it could or could not have worked otherwise.

Karen Tongson (KT): From the TV studies/production standpoint, it is a vehicle for Sandra Oh. Benioff and Weiss produced it. Amanda Peet is very connected to them. But also, honestly, I’m curious as to why Amanda Peet wanted to make this show and why they agreed to produce it insofar as I can’t see it with non-academic eyes. 

I am going to understand the references. I’m going to see the volume of Sartor Resartus on the bookcase. I’m going to smart at the fact that everybody still seems to use a blackboard, even though that doesn’t happen as often. But what’s the payoff for other people? Our relationship to it as chairs is overdetermined in many respects.

ES: Oh shoot! I haven’t even asked my parents if they’ve watched or heard of this show. I wonder if it’s getting any buzz in Korean media outlets. I’m sure it is.

KT: There’s a couple of great reviews including Inkoo Kang’s in the Washington Post. She went to graduate school but is obviously no longer an academic and she writes about how the Korean-American home scenes really resonated for her. It seems there’s a lot of people coming from those communities who understand that the university is just a workplace setting, and that we’re getting workplace farce and character development.

Being here in California of course, the other critique is from folks in the UC system, the Cal State system, or other larger state systems, for whom none of this really resonates. The institutional experience, the atmosphere, and the settings are just completely different. And the large bureaucracy of the public university is not adequately represented here.

We’re all speaking from private institutions and vibing with certain aspects of its representation, but the show presents a vision of academia that is in a privatized and rarefied fantasy realm.

JT: That’s a great question. The chatter I’ve seen is all from academics I know on social media and a lot of the “that’s not what my office looks like,” that kind of thing is frustrating. What do these people want other people to see or notice? Something is not being acknowledged or seen. Maybe it is the way the work can be tedious or something. But what: do you want to watch somebody catch up on their emails for four hours?

To refuse that and say that this is a TV show, specifically a workplace comedy, means asking what the show offers to people outside of this particular kind of work.

ES: A different version of this question: do you think undergrad English majors would have any interest in the show? It’s not a show about students, as far as I can tell. Why would students care at all? Or do you think this would be so boring for them? I actually could see it both ways.

We should ask them! Did you watch the show? Are you into it? Do you think that’s what we’re like?

KT: Flashback to 1995 me as an English major at UCLA, who is partly an English major for aspirational reasons, wanting to learn literature, wanting to to earn cultural capital. The fantasy I had of what it meant to study literature or become a professor meant wood paneling on the walls, even though I was going to school in an environment that wasn’t like that. 

As an undergrad, I fully would have watched it then. 

I think some of the students who are very much into English would want to watch it in those ways for those reasons, especially those who have, you know, the same middlebrow aspirations I had back then.

Back to the question of what you want to see. One glaring omission that multiple people have brought up is, of course, the fact that there are no adjuncts at Pembroke. That’s the most unrealistic aspect of the show: the failure to represent any kind of adjunctification in this series. There’s not even any hint of a labor situation, which is where the actual dynamics and structure of how department work happens. The vision the show offers—and one I believe that some English departments still have—is a fantasy of departments being able to invisibilize the adjuncts who labor in them. And those same departments in real life have debates at the level of fantasy that this show presents, without addressing the true labor issues that are involved.

JT: Liberal arts colleges make that labor invisible more aggressively and assertively. The part of this that was missing in the first episode and beyond was not just that there are no adjuncts, but that there was little attention to the responsibility of producing, hiring, and managing adjunct labor and who that labor falls on.

The thing that resonated with me was when the dean pushed that paper to Sandra Oh and said here are the top three earners, you figure it out. That responsibility without authority is really crucial. That is something the chair with respect to the admin is something I have very much experienced, doing work on behalf of the admin with no real authority. 

ES: I totally agree. Isn’t what is missing also an actual sense of what is being studied and taught? They’re frustrated that students won’t engage with these authors and going back to the Hitler salute scene, Bill—Joshie?, Bill? whatever his name is—was in the midst of saying something that could have been interesting to the students and then it got cut off. 

What’s missing from the show is the actual reason for teaching and studying literature. It’s all about insider baseball: getting students into seats, how much people are getting paid, trying to get people to retire. That’s interesting as an aspect of the show that might otherwise be about English itself. 

JT: It’s also this conservative fantasy. We teach Melville. We teach Chaucer, T.S. Eliot. 

KT: Emily Dickinson! That’s the seminar that Ji-Yoon Kim is teaching while she’s chairing. 

JT: In the background of Ji-Yoon’s seminar is a quotation from Anzaldúa that says something about being silenced. A generous reading is that the show is aware of the conservative version of how literature gets taught and it’s a satirical approach with another curricular approach in the background. But it doesn’t do that enough to warrant that critical reading.

KT: Audre Lorde becomes another citation later. Of course, we all know which citation it is: the master’s tools quote. 

 Elizabeth Freeman commented on this on social media, asking why they have a 1970s version of an English Department. My response to that was, “maybe some of us still teach in 1970s versions of English departments.” What she means (and I’m referring back to my own undergraduate education here) are those departments where you have to take only one American literature class. Otherwise, it was all British literature. I took two Shakespeares, Milton, Chaucher, Elizabethan poetry, metaphysical poetry: the whole canonical kit and caboodle. That was not an area I selected; these were requirements. 

That was a while ago, but I imagine there are still places that are like that. But alongside that curriculum I electively took courses in Native American Literature or lesbian poetry. So these visions have always kind of coexisted and one need not go as far back as the 70s to imagine this type of English department.

Honestly, some of the struggles within my own department are still about figuring out different approaches to the material, adrift from, but adjacent to Shakespeare…

ES: So we were all undergrads in the 90s in California. Maybe, in a certain sense, the show’s not for us!

KT: For sure! I think that’s absolutely true. The northeastern setting is pivotal. The northeast is part of the fantasy; the seat of intellectualism is northeastern still in this country, even if that’s a parochial version of U.S. culture.

But yes, the joke that some of us still teach in 1970s English departments is true. My read—and maybe it is a generous read—is that where they landed with the curriculum would be recognizable to a general audience as “English.”

ES: Here’s a very ungenerous question, as is, in a certain way, my intellectual disposition. What do you think the show would be like in the eyes of an anti-humanities, right-winger, who would rather defund the humanities?

Is that too ungenerous a question? Not that I’m feeling constantly surveilled by right-wingers who hate the humanities, but the show might work for them in a lot of ways. 

KT: I think they could cut both ways. That was actually Elizabeth Freeman’s concern. This pratfally version of this hot mess of an English department will only add fuel to the fire of how useless some people think English departments are. I don’t know that I agree with that, but I can see how some people would feel that.

Honestly, it’s so hard for me to inhabit that mindset. They wouldn’t watch it is the thing. They’d watch the Deadliest Catch instead.

ES: I would rather watch the Deadliest Catch! I love the Deadliest Catch.

KT: And sometimes I would, too. Just a TV tidbit: you know that the viewers of the Bachelor are among the most highly educated viewers and the richest viewers as well?

JT: Yes! And the Bachelor is, of course, a conservative, male fantasy. Part of what The Chair does — whether it does it well or not I’m not sure — but it upends a bit of a male fantasy in the character of Bill. This hot mess express, but charismatic and mildly attractive scruffball really doesn’t manage his situation.

ES: I haven’t watched the whole series. Is there a redemptive arc? Doesn’t he get high and want to go to Paris or something? Do they have the budget for that?

KT: I liken it to that scene in the Cholodenko The Kids Are Alright where Mark Ruffalo shows up in front of Julianne Moore and wants to be with her. And then she’s like, “I’m a lesbian” and walks away.

But, by the way, Jamie, “hot mess express.” I’m going to open a wing shop/restaurant called Hot Mess Express because I think that’s a wonderful way to describe Bill. I digress and will pause because I’m so captivated by this idea.

Jamie Taylor (JT): I am curious about what you think of the love story and how academia and this workplace farce uses this kind of romance as an engine for the show, for Sandra Oh, for Bill’s character.

Karen Tongson (KT): I haven’t watched a single sitcom, 30-minute comedy, or dramedy where romance isn’t in place as an engine. The Office, Superstore, Rutherford Falls—these shows that I think of as workplace comedies—there’s always some kind of underlying romance. The genre demands it. 

That said, I think it could be much worse because what we can see is the fulfillment of that particular heterosexual script versus the challenge to it, not to mention a more realistic framing of what it is like for people in their 40s to contemplate romance.

Eric Song (ES): I have to admit since I’ve recently completed a book on marriage in the 17th century and the idea that people are replaceable, I see that this show is about replacement in the workplace, with the older generation nervous about their own replaceability, but race is put into the intergenerational mix. I haven’t watched enough of this show to confirm—or confirm that I’m nuts and only see what I want to see—but I do think there’s an intersection. I mean Bill is trying to replace his dead wife! The arc of replaceability and where race fits in is maybe a conceptual engine that’s tying the workplace and the romance together.

 JT: I love that. Sandra Oh’s character is worried about being the replacement mother. Later in the show her daughter says, “I don’t like my name.” And Bill says, “you know your mom named you after her mom” and isn’t that nice, you can live on through her. I think the problem of replacement and substitution is very much at the heart of the show.

KT: And there is “we will not be replaced,” the tiki torch chant of your friendly next door white supremacist. I bring that up to make the point about the contemporary narratives about Nazism and cancel culture in general. Much of what fuels the controversy of something like cancel culture is the idea of replacement, being displaced, or replaced, by whatever the new thing is.

JT: Especially in the humanities, there is the sense that you are always replaceable. There are so many people on the market that there would be a pick for anybody to take your job. In a liberal arts or smaller school context, that’s a really hard burden to bear insofar as it is a small department where interpersonal stuff becomes more pressured, your enrollments are based on charisma and reputation, “repeat clients,” and that kind of thing. The replacement worry in a smaller place is incredibly profound.

I will say I’m really into the idea of normative romance as a replacement narrative, the humanities as a kind of replacement narrative, and then this umbrella of white supremacy as a kind of replacement narrative that are all being addressed and managed in complicated, but not always great ways, through cancel culture, technology, and generational difference. That gives the show a complex spin. 

To go back to Eric’s question, one thing that is missing is that there is no representation of queer life.

KT: There would at least be one queer person in that department or usually. I mean, who knows? I don’t know where they are, though. But even at Dartmouth I would imagine, the small, northeastern Ivy League school.

ES: You know, Karen, earlier [while watching the episode] you used the phrase “lesser Ivy” and then later voluntarily you just brought up Dartmouth. I’m just putting things together.

KT: I wouldn’t make too much of that…[laughter] you can’t capture tone on a transcript.  Let’s just say that historically they have had trouble tenuring Asian American women in that English Department.

Eric Song (ES): A broadening out question: do you have a personal hall of fame of representations of college education or English? Does The Chair make it to your personal hall of fame or Pantheon?

Jamie Taylor (JT): I only have one candidate in my hall of fame, so sure The Chair makes it because now it’s a two-thing list. My hall of fame entry is for sheer absurdity and it is the Barbara Streisand vehicle, The Mirror Has Two Faces. She’s a psychology professor (or something like that) and she’s very serious and dowdy. The whole movie is essentially a makeover show. There’s a montage of her on an exercise bike, getting makeup, that kind of thing, and then she debuts herself in the lecture hall. It is packed to the gills, standing room only. At everything she says the students are wildly screaming with laughter. 

Karen Tongson (KT): There is a fist-pump when she mentions Puccini during her lecture. She’s talking about courtly love and she’s like why do we have great artists, and says “Puccini” then you see a shot of someone fist pumping in the background. I mean, I love that. It is my favorite lecture ever in visual media. 

JT: By far. 

KT: I’ve spent some time thinking about this. On the old podcast I was on we did an episode, where we each focused on how well Hollywood represented our professions. There were two other TV shows. One is The Education of Max Bickford, which lasted for one season starring Richard Dreyfuss as an American history professor. There’s actually a trans character in that series, who was played by a cis-actor, unfortunately. This came out around the first term of George W. Bush’s and was part of a series of soaring humanist efforts to romanticize education given his reputation. Then there was Jack & Bobby with Christine Lahti who played a history professor. It was on the WB. Bradley Cooper was on it as a graduate student.

ES: English major. Bradley Cooper, always interested in making a movie version of Paradise Lost. Bradley Cooper if you need someone to fill you in, call me up!

KT: For real, Bradley! He was her TA and they get involved. The conceit of the show is that one of the two boys ends up becoming President somewhere in the future and that all of this is a flashback.

Watched them both. They were okay. Kind of dull. They were meant to be prestige shows.

There is also famously the Peter Horton character, Gary from thirtysomething and there’s an entire episode about his tenure called “Tenure,” where there’s a Sir Gawain-style fantasy battle.

But my favorite, the hall of fame goes to recurring characters on SNL, the Clarvins.

ES: The lovers people?

KT: Luv-ahs! They are literature professors in the hot TUB! Supping on spiced meats, talking about their lovemaking, pretentiously affecting that bookworm voice. That to me seals the deal.  

There’s a terrible movie called Tenure

JT: I was about to mention it, filmed here at Bryn Mawr! I have a personal story about this. It stars Luke Wilson and he and Gretchen Mol are up for tenure at the same time so they have to battle it out. He’s hapless. She’s uptight. He’s charismatic and the students love him. She’s a researcher, but can’t connect with the students. 

The two things to know. One, his friend is in the geology department, who’s entire research centers exclusively on finding Bigfoot. Also up for tenure. Definitely going to get it.

Second thing to know is that when Luke Wilson was on campus I decided I was going to go try to chat with Luke Wilson. I put on my coat and I’m walking outside and this could not have been scripted better. I trip over my own feet. He sort of looks down at me. Someone helps me up and escorts me away.

KT: That could be a scene from The Chair.

JT: That’s what I’m thinking.

ES: You didn’t say anything, like “Luke Wilson, I just fell down.”

JT: No, I should have. 

KT: How to Get Away with Murder is filmed at USC, but law school is a different thing. You have a venerable history of law school shows, like The Paper Chase and also lots of drama wrought from legal environments. It’s like Republicans, who don’t fight amongst themselves about whether or not something’s worth fighting about.

Lawyers, I imagine, are like “yeah, cool it’s about us. I don’t care if it gets it wrong.” Maybe that’s my fantasy. Whereas humanities and literature professors are like “here is a 30,000 thread post on Twitter about what’s wrong with The Chair.”

JT: Is that something about perennially feeling like either you’re not being taken seriously or that you’re being taken too seriously as a political threat from the right?

ES: I want to go back. I’m having a hard time believing your description of charitable insouciance to lawyers. I think they’re just too busy. “I could tweet or I can work on these billable hours.”

KT: It’s true. Sorry lawyers — that’s obviously my fantasy projection.

JT: About the grumpiness, I get it, I know what you’re saying. But I like the show. I liked watching it. I’m not angry about it. I see the flaws, but I enjoyed it.

KT: It’s a television show. I think that’s something most literature professors and academics who are responding to it forget.

They also forget that there’s an entire field that talks about television and that there’s an approach to talking about media and  TV that understands its context, its production history, and how it gets made.

We’ve looped all the way back around to the idea that it’s perfectly fine to enjoy something that isn’t the Platonic ideal of what you want some representation of your profession to be.

JT: Eric, do you like it?

ES: I can’t even answer the question anymore, because it’s about an English professor, it’s about a Korean English chair. The question seems unanswerable to me. I don’t know. I will watch more of it. 

KT: Especially being Asian American or being an Asian person in an English department and the experience of being chair, I mean, it’s overdetermined!

I just wanted to say I love how they’re rolling the show out. The press junket features Sandra Oh and real Asian American female chairs in various departments. I like that. I like that it’s happening and everyone gets to have a good time and chat with Sandra Oh. I’m here for it. Let’s have some frickin’ fun, F-F-S.

Please, can we unclench a little?

JT: Just a touch.

ES: That would be awesome — I think the show would be better if it was about a chair and it is decadent and awesome. Everyone is just doing cocaine and drinking champagne in the bathrooms. The students are working hard and they’re clueless. That is the show I want to see. I’m in. You’re right. We should have some fun.

KT: Exactly. Like Gossip Girl.

ES: There you go.

JT: Starring Luke Wilson.

ES: Once MLA goes back to in-person — if it ever does — I’m bringing a documentary crew and I will document all the fun.

JT: This is our work as chairs.

 

 

About the Author

Andy Hines is the Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He studies models of the university posed by Black writers and Black social movements, as well as the significant but understudied contributions of Black writers to literary criticism and theory.

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