SEPTEMBER 21, 2021
In the second episode of The Sopranos, consigliere Silvio Dante — played with hammy efficacy by E Street Band guitarist Steven “Miami Steve” van Zandt — is performing his beloved Al Pacino imitation in the back of Satriale’s Pork Store. The sleeves of his shiny black button down rolled up his elbows, gray tie with faux art deco design unbuttoned, pompadour toupee perfectly straight on his head, Silvio juts out his arms and in a gravely sing-song baritone he yells, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Everybody eats it up.
The Sopranos’ crew is ensconced not just in the mob, but the idea of the mob. As we watch these actors, some of whom have appeared in Coppola and Scorsese’s gangster epics, argue about The Godfather and Goodfellas onscreen, it only adds to the sense that these characters are men who are fortified in fantasy. Detective Frank Friel of the Philadelphia PD’s Organized Crime Division reported that on every raid of a mafia house they found The Godfather on VHS. A reciprocal relationship between sign and signified — a 1998 FBI wiretap of New Jersey mafia don Joseph “Tin Ear” Scalfani asking of The Sopranos “Is that supposed to be us?” before complementing the show’s production values.
Recidivism is not the only trait shared between mobsters and academics; we also have an obsession with fictional portrayals of ourselves.
Though I remain unclear on the particulars of Jean Baudrillard’s “Hyperreality,” the closest I came to understanding was when delayed by a film crew making a movie about a fictional English department while I was trying to get to a critical theory class. During the autumn of 2006, my first semester at Carnegie Mellon, and the Noam Murro directed Smart People took up set in Baker Hall. A whole gaggle of industry types — cameramen, gaffers, handlers, actors and actresses, caterers, miscellaneous members of the Teamsters and supposedly the keeper of Randy Quaid’s beloved Yorkshire terrier — blocked almost a third of the low, dark, and grim building that seemed to run for several blocks and had the appearance of an inner-city high school built at the turn of the century. Smart People starred Quaid playing Lawrence Wetherhold, a CMU English professor permanently ensconced in corduroy and the author of a breakout hit entitled You Can’t Read! I tried to avoid the side of the building the English Department was headquartered in by taking a shortcut past the History Department, only to get caught in a Hollywood imbroglio. It seems the director had moved filming to that very section of Baker, as he’d deigned the English Department to not look enough like an English Department. Is that hyperreality? Maybe it’s just narrative irony. I don’t know — like I said, I was late to class that day.
I didn’t choose to attend Carnegie Mellon because of the beautiful Curtis Hanson-directed adaptation of Michael Chabon’s campus novel Wonder Boys, which was also filmed at the school six years earlier, but it didn’t hurt. As someone who once firmly believed in American higher education as a quasi-utopian space where ideas could be debated, knowledge could be produced, and identities could be molded (really) I devoured narratives set in such cloisters, firmly counting myself among Chabon’s young men who “take the trouble to go over to the college library… flipping impatiently through the pages looking for parts that sound true.” For all of the stock characters — the lecherous professors, the smarmy deans, the naïve coeds — there is a surprising diversity to the form. Satire is the natural mode — all those combustible personalities with their myopic obsessions — David Lodge’s “The Campus Trilogy” is the standard, but farce encompasses novels from Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim to Richard Russo’s Straight Man. More literary novels include the pensive and sometimes melancholic romanticization of the cerebral life in Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or John Williams’ Stoner. Like some academics, I’m a sucker for a campus novel. The patrician gothic architecture, the chill during the fall semester, the cruel departmental politics, the tweed — all of it sets my finger to click “Save” for my Amazon Wishlist.
Some of the drama naturally announces itself by setting; after all, you’ve gathered all of these narcissistic personalities, basically accountable to nobody except that tin-pot enemy of the dean, surrounded by young people in the prime of life, arguing about issues both fundamental and prosaic. And they’re all crammed into a sealed (and often architecturally impressive) space. Tenure, in particular, that much mythologized and increasingly endangered oddity, lends itself to some of the pathos, because of the misnomer that it’s impossible to fire someone who has earned it. Say what you will about corporate drama, the campus novel allows for a professor to berate their department head, and the latter can’t really do anything about it. That they’re often written by MFAs or PhDs makes intuitive sense, as that familiar platitude advises one to write what you know, which is why there are more campus novels about English than either Geology or Poli Sci. Campus novels do something not dissimilar to Silvio’s Pacino impersonation: they present an idealized version of our lives, even if — especially if — they’re dysfunctional. Unlike film and novels, television has largely ignored academia, the professoriate passed over the treatment afforded to law and medicine (one exception being the pablum of the Richard Dreyfus vehicle The Education of Max Bickford).
But now, there’s The Chair, Netflix’s six-part dramedy starring Sandra Oh as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, “Our first lady chair” as announced by a geriatric colleague pulling medication out of a pill organizer. Written and produced by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, and costarring Jay Duplass, Holland Taylor, Nana Mensah, and Bob Balaban, the show’s promotional material explains that Kim’s character “navigates her new role as the chair of the English department at prestigious Pembroke University… a unique set of challenges as the first woman to chair the department.” Fictional Pembroke is appropriately collegiate-looking, all red-brick and colonial architecture against a backdrop of New England snow (though filmed in western Pennsylvania), referred to as a “lesser Ivy,” though it’s unclear whether this particular school is an R1 or a liberal arts college.
An unscientific advance survey of my peers evidenced trepidation about how accurate The Chair would be, as if viewers of Law & Order want to watch Sam Waterson file briefs or ER fans expected to see George Clooney charting files. Bennet Leckrone writes at The Chronicle of Higher Education that “academics have thoughts,” quoting a number of Tweets from anxious scholars (though Elaine Showalter voiced her approval). In particular, there was much snarking about the relative luxury of Kim’s office. However, as a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College where The Chair was filmed, as well as growing up in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood that houses Chatham University where many of the interiors were shot, the series was actually pretty accurate in its scenery. Obviously most English professors at W&J and Chatham don’t have offices that look anything like Kim’s (nor do most of the fictional faculty who teach at Pembroke), but she does her work at the latter college’s Mellon Hall, former residence of Andrew Mellon, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury and the founder of the National Gallery of Art, and even if a department chair isn’t housed there some administrator is.
I’m here to report the not incredibly astute critical evaluation that the show is good. Oh is reliably fantastic, a subtle performer who is well-attuned to comedic material; Duplass does a good job as the drunk, druggie modernist Bob Dobson, a mess of a professor who (spoiler alert) doesn’t sleep with the co-ed; Balaban is reliably expert as rumpled nineteenth-century Americanist Eliot Rentz; Mensah is a steady presence as Yaz McKay, Pembroke’s only Black English professor; and Taylor’s turn as Medievalist Joan Hambling is simultaneously hilarious and moving. A sort of quasi-verisimilitude dominates, with The Chair being the rare depiction of faculty life that mentions 5/4 course-loads, scheduling conflicts, and the two-body problem. While the professors are definitely types, Peet and Wyman avoid reducing them to cartoons, for even when they’re bastards they’re not totally unsympathetic.
While comedic affect necessitates pushing personalities to an extreme, it would be disingenuous to deny these characters’ innate familiarity. When Kim quotes Harold Bloom, she rolls her eyes, while the tenured octogenarians who can’t read her obvious embarrassment nod approvingly; later, at a faculty party, somebody discussing a visiting Distinguished Lectureship complains that “Every semester there is some theory boy who wants to come and talk about Lacan.” Even more thrillingly, Kim answers a query about what could have possibly happened in the discipline over the past generation by responding that there is actually “a lot… affect theory, ecocriticism, digital humanities, new materialism, book history, developments in gender studies and critical race theory.” In Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, from The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Brett Martin explains how the set of The Sopranos employed a “former made man, now in the witness protection program” who acted as an adviser. Passing a dissertation defense doesn’t involve burning a bloodied saint card and swearing a vow of omerta, but if The Chair has an equivalent to a wise guy on the inside, it’s in co-creator and writer Annie Julia Wyman who has a PhD in English. As a result, The Chair — despite some failings — is one of the more accurate portrayals of departmental life we’ve seen, though what it doesn’t depict can be as insightful as what it does. In short, The Chair is a teachable text, as we say in the classroom.
Its central plot follows the aftermath of a politically incorrect hand gesture made by Dobson while teaching, which generates a miniature culture war on campus. By focusing on issues argued about on Twitter — questions of diversity, representation, historical memory, and who should say what in the public square — The Chair demonstrates how the humanities don’t just have value (despite declining enrollments), but are in some ways our central, contemporary political concerns. In lesser hands, this could have turned into a harangue about “these kids today,” long-suffering Dobson crucified by woke SJWs. Even while some of the students could have been better fleshed out, the overall attitude presented is one of good faith. Dobson, it should be said, isn’t a villain either, even as if we cringe as he brags about protesting for South African divestment while wearing a — seemingly brand new — Joy Division t-shirt. Dobson’s is the arrogance of the middle-aged straight, white, male progressive who can only answer grievances with lame humor and paeans to free discourse. The Chair provides illustration of gender disparities within the academy as well, less so in Kim’s story than that of Hambling, a senior Medievalist that one could see being dismissed by younger critics as merely a “white feminist,” who nonetheless eloquently speaks of the costs of institutionalized misogyny over the course of her career. And the show likewise speaks to the academy’s racial disparities, as well. As McKay ruefully says of an elderly, white, and temperamentally conservative colleague, “He only got to rule the profession for the last forty years.”
Despite its comedy (or maybe because of it), The Chair is permeated with dread about the future, a show that is of our current Zeitgeist. “I don’t feel like I inherited an English department,” Kim says,” I feel like I inherited a time bomb.” English faces decreasing enrollments, administrators have zestfully embraced a corporate model, and faith in the humanities has dwindled as students flock to STEM. At her first faculty meeting, Kim tells those assembled that despite the unprecedented crisis, “we have to prove that what we do in the classroom — modeling critical thinking, stressing the value of empathy, is more important than ever and has value to the public good.” During her voiceover, we see an intoxicated Dobson in an airport parking lot urinating on a Mercedes. It’s a great visual joke, the anxious sanctimony of Kim’s monologue — the stuff of a thousand Chronicle of Higher Education editorials — against the dysfunction of the person whose job it is to inculcate students with critical thought and empathy.
Kim’s conception of the discipline isn’t quite accurate, but it’s inaccurate in ways we recognize, a common enough justification which we all give. None of us went into teaching English because we wanted to parse critical thought or train our students to be better citizens (or God forbid better employees). Rather tellingly, Kim is asked by her daughter to explain why she became the type of doctor “who doesn’t help people,” and the mother says that she wanted to understand the meaning behind stories. Later, Dobson says something similar, about how literature allows us a space to imagine a different world. Reject it as tautological if you must, but we teach literature because literature is important. While The Chair has moving scenes of professors engaging with students — it isn’t shy about emphatically stating that the humanities have a value — it also avoids the schmaltz of The Dead Poets Society which promoted a simplistic and damaging understanding of the discipline. “Teaching is not a pastime,” Kim tells a layperson. “It’s a profession.”
Years ago I read Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner, perhaps the greatest campus novel of the twentieth-century, and a work that deserves all superlatives applied to it. Williams’ titular character is a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, a dedicated teacher motivated by his “love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combination of letters and words.” When rereleased in 2006 as a New York Review of Books Classic, critics talked about Stoner as a Middle American existentialist consideration of meeting life through duty and love. For a contemporary graduate student or adjunct reading this novel about a barely published PhD who easily gets a job at an R1 land-grant university, achieves tenure with little effort, and then teaches a light course load while making enough money to comfortably live, it doesn’t seem like a tragedy. It seems like fucking fantasy. Because teaching isn’t just a profession — it’s also labor. And this is where The Chair falls short. On Twitter, Wyman assured critics that the show would feature contingent faculty, but that must have been in a previous script. In reality, more than 75% of faculty are adjuncts (such as myself), with no regular guarantee of employment, no healthcare, no office space, and no research support while teaching massive course loads of the least desirable classes and making minimum wage. That story is rarely told.
Traditional campus narratives present idealized dysfunction, where so much hinges on people with leather elbow patches drinking sherry and arguing over the proper interpretation of Emily Dickinson. Academia today is far more uncertain, anonymous, and laborious. Having sympathy for those otherworldly privileged characters is possible, but it reminds me of the sympathy one feels for the Russian aristocrats in Chekhov, only with tenure instead of a dacha. When Kim says “I feel like I arrived at the party after last call,” the script gestures towards what’s coming, but the full scope of our collapse isn’t confronted. Whatever the bad behavior of these characters, they don’t teach at eight campuses to make rent. Current academe requires less a John Williams than a John Steinbeck. Novelist Christine Smallwood depicts the separation between the Ivory Tower and the basement of said tower in The Life of the Mind, among the first campus narratives to focus on adjuncts. Working in the college library, the protagonist Dorothy watches a “young man… half-hidden behind a tottering pile of books” who was wearing a jacket with elbow patches, “a stock image of a young professor, which suggested he was, in fact, an advanced graduate student, someone engaged in the time-honored pursuit of faking it till making it.” Maybe not the same as mafioso putting The Godfather theme on the jukebox, but not dissimilar either. In our profession’s epilogue, all we have is cosplay. Sounding a bit like Kim, Tony Soprano once said “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” You and me both, Tony.