A Caucasian male professor is “canceled” for inappropriate and callous acts that provoke outrage from students. Another teacher frequently interrupts his co-teacher, completely changing the focus of the class discussion. A young black professor struggles for tenure. Did all of this happen on Netflix’s “The Chair” or did it happen at Harvard? The answer is, well, both.
“The Chair” is an original Netflix comedy-drama starring Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, the chair of a failing English department at fictional Pembroke University. The series was praised for its authentic portrayal of the absurdity of academia, presenting questions of diversity, cancellation of culture and corruption. While the show is not based on any particular institution or event, the elitism of Pembroke’s Ivy League and co-creator Annie Julia Wyman’s history as an English doctoral student at Harvard point to Harvard as a potential source of research. ‘inspiration.
Many scenes are all too familiar: Student reactions to Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) giving the Nazi salute in class remind us of the backlash against David Kane, and Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) ‘s struggles for tenure reopen the not-so-old wound of losing Cornel West after tenure disputes. I laughed as Pembroke’s ignorant dean expressed the conviction of universities around the world that anything can be resolved with a letter of apology. I shuddered watching Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) talk about McKay as they chatted together, immediately brought back to my experience in a class co-taught by a man and a woman. I can still imagine the sea of rolling eyes among the students in response to our male teacher unnecessarily interrupting our teacher halfway, half thought.
As an undergraduate student at Harvard and studying English, I was both excited and hesitant to watch the series. I knew that such an amazing cast would create great entertainment and that I would relate to a lot of elements of the show. At the same time, I feared that the experience would be embarrassing, if not painful, if the series were too realistic in its depiction of the flaws of an English department.
While “The Chair” accurately captures many of the frustrations of college and university life, I am delighted to say that certain elements, such as the show’s portrayal of an English department with extremely aged white professors, outdated curricula and low respect for student contributions might not be further from the truth at Harvard. In my experience, the English department at Harvard is very diverse, made up of professors from different age groups, genders, races and backgrounds.
One of the main reasons for the failure of the English department at Pembroke is the archaic nature of some courses, as well as the professors who teach them. One of the oldest professors, Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), prides herself on having ignored her student evaluations for decades. Another, Rentz, has not changed his program for thirty years, expressing his aversion to modernizing course materials and activities. They teach in almost empty classrooms, seeking student participation.
Where are all the other students, you ask? They fill McKay and Kim’s classrooms, closest to Pembroke for Harvard English teachers. McKay’s class, “Sex and the Novel,” attracted so many registrations that the end of the class resulted in a flood of students down the hall. This semester, I added “Sex, Gender, and Shakespeare” to my Crimson Cart – not far off!
Every English concentrator at Harvard has to study the classics, but even the oldest stories are tied to our days and taught in innovative ways. In ‘Arrivals: British Literature 700-1700’, we linked Old English epics to modern issues and embraced creative tasks like keeping a Spotify playlist. Most of Pembroke’s teachers are stuck in the past. Ours, or at least those with whom I studied, know how to stay in tune with the times.
Our department also announces different ways to get involved as undergraduates in departmental committees. And when new courses are introduced, like English 10, 20, and 97 – the first editions of which took place last year as part of new concentration requirements – professors ask for our feedback at the end of the semester, always looking to do better.
I became an English hub because I felt like the department really cared about my experience. I have always felt recognized and respected as a student. A teacher offered each student a personalized book recommendation at the end of the semester. Another sat with me for over an hour on a bad day, brewing me a cup of tea and sharing invaluable life tips.
At first I thought this article was going to be an exposition of the shortcomings of the English department at Harvard as reflected in “The Chair”. But watching the show more closely and re-examining the opportunities I had as an English student, I realized that the differences far outweighed the similarities. That’s not to say there isn’t work to be done – the biased history of literature, specifically the literary canon, requires English departments to frequently reassess what is taught and by whom. Departments at other universities may also be more like Pembroke’s lack of warmth and diversity, which is in desperate need of an upgrade.
In the first episode, Kim emphasizes the importance of English departments in “modeling critical thinking” and “emphasizing the value of empathy”. Their department deviates from these values, but Harvard English embodies them. I can’t speak as a faculty member – perhaps they would find the show’s professor-to-professor or professor-to-dean dynamic more relevant and compelling. I can, however, speak as a member of the student body when I say that Harvard English shines brighter than ever compared to the parody of a department at Pembroke.
– Editor Nina M. Foster can be contacted at email@example.com.