‘The Chair’ Is a Campus Novel

It seems as if basically every American professor on social media has been either watching The Chair or putting it off for another time. It’s the creation of the actor-writer Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, a 2017 Harvard Ph.D. recipient. Netflix released the series on Friday—just as the new academic year begins—after plying academics with screeners of the first episodes.

The trailer gives, I think, a reasonably accurate impression of the show. (The show is rated TV-MA, and the trailer features uncensored “adult” language.)

The series has provoked some strong and contradictory reactions. Some academics describe it as a kind of idealized fantasy of elite higher education; others—especially women—find it upsettingly realistic. And people discussing its portrayal of so-called cancel culture have drawn contradictory conclusions about its argument. (Among the surprisingly basic questions people have raised is whether the show counts as a work of satire.)

For my part, I see The Chair as a culturally up-to-date but familiar example of an established literary genre. With just six half-hour episodes and a story that could be considered complete, The Chair is a traditional campus novel in movie form. Versions of this story have been told over and over since at least the time of Mary McCarthy and Kingsley Amis.

The traditional campus novel is satirical, but the target of its satire is broad: It suggests that there is something absurd and enervating about academia itself. Spoofing specific vices isn’t really the point—although vices related to hierarchy and sex are usually abundant.

Structurally, The Chair fits this classic pattern perfectly, however contemporary its various storylines are. Partly for that reason—but also surely because the co-creator Annie Julia Wyman has recent experience in elite universities herself—this is an unusually realistic depiction of higher education for a work of film. It gets closer to the kind of accuracy we expect to see in literary novels than the (abysmal) level of accuracy we’re accustomed to seeing on television.

(The single silliest storyline, in which an IT worker hunts down a student posting cruel Rate My Professors reviews, is implausible for reasons that have nothing to do with academe.)

With that in mind, here is a very incomplete list of some things that I think The Chair gets right about elite university life, which I will not be elaborating upon:

  • The little-known fact that academia is a workplace
  • Over-powerful yet alienated older professors
  • Faculty man-children looking for admiration
  • Political tensions that aren’t about Republicans and Democrats
  • Students trying to find their voice (with mixed results)
  • The many faces of disrespect
  • The battle scars of older women
  • The pious earnestness with which academia betrays people of color
  • The role of double standards in notions of academic excellence
  • Pervasive feelings of insecurity
  • The odd mix of opulence and poverty
  • The “brilliance” bait-and-switch
  • The inconvenient truth that tenure is an instrument of early-career conformity
  • The complicated feelings tenure-track academics have about teaching

I wouldn’t say The Chair is great art. But it’s a very solid example of a respected genre.