“The Chair”: A Straussian interpretation

[Warning: spoilers follow!]

Last week Dana and I watched the full first season of The Chair, the Netflix drama that stars Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, incoming chairwoman of the English department at the fictional Pembroke University. As the rave reviews promised, I found the show to be brilliantly written and acted. At times, The Chair made me think about that other academia-centered sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, which I freely confess I also enjoyed. But The Chair is much more highbrow (and more political), it’s about the humanities rather than STEM, and it’s mostly about academics who are older than the ones in Big Bang, both biologically and professionally.

I wouldn’t call The Chair “realistic”: the sets, stuffed with imposing bookshelves, paintings of great scholars, etc., look like how a TV producer might imagine university buildings, rather than the relatively humdrum reality. But in less than three hours, the show tackles a staggering number of issues that will be recognizable and relevant to anyone in academia: cratering enrollments, a narrow-minded cost-cutting dean, a lack of free time and a desperate search for childcare, a tenure case that turns into a retention case, a woke scandal (about which more later), a faculty revolt against Ji-Yoon culminating in a vote of no confidence, and much more. There’s also an elaborate side plot involving the actor (and real-life former literary scholar) David Duchovny, who portrays himself, being invited to lecture at Pembroke, which is not the sort of thing most academics have experience with, but which I suppose many viewers will enjoy.

The show is written at a high enough level that its stumbles are those of a daring acrobat. In the main narrative arc of the first season, the writers set themselves an absurdly ambitious (and, I think, laudable) goal: namely, to dramatize a conflict between a free-spirited professor, and woke students trying to cancel that professor for a classroom “microaggression,” in a way that fully empathizes with both sides. I don’t know if the show actually succeeds at this, but that’s partly because I don’t know if it’s possible to succeed.

To start with some background: in Pembroke’s English department, there are old, traditionalist white males, who give lectures extolling the Great Men of Literature, and who apparently still wield considerable power. Meanwhile, critical theorists are presented as young, exciting upstarts bravely challenging the status quo. People with recent experience of English departments should correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is that this is pretty anachronistic—i.e., that the last powerful traditionalists in humanities departments were routed by the 80s or 90s at the latest, so that students in the Twitter-and-smartphone era (when The Chair is set) would be about as likely to encounter them as they would professors sitting around in charcoal suits smoking pipes.

There were also some of what felt to me like … intersectional oversights? Ji-Yoon, being Korean-American, is repeatedly approached by Black female students and faculty as a “fellow woman of color,” with whom they can commiserate about the entrenched power of the department’s white males. The show never examines how woke discourse has increasingly reclassified Asian-Americans as “white-adjacent”—as, for example, in the battles over gifted and magnet programs or admissions to Harvard. Likewise, woke students are shown standing arm-in-arm with Pembroke’s Jewish community, to denounce (what we in the audience know to be) a phantom antisemitic incident. Left unexplored is how, in the modern woke hierarchy, Jews have become just another kind of privileged white person (worse, of course, if they have ties to Israel).

This brings me to the first season’s central conflict, which revolves around Bill Dobson, a handsome middle-aged white male professor who’s revered as the department’s greatest genius on the basis of his earlier work, but who, after the death of his wife, is now washed-up, flippant, and frequently drunk or high. In one class session, while lecturing about intellectuals who found the strength to resist fascism despite their own nihilistic impulses, Bill makes a Nazi salute and shouts “Heil Hitler!,” as a theatrical reminder to the students about the enormity of what those intellectuals were fighting. Alas, a woke student captures that moment on their smartphone camera and shares it on social media. The clip of Bill making the Heil salute goes viral, shorn of all exculpatory context. Soon, crowds of students are waving placards and screaming “No Nazis at Pembroke!” outside the English building. In a desperate effort to make his PR crisis go away, the dean initiates termination proceedings against Bill—the principles of academic freedom and even Bill’s tenure be damned. Ji-Yoon, of course, as Bill’s chair, is caught smack in the middle of this. It’s complicated even further by Ji-Yoon’s and Bill’s romantic feelings for each other, and further still by Bill’s role as the babysitter of Ji-Yoon’s adopted daughter.

As all of this unfolds, the show seems immensely interested in pinning the blame on Bill’s “tragic flaws,” minor though they seemed to me—mostly just pride and unseriousness. (E.g., trying to lampoon the absurd charge of Nazism, Bill offhandedly mentions that he’s always wanted to visit Hitler’s mountain retreat, and on another occasion belts out “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers.) The woke students, by contrast, are portrayed as earnest, understandably upset, and legitimately terrified about hate crimes on campus. If they, too, have opportunistic motives to attack Bill, the show never examines them.

In one sentence, then, here’s my beef with The Chair: its script portrays a mob, step by step, destroying an innocent man’s life over nothing, and yet it wants me to feel the mob’s pain, and be disappointed in its victim for mulishly insisting on his innocence (even though he is, in fact, innocent).

With real-life woke controversies, there often lingers the question of whether the accused might really be a racist, fascist, sexual predator, or whatever else, adequate proof or no. What’s different here is that we know that Bill Dobson is none of those things, we know he’s decent to his core, because the writers have painstakingly shown us that. And yet, in a weird narrative pretzel, we’re nevertheless supposed to be mad at him, and to sympathize with the campaign to cancel him.

A casual perusal of other reviews of The Chair told me that these reactions were far from universal. Here, for example, is what one viewer wrote:

I can appreciate that this is probably close to the reality that most women/of color experience in higher education. I enjoyed watching the scenes with Joan and Yaz [two female professors] the most but the rest was a drag. I couldn’t understand why Ji-Yoon was into Bill, or why anyone was into Bill. I found him to be an insufferable man-baby. That is such a turn off. So she’d put him straight but then still be pining for him. He wreaked [sic] of entitled, white male, tenured privilege and never showed any contrition for his actions or even awareness of their impact. i’m so tired of the “brilliant _” being used to justify coddling someone. And for the rest of the stuffy old patriarchal farts– boot them out! They weren’t good teachers and weren’t able to meet the needs of today’s students.

I asked myself: did this person watch the same show? It’s like, the script couldn’t possibly have been clearer about Bill’s character, the fact that he’s the polar opposite of the woke students’ mental construct. And yet, if the show had drawn an unambiguous corollary from Bill’s goodness—namely, that the effort to cancel him is a moral travesty—then The Chair itself might have been denounced as conservative (or at least classical liberal) propaganda, and those who’d otherwise form its core viewership wouldn’t have watched.

So, if I were a literary critic like the ones on the show, I might argue that The Chair begs for a Straussian interpretation. Sure, there’s an “overt” reading, wherein Bill Dobson is done in by his own hubris, or wherein it’s a comedy of errors with no one to blame. But then there’s also an “esoteric” reading, wherein Bill is the victim of an extremely specific modern-day collective insanity, one that future generations might look back on with little more ambivalence than we look back on McCarthyism. The writers of The Chair might hint at this latter reading, through their sympathetic portrayal of Bill and the obviousness of the injustice done to him, but they can never make it too explicit, because of the political and cultural constraints under which they themselves operate.

Under this theory, it presumably falls to those slightly outside the world portrayed in The Chair—like, let’s imagine, a theoretical computer science blogger who himself was denounced for woke heresies to the point where he has little more to lose in that direction—to make the esoteric reading explicit. Unless and until, of course, a second season comes along to undermine that reading entirely.

74 Responses to ““The Chair”: A Straussian interpretation”

  1. Aspect Says:

    (Arghh I had already typed a comment but I fat fingered the keyboard so I think I lost it, apologies if this is the second comment you get from me; feel free to just keep one of them)

    I was a bit underwhelmed by the show, probably because people created unreasonable hype/expectations around it. Regarding Bill’s stupid nazi salute thing, it was blown out of proportion, but I do think that you’re cutting him too much slack.

    He is innocent w.r.t having Nazi beliefs. He’s not innocent about being careless and irresponsible time and time again in his workplace. His carelessness brings a ton of drama to people he presumably cares about as well (the chair). I don’t think it’s about whether or not Bill believes in this stuff. It’s that it seems absurd to be so irresponsible with these topics. Personally, I don’t care about it, but I can’t blame other people if they have issues with it.
    Does it warrant being fired and stirring up a storm about it? I would say that’s debatable, but it’s a workplace and he’s interacting with people he doesn’t thoroughly know… it’s just too stupid. I would place the burden on the grown-up in the room, not the 18-20somethigs in this case. He does a silly Nazi joke again when he’s having a meeting with the higher-ups about the situation. He acts too much like he’s running the place. I suppose that’s why the person you quoted called him a “man-baby”.

    Some of that may be excused by the death of his wife which is pretty clear that has haunted him. But being so careless becomes eventually indistinguishable from malice when it causes so much trouble to him and the people around him. His nonchalant attitude undermines the chair’s authority in front of people, and since she is new to the job and feels like she needs to earn respect, that’s pretty inconsiderate of him (especially because he’s supposed to care about her). It also didn’t help when his apology to the students basically was “I’m sorry you felt that way”. That’s just too commonly the apology of people who can’t get over themselves so it didn’t paint him in a good light. It’s just not a big deal to say “Apologies guys, I shouldn’t fuck around with those topics, there’s a time and place for jokes and this wasn’t the right one”. It seems like the students could’ve calmed down with an honest apology. Maybe they wouldn’t, but in that case, he would’ve done his best to fix the situation and we would not be able to blame him anymore.

    Anyway, he just seems like the kind of person who isn’t a bad human but who I wouldn’t trust because his tendencies are self-destructive. I kind of expected him to end up in a situation being drunk and this other young girl ending up having sex with him because of how hard of a time he had establishing boundaries with her. Thankfully, the cliche didn’t materialize. Sure, we can feel sorry about him and understand his grief to some extent, but there comes a point where we have to consider personal accountability and the guy doesn’t seem to step it up after his screw-ups.

    It’s hard for me to see the parallel with your situation, aside from an extremely vague “woke outrage” kind of standpoint, because:
    – You posted something on your personal blog. You didn’t make it a part of your workplace.
    – Even if someone viewed your story as misguided or had issues with it, you expressed feelings of genuine frustration and vulnerability.
    – Students of yours came out in your defense as a person and professor (and none against you, afaik?). I’m taking a wild guess that it’s because you’re respectful of other people’s boundaries and you don’t act like this dude (despite the fact that you both don’t have bad intent; how that is expressed in your behavior makes a world of difference).

    I think a more fitting equivalent would’ve been if the drama was about him showing the tapes of his dead wife in front of the class, and people framing that as somehow being sexist because his joke trivialized her pain. If there was outrage for that, then I could see more of a connection to your incident.

  2. uhoh Says:

    Alas, the most that can be done nowadays is to plant the smallest seed of doubt. But fortunately that is often sufficient (as well as necessary) to change people’s minds.

  3. Scott Says:

    Aspect #1: Thanks so much for your thoughtful disagreement!

    I never wrote that Bill Dobson’s situation was especially similar to mine, or that I would ever engage in the sorts of antics that he does. I said only that he comes across as a fundamentally decent (if, yes, drunk, depressed, emotionally damaged, and “gaffe-prone”) person—one who always strives to do right by his students (including Ji-Yoon’s daughter, his grad student, and the undergrad who he “refuses,” mistakenly thinking she wants to sleep with him). Given that he’s also portrayed as being a genius of English literature, it seems obvious to me that academia should have room for such a person, that it’s academia’s loss if it can’t. A generation or two ago, it would’ve been obvious to everyone else as well.

    Anyway, yes, of course my experience surviving an online denunciation campaign colors my reaction to such a show, even if I’m not that terribly similar to any of its characters.

  4. Sniffnoy Says:

    The show never examines how woke discourse has increasingly reclassified Asian-Americans as “white-adjacent”—as, for example, in the battles over gifted and magnet programs or admissions to Harvard.

    It’s not one or the other, it’s either as convenient. :-/

  5. dm Says:

    This is an interesting read of the show! A minor disagreement, I think: I see it as intentionally creating ambiguity by being sympathetic to, and critical of, both sides. Bill has talent and a heart of gold (as a caregiver, when he finally gets around to lecturing, when he helps his graduate student), but also very much an academic type. He’s self-pitying, entitled, refuses to see how he creates work for others. Women have to cover for him. (I think this is on the minds of the writers, because of Joan Hambling’s anger at all the parties she had to host, and Elliot Rentz’s wife’s back story.) His flippant reaction to the whole furor (forgive the pun) is right on the merits but oblivious to the larger context.

    The students, on the other hand, are set up for some scorn as well. They aren’t only “earnest, understandably upset, and legitimately terrified about hate crimes on campus”– that confrontation on the quad makes them out to be naive, simplistic moralizers, a foolish mob, etc. There’s a moment when two students lecture Ji-Yoon about their burdens being women of color that, to me, reads like a portrayal of obliviousness.

    So on that score I think the writers did well. (And, honestly, it’s a hard task to come up with a Woke Incident that’s just serious enough to justify some criticism of a flippant response, yet not so serious that the students look ridiculous calling for blood.) I’d fault them on taking some easy outs with Yaz by making her the Mary Sue of the tenure track, but that’s another story.

  6. Aspect Says:

    Ahhh, my bad. I kind of felt that a connection to your case was implied as I was reading. Nevermind then!

    >drunk, depressed, emotionally damaged, and “gaffe-prone”

    I suppose maybe it’s my experience coloring my perceptions in this case too, as I’m generally not too tolerant with people who exhibit hurtful patterns of behavior repeatedly and then fall back on their issues as a defense (to his credit if I remember correctly, he didn’t actively rely on this as an excuse).

    >he comes across as a fundamentally decent
    We’re getting the sense that he’s a decent guy, I agree. Maybe that’s just me again, but it happens often that “a person’s heart is in the right place” and still that person ends up doing harmful things. You can always get a sample of events that boosts one type of perception over another. Imo, the “fundamentally decent” status should always be questioned and revoked if harmful things keep happening.

    As for whether there’s a place for the guy in academia because of his talent… I would say let the actions speak for themselves. I don’t think anybody’s owed a spot. If he consistently does stupid stuff in class then he shouldn’t teach. He could have a pure research position instead so he can only work with people who can manage his antics. If he causes trouble to peers in that scenario too, then his brains should help him find a niche where his behavior is tolerated.

  7. Paul Topping Says:

    Where to start? You say, “nevertheless supposed to be mad at him, and to sympathize with the campaign to cancel him.” I didn’t feel that. I wished he’d be smarter but I was still totally on his side. As you also say, he’s essentially a good person who did something silly, given today’s college environment, but certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his job over it.

    Although I’m not an academic, the disagreements with reality you point out certainly make sense to me. I mildly enjoyed the show but it suffered from trying to be two shows at once: a situation comedy and a serious portrayal of woke conflict on the modern college campus. For the sake of comedy, the characters are not as complex, intelligent, or self-aware as their real-life versions. Similarly, as you point out, the students are portrayed as simply making mistakes in going after Bill and no maliciousness is shown to us which, AFAIK, doesn’t match real life.

    I agree with the man-baby assessment of Bill. No one that stupid and unaware could be the brilliant English professor he is supposed to have been. Again, I put it down to the need for comedy. Assuming there’s a second season, I’ll probably watch it, but it would be nice to see a more serious portrayal of the horrible antics that occur on modern campuses in a different show. Perhaps two shows, one woke and the other non-woke, but both serious. Now that would be worthy of some water cooler talk!

  8. Silas Barta Says:

    Wow, sounds like it’s worth a watch! Not much to add but:

    >a tenure case that turns into a retention case,

    I’m not familiar with what that means? Someone is up for tenure and then it turns out no, they won’t get it but now have to justify keeping their job at all?

    >There’s also an elaborate side plot involving the actor (and real-life former literary scholar) David Duchovny, who portrays himself, being invited to lecture at Pembroke,

    Whoa, crazy! You might be interested to learn that Season 3 of Californication (not for kids) involves David Duchovny’s character (a Fight Club-style author) taking a position as a lecturer at a small private liberal arts college … and it goes about as well as you’d expect.

    Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be on Netflix anymore.

  9. “The Chair”: A Straussian interpretation | 3 Quarks Daily Says:

    […] More here. […]

  10. FC Says:

    It is very interesting that they chose a silly Hitler reference as Bill’s sin rather than something more substantive, like a really controversial opinion or some racial slur, specially since the Jewish people that might be offended by it are, for the most part, far from underpriviledged.

    I think the reason for this is that it was the safest choice for the producers and Netflix itself. They had to go with the worst offense they could think of that wouldn’t land them in any trouble, so they went with the antisemitic one.

  11. Scott Says:

    FC #10: Interesting, I hadn’t thought about that but it’s plausible! It would’ve been hard to do around him saying the n-word for similar reasons in class, for example.

  12. Scott Says:

    Silas Barta #8: Sorry I didn’t explain!

    [SPOILER ALERT]

    Yaz, the superstar young Black woman on the faculty, decides to preemptively defect to Yale after she gets an ambiguous clue that the elderly, traditionalist white male professor handling her tenure case might backstab and recommend against her … and Ji-Yoon, of course, then has to try to save the situation.

  13. Scott Says:

    Paul Topping #7:

      No one that stupid and unaware could be the brilliant English professor he is supposed to have been.

    Have you seen some of the things otherwise brilliant academics have lost their careers over? E.g., in sexual harassment cases, the sheer clumsiness of the attempts?

  14. fred Says:

    “Did this person watch the same show? It’s like, the script couldn’t possibly have been clearer about Bill’s character, the fact that he’s the polar opposite of the woke students’ mental construct. And yet, if the show had drawn an unambiguous corollary from Bill’s goodness—namely, that the effort to cancel him is a moral travesty”

    Not sure why you’re so surprised since identity politics is about fitting someone in rigid binary boxes based on a few superficial attributes (color, gender, age, sexual orientation). And then a person’s absolute worth and right to claim individuality are entirely derived from which of the “right” boxes are checked…
    What’s inside someone’s heart is totally irrelevant, and the only “actions” that count are performative acts of virtue signalling (kneel down, raise a fist, turn your back, posts the right symbols on your social media, etc).

  15. Michelle Says:

    dm and Paul Topping–agree with your feelings about “who’s side” the show was trying to get the viewers to be on.

  16. fred Says:

    For what it’s worth, I really don’t think that higher education should rely on the absolute perfection of the faculty members (especially when the gold standard is ever changing, and impossible to reach).

    Sure, you don’t want to expose kids to active rapists/terrorists, but there’s a lot of benefit in having teenagers realize and accept that their teachers are just like everyone else (i.e their own parents): they are flawed and complicated individuals.
    Teaching is about more than understanding the topic at hand, it’s also about learning to think the right way, and prepare the kids to the realities of adult life.
    Sheltering them in some utopian Marxist role-playing game is no good.

    When I grew up, the quirks and painful life experiences of our teachers had a big impact on us.
    Our math teacher once used to be a heavy drinker, and that caused a crash that killed both his wive and child. He had deep scars in his face. When he told us that life could be cruel, we listened.
    Another teacher was an ex-priest who had been defrocked because he fell in love and decided to get married … and he was allowed to teach in a catholic school run by monks!
    It’s all fine, especially if this opens interesting conversations.

  17. Edward M Measure Says:

    I only watched one episode, so I am highly underqualified to rate overall quality, but I wasn’t impressed. In any other line of employment, Bill would have gotten the boot after the first episode, with no need for any Nazi BS. The fogies aren’t just old, they have reached their age of incompetence. Students aren’t showing up for their classes because they aren’t teaching.

    The supposedly “woke” young prof did not impress either – marketing titles with the word “sex” as if that was a magic elixir to inspire today’s students.

    A much more interesting and plausibly controversial case would be something like the academic lynching of Steve Hsu, driven out of his post as chief of research for daring to examine data linking genes and IQ.

  18. Scott Says:

    Edward M Measure #17:

      In any other line of employment, Bill would have gotten the boot after the first episode, with no need for any Nazi BS.

    Probably not at a startup! Or at Los Alamos or JPL or Bell Labs or Apple back in their heydays. What do those places have in common with many university departments? They all require dealing with people who are difficult, eccentric, immature, and brilliant at what they do. I’m not sure I’d ever want to work at any place that wasn’t like that. I hope the coming decades create more jobs that tolerate such people, if only by creating more opportunities for self-employment.

  19. Anon93 Says:

    On the topic of Jews and wokeness, let’s not forget this paper https://cdn.mises.org/14_2_3_0.pdf which shows that a lot of the measures wokes are using now against men, whites, and Asians are similar to what the Nazis did to the Jews in the early and mid 30s. The Nazis were big fans of the kind of affirmative action where equality of outcome is the goal rather than equality of opportunity.

  20. dankane Says:

    Scott#18

    Are startups/JPL actually that lenient about this? I guess I haven’t seen the show and so don’t know the full context, but I feel like at most places well-intentioned, but still inappropriate (as is the case in almost all circumstances) Nazi-salutes should at least merit a stern talking to from HR followed by firing for repeat offenses.

    I mean sure, these institutions need to be able to deal with brilliant people who are sometimes lacking in social awareness. But they still have to weigh the costs of losing out by firing someone for their inappropriate behavior with the costs of losing out on other people who are turned away by this behavior.

  21. Scott Says:

    dankane #20:

      Are startups/JPL actually that lenient about this?

    In basically every example I’m familiar with, the answer to this question is, “no, not anymore, but yes when they produced the achievements for which they’re now famous.”

  22. dankane Says:

    Scott #21

    OK. But in the era when those institutions produced the achievements for which they are famous, couldn’t you be pretty openly racist/sexist/whateverist and keep your job in a lot of places in this country?

  23. Scott Says:

    dankane #22: I’d like to imagine that, at some point between (say) 1965 and 2010, there was a happy medium when the actual racists and sexists would lose their jobs, but the classical liberals, accidental microaggressors, and socially unaware nerds wouldn’t. But maybe this is wishful/nostalgic thinking, and it really just flipped immediately from one extreme to the other?

  24. dankane Says:

    Scott #23

    I don’t think there was ever a time where we successfully managed to fire exactly the people who deserved it and nobody else. I mean MeToo seems to have proved that at least up to a few years ago, there were plenty of unfired sexual predators and this is well after the time when people would at least occasionally be fired due to a tweet taken out of context.

  25. Dan Staley Says:

    Scott, it feels like you’re saying that sufficiently brilliant people should have more leeway in their behavior than everyone else – after all, if a waiter, secretary, etc. shouts “Heil Hitler” at work, they’re likely to get fired regardless of context. Do you think this viewpoint is approaching some sort of elitism?

    (That’s a real question mark there – I’m not sure what *I* think the answer should be.)

    I understand the utilitarian side of your argument (in the sense of an overall benefit to humanity), but I find it really difficult to translate that utilitarianism into a more universal, ethical law I’m comfortable with – if we really want separate rules for those who are sufficiently brilliant (or a sliding scale of rules based on how smart you are), that seems both extremely corruptible and also marching towards some kind of “genetic superiority” dystopia.

    I guess at the end of the day, the vast majority of people (including undergrad students) don’t know the level of an academic’s brilliance or utility to humanity – they can only trust people like the Chair, the Dean, and the faculty to make that assessment. But in our world where trust in authority has all but evaporated, there’s very little an academic can do to prove themselves in the public eye.

  26. Scott Says:

    dankane #24: Obviously there will always be mistakes in both directions. But if, in the space of just one or two generations, we went from a culture of protecting the guilty to a culture of vilifying the innocent, then by the intermediate value theorem, it seems like there must have been some point when we were well-calibrated and the mistakes were more-or-less random! Though I admittedly find it hard to pinpoint when it was. 🙂

  27. dankane Says:

    Scott #25

    I mean (assuming continuity) there must have been a point where we made as many mistakes in one direction as we made in the other. I’m not sure that this is an ideal that we should be aspiring towards though. Our objective should be to minimize the total badness of all mistakes we make, and I am not convinced that there was a time previously where we did better by this metric.

  28. Scott Says:

    Dan Staley #25: I feel like I’m reasonably consistent, in that for the waiter or the secretary also, I’d want to understand the context before feeling comfortable with firing them for a “Heil” salute. Do they actually have the slightest sympathy for Nazism? Or were they just, you know, talking about history, or about what someone else did, with heavy implied quotation marks around the gesture? The fact that actual neo-Nazis could hide behind irony, humor, or claims that they “didn’t really mean it,” doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to use common sense and reason — there they are again, those banes of blankfaces! — to suss out what was going on in some particular case.

    Having said that, I do think there’s great societal value in giving academics extra protection for controversial speech and ideas, and I’m grateful to live in a society where that value is widely shared (or at least was, until recently). One way to think about this is that academics tend to be hypereducated people who could make a lot more money applying themselves to, let’s say, derivatives trading, corporate consulting, or software startups. Freedom to think and write as they wish is one of the few things society can offer such people that they actually value, in exchange for their accepting a massive salary cut to spend their lives as researchers and teachers, in principle for the betterment of humankind.

  29. dankane Says:

    Scott#28

    Your view on academics applies only to some disciplines. A small number of English professors, say, might be able to make considerably more money writing for a living, but I’m not convinced that most are taking a pay cut to teach at a university.

  30. Richard Cleve Says:

    Coincidentally, I watched the series a few days ago, and enjoyed it.

    I wondered if the idea of a Hitler-salute incident was based on the real-life case where a high school math teacher lost his job:
    https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/09/05/magazine/friends-new-york-quaker-school-ben-frisch-hitler-joke.html

    Showing up very late and drunk/high to lectures was funny, but made the character of Bill Dobson less sympathetic. As did his showing the somewhat pornographic video (even though it was by mistake). It works well for an entertaining story, but not so would be so charming if it actually happened. And, although I’m not into identity politics, how would it go over if Yaz McKay ever behaved like that?

    And, in case I haven’t revealed my stodginess enough, I thought they used the f-word an awful lot. Is that considered acceptable decorum among colleagues in academic institutions?

  31. Scott Says:

    Richard Cleve #30: Yeah, one weird aspect of The Chair was how the settings were so much more formal than real academic buildings (at least, any of the ones where I’ve worked), and yet the culture was so much more familiar, with professors dropping constant f-bombs to their colleagues, smoking weed together, and getting involved with each other’s personal lives. Although I can’t say for certain that that’s not how it is in the humanities! And of course, if the professors had just talked shop, groused about national and university politics and the weather, and held interminable committee meetings that went nowhere … well, I fear realism might have made for less compelling TV. 🙂

  32. Dan Staley Says:

    Another honest question for you, Scott: Do you think that there is literally zero wrong in shouting “Heil!” at work if you have no actual Nazi beliefs? My opinion is that, at the very least, it’s in incredibly poor taste and probably disrespectful (I haven’t seen The Chair, so I can’t comment on the specific context of the show).

    I’m asking because you seem to generally phrase this discussion in terms of “guilty” or “innocent”, but perhaps there’s a “partially guilty” level in between, for someone who doesn’t harbor offensive/racist/whatever views, but still says things that are, in themselves, unacceptable or at least offensive in context? And while most people consider this “partially guilty” state not to be worth firing someone over, it can get so muddled and conflated with the “full guilty” state that it doesn’t matter from a PR perspective.

    Maybe what we’re seeing here is really a Motte-and-Bailey argument, made by the “cancellers” – the Motte is “You shouldn’t say ‘Heil’ in nearly any situation, even if it’s not what you truly believe, because it’s offensive”, while the Bailey is the outrage and support garnered from an out-of-context video clip.

  33. TGGP Says:

    I’m reminded of Alex Tabarrok”s take on Parasite. To him a very right-wing reading of the film is obvious, and the rest of the world seems to be taking crazy pills fitting it into an assumed left-wing interpretation (which, to be fair, would better fit what we know of the director’s politics).

  34. Scott Says:

    Dan Staley #32: Here’s what I’ll say. I’m a Jew whose extended family, the branches that didn’t make it to Philadelphia, was almost all murdered by Nazis — shot in pits, mainly, rather than gassed. That’s been at the core of my emotional life since I was about 7 years old. I defer to no one in my level of anti-Nazi sentiment.

    But given the scenario that’s constructed on the show, it was obvious that my emotional sympathies would be 100% with Bill Dobson, the gentile who made a Heil salute, and 0% with the students (many of them Jewish) condemning him for it. Why? Because the students are shown understanding only the superficial form of being anti-Nazi — stuff like “never, ever make a Heil salute, not even as part of anti-Nazi class lecture” — whereas Bill Dobson is shown understanding the actual substance of it. Not only because he’s spent his career engaging with Hannah Arendt and other writers who grappled with the evils of Nazism, but more importantly, because he constantly stands up for whatever is most human in a given situation, or for whoever seems defenseless and in need of his help, no matter how weird or inappropriate it makes him look.

    In one striking example, Bill attends a Korean ceremony of Ji-Yoon’s relatives where a 1-year-old baby is placed in front of various items — an artist’s brush, a dollar bill, etc. — and whichever item the baby touches first is supposed to represent its future. The baby reaches for the artist’s brush until one of the adults pushes the dollar bill into its face instead, and Bill completely loses it — screaming at all the adults there about how they’ve just shortchanged this child’s future — until he passes out from whatever drugs he’s on. That’s the kind of crazy sonofabitch who you could imagine hiding Jews in their attic. Hope that answers your question.

  35. Ian D Says:

    As a long-time chair (why, why, why?!) I haven’t decided yet whether I want to watch it. I’m afraid I might end up setting my TV on fire. But I will say that there actually still are a handful of these old, powerful traditionalists in humanities departments. They are rapidly retiring, but they still exist.

  36. Doug Says:

    The most interesting thing I read on this was a strong encouragement to really, really center one’s reading on Ji-Yoon. So the central conflict is *not* between Bill and the students, or Bill and the dean, but the center of the show is on her – what is she to do about this? And if you really want to tell a story about Bill vs ‘wokeness’ you have to be a lot more nuanced in each side. But Bill is clearly not ‘actually’ a racist, but he is clearly quite reckless. Once he considers the opposing positions to be ridiculous, he is incapable of any kind of engagement or conversation. He completely fumbles his attempt at an apology – a good start in that scene, but, a disaster. (Or a sabotage… the dean may have been a bit deliberate in the popo timing, but his deliberate action wasn’t really explored.)

    Above, Scott wants to make a distinction between a good target of activist ire, the ‘actual racist,’ and a misguided target, the ‘accidental microaggressor.’ I want to talk a little about the ‘casual microaggressor.’ If you believe these aggressions are not actually felt by people, such that you bear no responsibility (especially in a position of trust as a professor to your students, nevermind among peers), such that these become a habit for you, you are probably an ‘actual racist.’ This bifurcation may not be so clear.

    But in the Chair, it *is* clear. Given what Ji-Yoon knows of Bill, he is a fundamentally good guy who is just not keeping it together, doubles down and makes things worse for himself instead, and she’s got… a lot of conflict in order to figure out how handle it. And because other people control the stakes and continually double down, both on Bill’s side and on the admin’s side, she can’t thread the needle, she has to pick a side. Drama!

    And re: #10, yes, I totally agree this is the safest thing you could actually film and act. I thought a good real example of the ‘pure accident’ was the communications prof who got in trouble when listing examples of filler words in different languages, happened to include the Chinese filler, which does not sound so innocuous to an English ear. Not filming that one!

  37. Scott Says:

    Doug #36: Yeah, I worried about whether my post centered too much on Bill rather than Ji-Yoon. But the way I thought about the show is simply that Ji-Yoon is the “viewpoint character”: the one through whom we the viewers perceive the tragicomedy of Bill. Bill is the defendant, the students and the Dean are the prosecutors, and Ji-Yoon is the judge. How will she rule? How would you rule?

    Regarding the question of Bill’s culpability, see my comment #34.

    In the pivotal scene where Bill tries to apologize to the students and instead just makes them angrier, I actually thought that Bill showed Job-like restraint. He speaks eloquently about the Nazis as the enemies of professors, the enemies of intellect, drawing on his lifetime of engagement with Jewish writers like Hannah Arendt … and the students’ response is to accuse him of “appropriating” Arendt, a crime that doesn’t even exist outside the students’ strange 21st-century creed? Are these students woke robots? I would’ve lost my cool faster than he did.

    In the end, of course, Ji-Yoon’s Solomonic verdict is that, while the students might be wrong about Bill, their rage is ultimately justified, because “their world is burning” and older generations have failed them. I.e., this was never about Bill’s Heil salute after all—it was about climate change! At which point I kept asking myself: these are college students? Don’t they need, like, a remedial course to help them correctly identify the target of their anger?

  38. pete Says:

    I also enjoyed this series but I have a somewhat different view of Bill.

    Yes, he does seem to be a decent person caught up in an inane accusation. But you have to wonder what he THOUGHT would happen if he gave a Nazi salute and shouted Heil Hitler. This was made in 2020(?) and you just don’t get away with that on campus, no matter what your intentions are and I do not believe that anyone in his position would not know that. Given that, I guess that he was trying to upend his career and he succeeded. I don’t feel that sorry for him because he got what he wanted.

    A separate question is “Should anyone, even if self-destructive, be destroyed that way, by a ridiculous assumption?” I don’t think so but free speech in our universities seems to be fading away.

  39. STEM Caveman Says:

    Few actors can convincingly play professors. The personality types and ingrained behavioral styles are too different. They are great at (over)performing the stereotype of a professor, a nerd, a engineer, a research scientist, and a film with a large enough budget can bring academics to the cast (or vice versa) to impart the “accent” of how they walk and talk but even the success cases of this approach are limited.

    Sandra Oh, from her previous work, does not seem at all similar to the modern professorial type even in fluffy fields like English. Comedy is closer to genuine nerditude than is acting, but still pretty distant. I could imagine her as, say, a psychotherapist of some kind. But for portraying a current-year academic it’s hard for a more or less normie to externally mimic the combination of congenital and cultivated detachment (verging on withdrawal) and rumination that are at the heart of the enterprise. Duchovny of course was nominally a nerd back in the day but, like James Woods, his dropping out might just reflects a mismatch between academia and his inner nature despite the high IQ.

  40. OhMyGoodness Says:

    If I were prone to stereotyping my reaction would be-it’s just karma. Wokesters were created by Academia and now Academia bears some of the result. Pure ideation and hyperbole (that are easy to teach and learn)were fostered to the neglect of pragmatism and rational discourse. This was exacerbated by universities becoming more businesslike and catering to their student customers. The hallowed halls were converted to fast food education to keep those hungry minds rolling through. Pump them full of ideology and send them on their educated way with self-righteous conviction they are the best and brightest.

    The problem is when these ideas are actualized into public policy the outcome rarely meets expectation. I should be surprised that the left has turned so quickly on Biden. He is instituting the policies the left demanded and the results are not as expected. When faced with outcomes that are not as expected it would be reasonable to reassess beliefs but in the US you just scapegoat the president.

    When well-intentioned people in general society are labeled racists and Nazis much of Academia applauds. When the same happens to a respected colleague the reaction is-these people are out of control. If the reaction were-these people that we have created are out of control-then maybe something positive would come of it.

    I saw recently a 1961 quote from William F Buckley that earlier I wouldn’t have agreed with earlier but do now-
    “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory then the Harvard University faculty.”

  41. Chip Says:

    Scott #37: So, to clarify, your response to Doug #36 is to double down on a reading that de-centers the titular female POC to make it a story about the dysfunctional white guy. Because it would be silly to think that the title of the show refers to the actual, you know, *protagonist*.

  42. Jeroen Says:

    Thank you for this insightful review. I could not help but think that if the series tried to create ambivalence, or to create sympathy for the student, it did a terrible job of it; my initial interpretation was that it wasn’t trying to.

    In my recollection, most of the information that the viewer gets about Bill’s politics (i.e. whether he sympathizes with Nazism..) is available to the students as well: the series makes sure that he immediately cites WW2 death tolls in his lecture (“including the camps”), and in the discussion scene he talks about Jewish and other German emigrees in a way inconsistent with Nazism. The series communicates this to us while the students are present.

    Still, it expects the viewer to understand that Bill is not a Nazi and to accept that the students think he is. The only things that seem to explain the discrepancy, however, are ones in which the students come off badly: they are on their phones during the lecture, so they are too distracted to place Bill’s salute in context; they have ridiculous priors that make it plausible to them that professors of literature are Nazis; and they reason and argue in clichés rather than engaging with Bill’s actual views.

    I would expect people who sympathize with left-wing student activism to criticize the very premise that students would respond to his lecture in this mindless way – to call the series out on what is in effect a conservative cliché. I thought the series was taking a somewhat simplistic stab at cancel culture as a combination of willful misunderstanding and mob mentality, something Bill and Ji-Yoon need to respond to (and that drives their conflict, like Doug #36 said) but that they can’t morally and intellectually engage with because it’s just too silly.

    It’s interesting, therefore, that there are apparently viewers who side with the students and/or want Bill to show “contrition for his actions”. I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe it means that the series indeed wants us to sympathize with the students, or at least create some ambiguity – but what are the internal signs of that? There are perhaps a few, such as the anonymous person who ominously praises Bill for the Hitler salute citing “free speech”, suggesting that the alt-right doesn’t understand Bill’s irony either and that therefore it was still a dangerous thing to do. However, overall the show fails to make an interesting case against Bill’s politics or in favor of his cancellation, and I hope that it didn’t think it was making such a case.

  43. Robert Solovay Says:

    Scott,

    Thank you for the pointer to
    Strauss, who I’ve never heard of
    and who seems quite interesting.

  44. JS Says:

    I too have been shocked by the sympathetic response towards the “mob” following this show. I thought it did a wonderful job of showcasing the hypocritical nature of woke middle class liberals and how they attack individuals whilst truly believing theyre fighting the good fight. The real issues within the university (like the cost-cutting dean, bureaucracy and the way the university is treated as a business and the students as clients) are completely missed whilst the students make a ridiculous foray against “nazis” based on a two-second clip. I thought this contrast was obvious and frustrating to watch.

    The fact this is meant to be a private, ivy-league university where most of the students calling for a man to not only lose his job but destroy any chance he has of teaching again, are probably very wealthy and privileged (identity politics aside) seems to have been lost on many. I haven’t seen this simple fact mentioned much even though, to me, it is very blatantly portrayed in the show. These kids are going around preaching the victimisation of identities that specifically relate to them (female, black etc.) but ofc fail to talk about class privilege as that would mean turning the spotlight on themselves. This culminates in them spending weeks calling a man a nazi and focussing their energies on getting him fired. They’re so caught up in their ivy-league bubble, they come across extremely entitled, oblivious and better-than-thou.

  45. Wednesday: Hili dialogue (and Kulka dialogue) – Why Evolution Is True Says:

    […] at his website Shtetl Optimized, Scott Aaronson reviews the new Netflix series “The Chair”, a show that will interest many of us, as it’s about a new chairperson, played by Sandra Oh, […]

  46. Scott Says:

    Chip #41: Hey, I didn’t write this show! Its structure is that, as chair, Ji-Yoon constantly has to deal with various intersecting dramas—the Yaz drama, the Joan drama, the David Duchovny drama—but by far the biggest one is the Bill drama. I hope there will be more seasons, and if so maybe they’ll decenter Bill in favor of Ji-Yoon and the other characters, like for example Homeland eventually got rid of the POW guy to focus on Claire Danes’s character.

  47. renato Says:

    JS #44: Mark Fisher argues in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (2013) that the focus on race and gender by privileged people is driven to obfuscate class. Doing that, they remove themselves as possibles targets from the mob (until the commit a gaffe related to race or gender).

  48. Peter Shenkin Says:

    “professors sitting around in charcoal suits smoking pipes”

    Wait — in my recollection they wore tweeds!

    -P.

  49. Marc Briand Says:

    As I watched this season I grew increasingly frustrated that the writers allowed Bill Dobson, to suck all the plot-oxygen out of the story. Sandra Oh’s character was left to just stumble around and try to clean up the messes other people were making. I was led to believe by the series title, The Chair, that it was supposed to be about, you know, *the chair* of an English department. But increasingly it wasn’t about her at all, it was about Bill Dobson and his unforced errors.

    Maybe this reflects the reality of academia and this is what competent, good-hearted chairs are reduced to. But I don’t care. Screwing over your main character, rendering her powerless, never giving her an opportunity to demonstrate her strengths, her wisdom, the qualities that got her there in the first place, is just bad storytelling. The fact that the Ji-Yoon didn’t even have an ally in the story just shows the writers’ contempt for their main character. At first it was mildly entertaining to see what kinds of things she had to deal with. By the end of the series, I just found it frustrating. The writers don’t know how to create a strong female character, so they take the cheap way out and resort to an old plot device. Pathetic. If I was Sandra Oh, I’d be pissed.

  50. John Says:

    Just more leftist propaganda on Netflix.

  51. Scott Says:

    John #50: No, it’s actually more interesting than that. Future “zero-effort drive-by comments” will be left in moderation.

  52. Carina Curto Says:

    I posted your commentary on fb, and it seemed to resonate with a lot of my (mostly academic) friends. My reading is slightly different, though.

    What I find interesting is that although the writers do portray the students as somewhat ridiculous, in their specific grievance about Bill, in a more general sense they side with the students. The whole show can be read as a somewhat “woke” critique of academia, the inertia of its sexism, racism, and overall conservatism.

    The final verdict seems to be this: the students are right to be frustrated with the system, but they’re targeting the wrong people. They go after Bill, and then Ji-Yoon. (It’s critical that they end up going after her, too. And totally realistic.) As familiar as the narrative unfolding felt to me, I wondered how an undergrad would respond. My most hopeful interpretation is that the show is secretly aimed at undergrads, at trying to give them a more nuanced view of what the world of faculty and administrators actually looks like from the inside. So that they don’t keep targeting the wrong people…

  53. Doug Says:

    Marc #49: I would have watched a full episode of her explaining the last 30 years of literary criticism to Duchovny, so I may just be signalling that I’m not quite in the target audience anymore. This is more about my people than for my people. (See also Big Bang Theory, which I find absolutely insufferable, and I cannot imagine how Scott tolerates. Perhaps this is just his way to reinforce to his CS comrades that despite flirtations, he’s not joined physics club? 😉 )

    JS #44: Yes, the mob is extra dumb for the camera. Bill, I think, is also unrealistically extra dumb for the camera. Scott contends that his apology town hall on the lawn is actually rather good, he cites his Arendt, etc. And it starts good, but goes completely off rails! He goes with “I’m sorry if you feel that way” ! He was super warned about this, because it was super obvious, and you get a super obvious reaction. Again, I like to think of these gross oversimplifications on ‘both sides’ as being there not to convince me that the people who are more like me in some ways or more like me in others are really the dumber people, and that I should ‘wake up’ and disavow either academics or activists. Rather, I think the simplifications on each side bring more contrast and higher relief to Joon-yi’s conflict. And, upon reflection, like Marc and Scott, I am disappointed that although this is the most interesting, the total screen time spent on it is perhaps shy of what it ought be.

    As for what I would choose? Like Joon-yi I’d have been looking for off ramps and deescalations throughout the series, and if I found myself trapped in a genre which makes such things impossible and wound up at the final showdown, I’d probably have gone the other way. The job market is fierce. A ‘brilliant’ man baby who refuses to engage in crisis deescalation can be replaced with a brilliant adult. Like, real easy.

  54. Marcelo Says:

    The name of the course had been changed from “Modern Literature” to “Death and Modernism” in order to attract students looking for this novel, oxymoronic form of “trangression”, which consists of staying well within strict boundaries and avoiding the slightest offense, while infringements are to be reported to none other than the authorities.
    It would be sad enough that the legacy of the May ’68 generation, its “forbidden to forbid”, its calling adults names, or throwing stones at the police had gentrified into what could be likened to Western tourists staying in five-star “hostels” in the belief that they are walking the Road to Kathmandu.
    The truth rather seems to be that the youth as depicted in the series has been body-snatched by their great-grandparents -in their old age. Indeed, they are equally judgmental, self-righteous, prudish, permanently outraged, trivially vexed, driven to hostility by a feeling of vulnerability. The Salem witch trials part must be an even older reincarnation.

  55. fred Says:

    For anyone who thinks that US colleges are still a place for freedom of expression and opinion, just go ahead and ask any STEM professor (in front of their class) whether Taiwan is a country or not…

  56. Scott Says:

    Doug #53:

      The job market is fierce. A ‘brilliant’ man baby who refuses to engage in crisis deescalation can be replaced with a brilliant adult. Like, real easy.

    How sure are you? Feynman did much of his research in titty bars and was picketed by feminists. Gödel starved himself to death because he thought his wife everyone but his wife was trying to poison him. Einstein was a serial adulterer who presented his first wife with a famously insulting written list of demands. Paul Erdös expected his colleagues (and, often, their wives) to cook and clean for him and attend to all his other mundane needs. John Nash … well, you’ve seen the movie. Tell me, then, which of these “man-babies” would’ve been easy to replace by an equally brilliant responsible adult?

  57. Scott Says:

    Just to expand on what I said in #56:

    If you’re a department chair, obviously you want to create an environment where rare geniuses can flourish, and do work that will be remembered after almost everything else is forgotten. And obviously you also want the environment to be safe and welcoming for everyone else. And if those two goals ever come into conflict, obviously you have a painful tradeoff to make. Examples would be a genius who’s also an actual neo-Nazi, or abusive to their students, or a serial sexual predator.

    My contention is simply that if the genius is someone like Bill Dobson—i.e., a caring soul who always tries to do right by his students and everyone else, but who once committed a classroom “microaggression”—then you haven’t even entered the continent where these painful tradeoffs would arise.

  58. Sniffnoy Says:

    Scott #56:

    I feel like I must point out that Gödel starved himself to death because he thought everyone but his wife was trying to poison him.

  59. Scott Says:

    Sniffnoy #58: Thanks, fixed!

  60. Edward M Measure Says:

    Scott#18. There was at least one type of bad behavior that was widely tolerated at all sorts of institutions, and not just from top performers: sexual abuse of female subordinates and colleagues. Alcoholism too frequently gets a pass. So I guess I was wrong and the tolerance you admire lives on, and not just in the academy.

  61. OhMyGoodness Says:

    Scott 56
    I have speculated that England produced many great minds because of their general tolerance of eccentrics (maybe even valued eccentricity) and then saw this quote from John Stuart Mill-

    “Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character had abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and courage which it contained.”

    I don’t believe that modern English culture is as accepting of eccentricity as previously.

    The US is so conformist that, as you well know, it is very difficult for an extremely talented child with an unusual personality to survive in the school system. If you look at say Putnam winners in recent years you find a strong trend of home schooling. Very doubtful they could have survived undamaged in the US educational system. I had a friend admitted to grad math program at Harvard at 17 and a gentler spirit you will never find, but couldn’t find peace in general society because of some unusual (but harmless) personality quirks.

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments.

  62. walruss Says:

    I’m surprised by the readings that are sympathetic to the students, and the “both sides have a good point” readings both.

    There were two things going on in this show: One was the story of a changing academic culture, and the second was a story of how to navigate personal relationships in the workspace, and being considerate to those with whom you have a personal relationship.

    These intersected a lot, as they should in good stories – Ji-Yoon especially came from a point of view of “it’s irresponsible both personally and (somehow) socially, not to make everything about career advancement, even if advancement would make me less happy” and much of the show was just about her figuring out that there was another way. And part of it was Bill figuring out that even if he was right, and sad, and messed up, and needed support, the other people in his life need love and support as well, and that means sometimes taking a bullet you don’t deserve.

    But when it came to the changing academic culture aspect, the show could not have been more clearly anti-wokeness. No student in the mob got any kind of development, and the students that did get developed were explicitly aligned with Bill by the end.

    The story isn’t about the students as people or wokeness at all. That’s kind of the point.
    Wokeness is the backdrop, and it’s portrayed consistently as silly and unthoughtful (my favorite moment in the whole series may have been Ji-Yoon’s dry “yes, I’m aware” when a student earnestly informs her that women of color receive fewer invitations to social events). But the story is about how the whole of the institution fails to engage with the students or meet their needs.

    The show repeatedly demonstrated different teaching styles – the old farts’ “stodginess” (I’ll come back to this), vs. Yaz’s hyper-woke “student-oriented” class, which is very popular but clearly not engaging with the material or challenging the students.

    Then in the last scene, where ostensibly we’re seeing “college teaching the way Ji-Yoon ought to be doing it” there’s engagement, but no explicit racial/gender framing, and the monkeys aren’t running the zoo. The students are outside their comfort zone, they’re the movers of the lesson, but Ji-Yoon is guiding them constantly back to the text, to thinking about the text, to moving past the superficial frames to what it means to each student personally.

    The most interesting part of all this is the old farts club. I know Scott mentioned that these people appeared to be here to give the main characters something real to fight about- ancient stodgy men who are all entitlement and boorishness. These guys are repeatedly played for laughs – for the ridiculousness of their entitlement. Or for pity – for the sadness of seeing people past their prime. But they aren’t there for realism – they’re there to present a necessary contrast to the student-driven “we just need to put butts in seats” philosophies of Yaz and the dean.

    The show does a turnaround, subtly but unmistakably. The old folks’ club’s entitlement is clearly ridiculous, but their perspective becomes invaluable. Elliot may be an ***hole, but he’s there at the end, teaching with Yaz, because he’s the only person who can get her to challenge her students instead of catering to them. Joan is department head because she is passionate about her subject, paid her dues, doesn’t coddle her students, and is deserving of the honor. The show does, in fact, take the position that distinguished tenured professors are deserving of our ear if not necessarily our unwavering respect.

    And short of Bill giving an Ayn Rand style speech, the resolution couldn’t be clearer – the students are wrong on the particulars, wokeness is dumb. But they’re right in general – a shadowy cabal of authority figures is attempting to manage them instead of engage with them, nobody cares about their needs or concerns, and the whole purpose of the school has become to take their money. The school legitimately doesn’t care about them, their outcomes, or their needs. It has no interest in engaging with students where they live, in their grievances, in their careers, in their racial identities, in true diversity, in literally anything about the quality of their experience. Ji-Yoon spends 80% of her time trying to get Yaz tenured specifically so they can have their first black, female tenured professor, and *Yaz doesn’t want that!* She explicitly says she doesn’t. She wants tenure because she feels she deserves it.

    And firing Bill and kicking Ji-Yoon out as chair actually does not change that at all. But remembering that students and professors are individuals with unique identities, perspectives, and talents instead of monolithic stereotypes does.

  63. Nick Drozd Says:

    Scott #56, 57

    Protecting those rare geniuses is terribly important, no question. But if you are trying to protect a rare genius, you had better make sure that they really are a rare genius, and not just a charlatan who has created a cult of celebrity.

    Consider John Searle. It recently came to light that he was a serial sexual predator in his time as a philosophy professor at Berkeley. This was an “open secret”, but he was protected by the department because, I don’t know, I guess he was considered to be a big deal?

    But Searle was not a Feynman or an Einstein or an Erdos. He was just some asshole, and he was a shitty philosopher too. He enjoyed the protection without producing anything to warrant the protection. He could easily have been replaced by somebody who wasn’t an asshole and a serial sexual predator, and philosophy would not have been any worse off.

  64. Scott Says:

    Nick #63: LOL, but what do you really think of Searle? 😀

    In case it wasn’t clear, I personally feel like the balance of considerations is in favor of firing anyone who could be accurately described as a “serial sexual predator,” even supposing they are an irreplaceable genius.

    Now, as for an irreplaceable genius who made, let’s say, one or two awkward or unwanted romantic overtures, backing off as soon as he learned they were unwanted? I feel like he who’s never done such a thing should cast the first stone.

  65. OhMyGoodness Says:

    Walruss #62
    I enjoyed reading your analysis but question the sympathy for the students in the general case.

    “a shadowy cabal of authority figures is attempting to manage them instead of engage with them, ”

    But isn’t that the case for the majority of people in the workplace in the US and don’t people generally ascribe some sinister characteristics to these shadow figures?

    This points to the rightful general role of a university in society. My view is that the role is to develop critical thinking and to provide skillsets that society requires and thereby to provide marketable graduates that obtain suitable employment in accordance with their reasonable expectations.

    You are well aware of the underemployment and low salaries for most majors and this coupled with high education costs suggests to me that seeking a college education is not an economically reasonable endeavor for most people. The data is readily available so cursory due diligence provides a good expectation of the outcome. The current state of affairs seems to me like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. He received a diploma and felt intelligent. No one wanted him to do the load calculations for the journey back to Kansas so he returned to the corn field.

    My guess is that there will have to be universal basic income in the US and that university enrollments will continue to fall. Required skillsets will narrow further do to both technological innovation and increased international competition. In this case students who have unrealistic expectations will form a sizable bloc that can discuss Marcuse with confidence and feel they haven’t been treated well by society. Better that they begin to accommodate to it in college but not likely to happen.

  66. Public School Grad Says:

    This might just be my personal experience but most of my friends and acquaintances who are in academia have some form or another of abuse being directed at them, not from the “woke” students but from the administrators and faculty in positions of power. I would wager, based on their experiences, that there is more abuse of people lower on the totem pole (grad students, early career academics and of course adjunct faculty) than there is of special genius faculty from “woke” undergraduates. I think there is a lot of hand wringing about the latter because of a few outlandish episodes nationally but few talk about the culture of abuse and exploitation that is rampant in a hierarchical structure like academia. I have friends who have stories of research programs being appropriated from young researchers by their seniors, people being pushed out of their own grants, people being sidelined in departments because they were too “radical”, tenure denied to productive early career academics for various illegitimate reasons, misappropriation of grand funds by departments to the detriment of the researcher etc.

    Academia is fundamentally conservative, even though people like to pretend that it is a hotbed of radicals. In my experience most undergraduates mostly care about either their social life or graduating and getting a job. Of course, there are those who are passionate about social justice as young people are wont to be. There is an even smaller subset who care about virtue signalling (another phrase corrupted by the alt-right) and will do a few ridiculous things like what you mention. As for academics, they may be on the left politically, but a lot of them seem to be so only when it is convenient. All the abuses of (mostly young, female or minority) academics I listed above were perpetrated by so-called “progressive” academics. Those labels don’t mean much, their actions do

  67. Scott Says:

    Public School Grad #66: I … agree with much of what you write. Academia has all sorts of ordinary problems where, even if they’re shared by much of the rest of the world, one would hope that we could do better. And while I won’t go into details, I have firsthand knowledge of situations wherein academics who are among the loudest and most performative in denouncing sexual harassment in public, were the very ones to bury it when it was their friend credibly accused.

  68. Vampyricon Says:

    For a school of thought that emphasizes the lens historical events are seen through, these wokeists are quite blind to their own biases.

  69. Doug Says:

    How did Vampyricon make it over the hurdle of scrutiny for low effort drive bys?

  70. Richard Gaylord Says:

    scott # 64

    Why are you allowing highly personal defamatory attacks as

    “But Searle was not a Feynman or an Einstein or an Erdos. He was just some asshole, and he was a shitty philosopher too. He enjoyed the protection without producing anything to warrant the protection. He could easily have been replaced by somebody who wasn’t an asshole and a serial sexual predator, and philosophy would not have been any worse off.”

    in your blog comments? you once offered to compensate (via a donation to a charity of their choosing) to anyone who you had criticized personally – as i was). This Trumpian level of discourse seems rather inappropriate and unseemly, regardless of one’s view of Searle’s personal behavior or professional contribution.

  71. unaligned_agent Says:

    Nick #63, what was the accusations in Searle’s case? To be fair, he does strikes me as a person who would deny agency of women, pretending that their complaints about his inappropriate behaviour are result of non-sentient symbol manipulation.

  72. Panglossy Says:

    Art imitates Life
    The writers may have been thinking of this incident, but obviously a congressional D-student would not likely find himself in academe.

    In 2017, Cawthorn posted an Instagram picture of his visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation residence Eagle’s Nest, which he said had been on his “bucket list for a while”. In the post, he called Hitler Führer, a German term meaning “leader”, and the site “supreme evil”.

    He later deleted the post. Cramer, Philissa (August 12, 2020). “Rep. NC Congress candidate deletes pictures from his stay at Hitler’s”. The Jerusalem Post. Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

  73. Pavel Nadolsky Says:

    > Ji-Yoon, being Korean-American, is repeatedly approached by Black female students and faculty as a “fellow woman of color,” with whom they can commiserate about the entrenched power of the department’s white males.

    I found “The Chair” to be a stinging satire mocking the flaws of nearly everyone on campus — Bill, dean, cursing English teachers, shallow student mobs — with the exception of Ji-Yoon who has to deal with all of it. The same students who are indignant about “a Nazi-sympathizing” professor have no problem to call a person “a (wo)man of color”, an offensive, unscientific characterization rooted in the US-centric racism.

  74. E. K. Says:

    I haven’t watched the series and don’t intend to, so I can’t comment on the specifics of it, but a particular part of this post stood out to me:

    Ji-Yoon, being Korean-American, is repeatedly approached by Black female students and faculty as a “fellow woman of color,” with whom they can commiserate about the entrenched power of the department’s white males. The show never examines how woke discourse has increasingly reclassified Asian-Americans as “white-adjacent”—as, for example, in the battles over gifted and magnet programs or admissions to Harvard.

    I know the discourse you’re referring to and I agree treating Asian-Americans as if they’re quote unquote basically white is wrong. However, not only have I seen people argue against it even when it was big, not only has there been discussion of Asian-specific issues among “woke”* people for years, but this very year we had #StopAsianHate in light of the Atlanta spa shooting in March and various anti-Asian hate crimes that flared up because of COVID-19. I have seen woke people, in particular woke Black people, expressing solidarity with Asians after the shooting and I still see them talk about it. If you’ll forgive my sarcasm, perhaps this is because woke people are not a monolith and there are various disagreements to be had about issues and also perhaps it’s possible that people change their minds based on new data or changing circumstances.

    Similarly:

    Likewise, woke students are shown standing arm-in-arm with Pembroke’s Jewish community, to denounce (what we in the audience know to be) a phantom antisemitic incident. Left unexplored is how, in the modern woke hierarchy, Jews have become just another kind of privileged white person (worse, of course, if they have ties to Israel).

    What I’m used to seeing until very recently, is woke people saying non-Jews and non-Palestinians shouldn’t comment on Israel and that if a Jewish person tells you something is antisemitic, it is and to not question them about it. I have also seen people call Anne Frank a “white Becky”, though it was mostly in the context of them being denounced. And generally, I have seen woke people speaking out against antisemitism, whether in general or in reference to specific incidents. In particular I recall some case of antisemitic graffiti in a bathroom causing issues in one college. Looking it up now, there’s a recent instance of this as well, apparently. As you can see, the students aren’t brushing it off. I can’t tell you about their demographics, beyond the fact many of them are Jewish for obvious reasons, but I doubt there are no non-Jews signing the open letter.

    My point is, I this is a very narrow and somewhat wrong view of these issues (being wrong on the internet is very bad, as we all know). “Woke people” is not a coherent political/ideological group! It’s a fine shorthand in some contexts but not in this one. There are various people I would classify as woke, who would absolutely tear each other to shreds over disagreements about, say, whether queer should be used as an umbrella term or not. There isn’t a unanimously agreed upon “woke hierarchy”. For the record, you aren’t the only one who makes these generalizations! You just have a handy-dandy comment section, so I might as well comment 😉

    Lastly, this is a really minor thing and has nothing to do with any incorrectness, but does the series have to address these issues in the first place? Like I said, there’s definitely varying viewpoints among woke people, so one can portray conflicts between those viewpoints, but it doesn’t seem necessary.

    *I don’t know how you intend it, but every person I know, including myself, uses “woke” as a pejorative so I can’t parse it any other way. I use scare quotes in the first instance of it because I don’t intend as an insult here, even if I find some of what such people say to be wrong. Apologies, if it’s not your intention as well.

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