Television

Moby-Done

Are the professors in The Chair the whalers or the whales?

Illustration of a whale butting its head up against the bottom of a boat containing Sandra Oh, Holland Taylor, Bob Balaban, and Nana Mensah as their professor characters in The Chair
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Eliza Morse/Netflix.

Once upon a time, there was an industry. The people who worked in it hunted, skillfully, in the depths, for long, long periods of time, returning only when they had what they sought: distilled, clarified, valuable illumination. Their industry died. But near the end of their time, there was a story that was told about them: a small group of workers, isolated together, organized into a strict hierarchy, who were in love with one another, who hated one another, and who carried and were carried by their grudges, their griefs, their obsessions, their duties, and their devotions. The story is one of both catastrophe and survival.

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This is, of course, the plot of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. It’s also pretty close to the story that the new Netflix show The Chair wants to tell about the humanities in the 21st century university. The Chair was co-created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman; Wyman did her Ph.D. in English at Harvard. The main characters, a half-dozen English professors at the fictional Pembroke University, are aware that their whole discipline is on the edge of obsolescence. They love Chaucer and Dickinson and Melville, and they are convinced that their students could love them too. But enrollments are declining, and something—maybe everything—is coming to an end. They are at sea.

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Commercial whaling petered out in the second half of the 19th century because fossil fuels replaced whale oil. Why are the humanities in trouble—not in The Chair’s understanding of the situation, but in real life? There are two intertwined problems. First, because college is crushingly expensive, students take on oppressive debt and then feel pressure to major in something that will lead immediately to a well-paying career; they, or more often their parents, are under the impression that majoring in the humanities will doom them to penury (not the case, for the record). Yet, at the same time, 63 percent of college instructors are not on the tenure track, which means most students are taught by grad students and adjuncts frequently making less than minimum wage; even tenure-track faculty in the humanities, like the professors of The Chair, have watched as wages have stagnated for decades.

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This is an absurd situation, confusing to many rational onlookers. Where does all that tuition money go? You might—and I do—blame state legislatures, for reducing funding to public institutions of higher learning, and universities themselves, for staffing up with administrators, coaches, and even campus cops, all paid higher salaries—often many multiples higher—than the average for even a tenure-track professor of English, much less an adjunct. This story of the corporate-hybrid university—part hospital, part hedge fund, part tax shelter, part real estate empire, with a thick coat of the liberal arts spread on top to confer nonprofit status—is not quite the story told by The Chair, though the titular chair, the new head of the English department, Ji-Yoon Kim (played by Sandra Oh), does say about the students, “Why should they trust us? The world is burning and we’re sitting up here worried about our endowment?”

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Mostly, the story that The Chair tells lays the blame for the decline and fall of the humanities at the feet of its most devoted practitioners: We, in our obsession, hunted it to extinction. (I say we because I’m a professor of English; I’m not fully promoted but I am on the tenure track, which puts me in the very small number of the comparatively lucky who receive benefits and a middle-class wage from this work. Like Ji-Yoon, I teach American poetry and, like her, one of my areas of expertise is Emily Dickinson—which I’ve written about previously for Slate.)

The professors in this show seem to bear some blame for their department’s dire situation. The show depicts Pembroke’s English department as consisting mostly of septuagenarians and octogenarians who drone on in lecture as students avoid their classes or doze off in them. But there are also three younger—by which I mean in their 30s and 40s—professors at the center of the show: messy and warm Bill (Jay Duplass), innovative and progressive Yasmin McKay (Nana Mensah), and Ji-Yoon. Bill is grieving his wife’s recent death as the show opens, and Yaz is about to go up for tenure and is uncertain of the support of her senior colleagues, who find her success baffling and threatening. Ji-Yoon is the first woman—and first woman of color—to chair the department; she’s careful and pragmatic, aware that any or all of her actions in leadership will be ignored, undermined, interpreted as aggressive, and/or cited as the reason to remove her from power and remove funding from her department. The older professors are the more obvious downward drag on Ji-Yoon’s leadership, but even the younger ones are, at times, cringeworthy: Bill is wildly unprofessional; Yaz assigns student-friendly yet strangely unrigorous projects, like a Hamilton-esque rap students perform with such lyrics as “Tashtego kills whales and so does Daggoo/ Mates and harpooners all part of the crew.”

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Peet and Wyman have subsumed the question of money into the vaguer question of value, which is to say values. What is the value of studying literature in English? The show’s tone wavers: Both students and professors are all too easily mocked, but literature, and literary study, is not. We catch the briefest flickers, throughout the show, of students and teachers doing the work of affirming the value of literature together. The Chair is earnest when it endorses the value that literature offers, and argues that the study of it brings that value to the surface, clarified and luminous. Bill, near the end of the series, insists, “To be an English teacher, you have to fall in love with stories, with literature. … The text is kind of a living thing. Sometimes you love a poem so much every time you read it you learn something new, you feel transformed by it.”* For everyone in this show—even its unexpected guest star—literature is a place of infinite plenitude, a place to dwell in possibility. The university is not, but literature is.

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But as much as the characters are—wonderfully—never cynical about the study of literature, they are also exhausted by the situations they find themselves in, both personally and professionally, and especially where those two spheres collide. The current pandemic permanently damaged the academic careers of parents (mostly women) who had to abandon their (our) research to take care of their (our) children, and forced faculty to teach in windowless classrooms to hundreds of students without mask or vaccine requirements. None of that is in this show, yet even so, it depicts the study of literature as unsustainable. I wish it were clearer to the viewer that it’s unsustainable because it’s not supported. Extractive economies never are. Universities keep the lights on by extracting the value of our labor. The value of literature is endless, but we are not.

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I began this essay with a comparison of English professors to whalers. But that’s not quite right; over the course of the show’s six episodes, I started to identify more and more not with the harpooners but with the whales. Literature isn’t on the verge of extinction, but people who can make careers as English professors are. Last year, in the whole country, there were five tenure-track jobs for people who specialize in 19th century American literature. (That’s not an outlier: For people who specialize in 20th and 21st century literature, there were two; for 19th century British literature, there were four. Each of those jobs received hundreds, likely close to a thousand, qualified applicants.)

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I’m pretty sure the allusions to Melville are deliberate—characters regularly talk about drowning, sinking, and one professor is asked by a perceptive student if she has a “life raft.” Ji-Yoon has been elected “to steer the troubled vessel that is the English department,” as one of her colleagues says. “Here we go, ship metaphor,” mutters Yaz. And Yaz, the youngest professor in the department, and Elliot (Bob Balaban), one of the oldest, attempt to co-teach a class on Moby-Dick. It goes as you might expect: not well.

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But in this sorest storm, in this chillest land, there’s hope, the thing with feathers. The show depicts crippling intergenerational conflict between the senior professors and the junior ones, as well as between the junior faculty and the students. But there are also moments of intergenerational solidarity: professors do what they can and should for their students, and sometimes for one another as well. And beyond the generational divisions, other solidarities are forged: Staff and faculty misunderstand and thwart one another, but also collaborate and enable one another. Most people (not everyone) on this show mean well. They are trying to learn to pull together.

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A ship at sea evokes, in its uncertain status, peril, but also possibility. Historically, ships were oceangoing factories, workplaces where workers could, potentially, take back power and set their course; it’s often been argued that they were the first such workplaces. The word strike comes from sailors striking the sails, and mutiny is a live prospect for part of Moby-Dick. If only I could call this essay “The Town-Ho’s Story”! What are the chances that English professors will rise up in collective action, like the sailors on the ship that chapter describes? Graduate students already are.

On the day I wrote this essay, I spent my first day back in a classroom with students in over 18 months. For over an hour, as this new semester began, in a dim basement room, we talked through our masks about the 14 lines of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” which makes a claim for the immortality of poetry. As I listened to these brilliant young people working line by line, and then layering lens after lens, it was as if no time had ever passed, or was passing even then. Can the intensity of this experience ever be captured, except in flickers? We embarked together, gloriously. Then, after our time together ended, we walked up the steps into the too bright late afternoon sun, and we all went our separate ways.

Correction, Aug. 26, 2021: This piece originally misattributed a quote starting with the phrase “To be an English teacher” to the character Ji-Yoon. The speech was given by the character Bill.

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