by Paul Temple
The best novel about university life – and I’m afraid this isn’t up for debate – is John Williams’ Stoner. Published in 1965, its setting is the micropolitics of the English department of a US Mid-Western university, from the 1920s to the 1950s: “A terrific novel of echoing sadness” is how Julian Barnes sums it up on the cover of my edition.
The Netflix series The Chair, with the Korean-American actor Sandra Oh (you may have seen her in Killing Eve) as the newly-elected chair of the English department of a “lower-tier Ivy”, has some similarities with Stoner. The story here also revolves around the micropolitics of an English department, exposing the tensions between older academics whose professional lives have centred on a single narrow (but is it?) topic – Melville in one case – and younger ones, notably Bill Dobson, whose popular classes play around with modish themes. (I assume his use of chalk on an actual blackboard – do they really still exist? – is intended to demonstrate iconoclasm.) But whereas the departmental chair in Stoner is creepily vile, in The Chair she exhausts herself with emotional labour (“playing nice” as an exasperated colleague puts it) trying to help everybody, even when that isn’t possible (Dobson’s joke Nazi salute in class doesn’t go down well).
TV dramas set in workplaces such as police stations or hospitals tend to take a single case which absorbs the characters involved to the exclusion of all other business (Line of Duty or Unforgotten, say), sidestepping what must actually be the complex, confusing reality of these settings. That sort of dramatic plotting can’t easily work with universities, which perhaps helps to explain why campus TV adaptations tend to be satire (The History Man) or knockabout comedy (A Very Peculiar Practice). The Chair, though having elements of both satire and comedy, is more nuanced, with the Sandra Oh character having to deal with declining enrolments, preventing Dobson becoming his own worst enemy (unsuccessfully), supporting a black woman in her struggle to gain deserved tenure, as well as coping with single parenthood. In that it portrays the “one damned thing after another” aspect of university management, The Chair is perhaps a more accurate reflection of university life than Line of Duty is of police work, but what do I know? (The issue of faculty tenure, which features significantly in The Chair, interestingly seems to assume quite a lot of prior knowledge of university processes on the part of the viewer: perhaps the producers think that graduates will be the main audience.)
Departmental chairs, or heads of departments in the UK, are classic middle-management jobs, an insulation layer between senior management and the workforce, but usually without the authority or resources to respond effectively to the needs of those for whom they’re supposedly responsible. It’s significant that in both Stoner and The Chair the university top brass feature only as distant, vaguely threatening, entities, divorced from the action at the departmental battlefronts. The main exception in The Chair is the man from Communications, sent over to the department to deal with the “reputational management” issues that Dobson has supposedly created: Dobson here shows hitherto unexpected reserves of restraint by not punching him in the face.
The Chair can be viewed as a case-study of institutional change, with structural pressures of declining enrolments, changing expectations of academic life, and student activism coming into sharp focus at the micro-level of the department. The chair herself becomes the personification of all this, the point around which swirl the conflicting pressures of institutional structures, power distribution, and individuals’ goals. In university life, it’s the detail that counts, and The Chair gets this brilliantly.
They’re apparently thinking of a second series: I’ll be watching.
Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His latest paper, ‘The University Couloir: exploring physical and intellectual connectivity’, will appear shortly in Higher Education Policy.