The Decline and Fall of the English Department! Really?

  • Animesh Bag
  • Wednesday, Sep 1, 2021

Being a teacher and graduate student of English literature, I was a little excited for the Netflix comedy-drama show, The Chair (2021) as the series happened to be focusing on the English department exclusively. The Chair is co-created by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman who did her Ph.D. in English at Harvard University. The show having only six short episodes is directed by Daniel Gray Longino. It is refreshing, funny, and well written. I think the series is not much about ‘the woman in colour’ being the first chair in the department of English at the fictional Pembroke university dominated mostly by white male professors as it has been initially conceived, or the campus politics where a professor is just one touch away from any scandal or professional hazard in this age of social media and so on. Undoubtedly, it deals with these sensitive issues too. But, it’s more about the English literature as a discipline itself; how the department of humanities would survive in the ‘turn’ of private sponsored education (university) or even how professors are experiencing this turn.

The show suggests that students due to their immense amount of educational debt prefer to have some job opportunities at the end of their course, which is not unusual. The student of this digital age is also not interested in Chaucer, Dickens, or Melville anymore, especially the age-old interpretations of those writers. So, the department is in the ‘deep sea’, almost at the edge of laying its employees off. This raises two important contentions. The first is the privatization of education and how it sweeps away these disciplines gradually. One of the characters of the show sounds prophetic when he says that online learning will be the future. The recent Covid-19 pandemic, we have observed, paves this new alternative to the physical classroom too emphatically, which shows nothing but the prevailing class division. In countries like India, it appears even more prognostic. With the introduction of National Education Policy 2020, we can witness the managerial structurization of departments of Humanities and Social Science along with the sheer encouragement for the privately funded institution, which means less public/government investment in the education sector. The blended method of teaching with far more stress on online learning as the policy advocates would delimit the socially and economically marginal classes from higher education. On the other hand, the privatization will discourage students to opt for the subject like English literature that hardly offers any direct job facilities. For, the ‘value’ (job or so) understood only in economical term for its ‘labour’ (investing a lot of money for education) privatization seeks from these disciplines is what literature including English and others antagonistically stand for.

The show depicts the faculties of the English department almost in binary, old, orthodox, octogenarian professors having higher salaries, and innovative adjuncts, mostly graduate students working as teaching assistants with minimum salaries. Even their approach to the subject is also oppositional. Elliot Rentz played by Bob Balaban is one of the senior tenure-track professors still stuck with his traditional interpretations of Melville’s Moby Dick leading to very few enrollments under him whereas Yaz Mckay, a young enthusiastic adjunct faculty played by Nana Mensah introduces fresh feminist perspectives, explains how Melville’s writing style was being influenced by his habit of abusing his wife physically and mentally and even encourages her students to make a rape song out of the novel. The titular character, Ji-Yoon Kim brilliantly portrayed by Sandra Oh tries to save the department in this utter crisis so much so that she makes Yaz agree to collaborate with professor Rentz to save him from forced retirement. However, this is where the show falls behind somewhat. The representation of teachers and students is too stereotypical.

Teaching English is not about delivering the same old notes years after a year or providing tasks to the student that are too easy and slapdash. It never intends to manage students, manipulates them, or creates make-believe situations as the dean of Pembroke, Paul Larson wants to. Probably it is truly suggested by the messy, somewhat unprofessional professor of modernist studies Bill Dobson played by Jay Duplass that English literature teaches us to be dissent, stimulates us to question every sphere of life, adds ‘value’ to the deceptive surface of reality. This is why Professor Dobson did not apologize or suppress students’ voices even when he had been wrongly suspended. He adds at the end of the show, “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.”

Literature is like the symbol of the giant whale in Moby Dick, that the show constantly refers to. It cannot be diminished by the managerial turn of the 21st century because it’s always evolving as a discipline. Ji-Yoon Kim, the chair of the English department rightly mentions that a lot has happened in the past 30 years like affect theory, digital humanities, ecocriticism, new materialism, book history, development in gender studies, critical race theory, and so on. These critical theories posit further questions to our thinking, widens our approach to any text, and even turns upside down the critical theory itself. More importantly, the discipline provides tools to its students to deconstruct reality, thereby, always infused with the potent of resistance.

Pic Courtesy: Netflix

Animesh Bag is an Assistant Professor in the department of English, K.K Das College, Kolkata. He is presently pursuing PhD at Jadavpur University, West Bengal.