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Harvard’s English Department is Better Than ‘The Chair,’ I Promise

Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon and Jordan Tyson as Capri   in episode 101 of "The Chair."
Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon and Jordan Tyson as Capri in episode 101 of "The Chair." By Courtesy of Eliza Morse/Netflix
By Nina M. Foster, Crimson Staff Writer

A white male professor is “cancelled“ for inappropriate and insensitive acts that provoke outrage among students. Another male professor frequently interrupts his female co-professor, completely changing the direction of class discussion. A young Black professor struggles to get tenure. Did this all happen on Netflix’s “The Chair,” or did it happen at Harvard? The answer is, well, both.

“The Chair” is an original Netflix dramedy starring Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, the chair of a failing English department at the fictional Pembroke University. The series has been praised for its authentic portrayal of academia’s absurdity, showcasing matters of diversity, cancel culture, and corruption. While the show is not based on one particular institution or event, Pembroke’s Ivy League-esque elitism and co-creator Annie Julia Wyman’s history as a Harvard English PhD student point to Harvard as a potential source of inspiration.

Many scenes are all too familiar: Student reactions to Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) doing the Nazi salute in class remind us of the backlash against David Kane, and Yaz McKay’s (Nana Mensah) struggles in acquiring tenure reopens the not-so-old wound of losing Cornel West after tenure disputes. I laughed as Pembroke’s ignorant dean expressed the belief of universities everywhere that anything can be solved with a letter of apology. I shuddered watching Elliot Rentz (Bob Balaban) talk over McKay as they lectured together, immediately brought back to my experience in a class co-taught by a man and a woman. I can still picture the sea of eye rolls among students in response to our male professor unnecessarily interrupting our female professor mid-sentence, mid-thought.

As a Harvard undergraduate studying English, I was both excited and hesitant to watch the series. I knew that such an incredible cast would create a great piece of entertainment, and that I would relate to many elements of the show. At the same time, I worried that the experience would be embarrassing, even painful, if the show was too realistic in its portrayal of the faults of an English department.

Although “The Chair” accurately captures many frustrations of college and academic life, I am thrilled to say that some elements, such as the show’s portrayal of an English department with overwhelmingly old, white professors, outdated curricula, and low respect for student input couldn’t be further from the truth at Harvard. In my experience, Harvard’s English department is very diverse, filled with faculty drawn from a range of different age groups, genders, races, and backgrounds.

A primary reason for the failure of Pembroke’s English department is the antiquated nature of certain courses, along with the professors that teach them. One of the older professors, Joan Hambling (Holland Taylor), takes pride in having ignored her student evaluations for decades. Another, Rentz, hasn’t changed his curriculum in thirty years, expressing aversion to modernizing course materials and activities. They teach to nearly empty classrooms, grasping for student participation.

Where are all of the other students, you ask? They fill the classrooms of McKay and Kim, the closest Pembroke has to Harvard English professors. McKay’s course, “Sex and the Novel,” drew so many enrollments that the end of lecture yielded a flood of students into the hallway. This semester, I added “Sex, Gender, and Shakespeare” to my Crimson Cart — not very far off!

Every English concentrator at Harvard has to study the classics, but even the oldest stories are tied to the present day and taught in innovative ways. In “Arrivals: British Literature 700-1700,” we connected Old English epics to modern issues and embraced creative assignments like curating a Spotify playlist. Most of Pembroke’s professors are stuck in the past. Ours, or at least those I’ve studied with, know how to keep up with the times.

Our department also advertises different ways to get involved as undergraduates on departmental committees. And when new courses are introduced, like English 10, 20, and 97 — the first editions of which took place in the past year as part of new concentration requirements — professors beg for our feedback at the end of the semester, always looking to do better.

I became an English concentrator because I felt like the department genuinely cared about my experience. I’ve always felt acknowledged and respected as a student. One professor offered every student a personalized book recommendation at the end of the semester. Another sat with me for over an hour on a bad day, making me a cup of tea and sharing some invaluable life advice.

I initially thought that this article was going to be an exposé on the faults of Harvard’s English Department as reflected by “The Chair.” But as I watched the show more closely and reexamined the opportunities I have as an English student, I realized that the differences far outweigh the similarities. That’s not to say there isn’t work to do — the biased history of literature, more specifically the literary canon, requires that English departments frequently reevaluate what is being taught, and by whom. Departments at other universities may also more closely resemble Pembroke's lack of warmth and diversity, desperately in need of an upgrade.

In the first episode, Kim emphasizes the importance of English departments for “modeling critical thinking” and “stressing the value of empathy.” Their department goes on to deviate from these values, but Harvard English embodies them. I can’t speak as a member of the faculty — maybe they would find the professor-to-professor or professor-to-dean dynamics of the show more relatable and compelling. I can, however, speak as a member of the student body when I say that Harvard English shines brighter than ever in comparison to the parody of a department at Pembroke.

—Staff writer Nina M. Foster can be reached at nina.foster@thecrimson.com.

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