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Perspective: No Chair For The Adjunct

Bonnie Taylor

ER doctors tell me there is one thing they cannot bear to watch — medical dramas. And now I know why, because I am watching Netflix’s The Chair.

The Chair is an academic drama set in the English department of one of those universities on the Ivy’s farm league. The series follows the exploits of the newly elected first female chairperson of the department, played by Sandra Oh. And from the first episode, social media lit up with complaints and sarcastic remarks about the unrealistic portrayals: spacious, wood paneled offices with stained-glass windows, conference rooms with large walnut tables and leather chairs, and classrooms full of students not wearing masks or struggling to be heard over the newly installed HEPA filters. Totally unrealistic.

But what really caught my attention — and the attention of many others, it seems — is what was not being seen: Adjuncts. You know…those members of the faculty on temporary or contingent contracts who do a lot of the instructional heavy-lifting in gen-ed intensive departments, like English. Leaving adjuncts out of the picture is a real problem. It not only devalues the contributions of this increasingly important sector of the academic labor force but gives a mistaken impression about the current state-of-affairs in higher education. The department that we see before us in The Chair is a fantasy. The realities of higher ed in the 21st century are much more complicated, volatile, and interesting. I know it is just a TV show. But what is excluded and not able to be seen has real consequences.

I’m David Gunkel and that’s my Perspective.

Northern Illinois University professor and author