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A New Class of Campus Satire

IN THE SMALL hours of the morning, as my viscera turned to water, I binge-watched the entire season of “The Chair,” Netflix’s 2021 campus comedy. It was the night before my first colonoscopy, a middle-age rite of passage, and I was a captive, contemplative audience of one. I must have been a sight: swigging Suprep, laughing in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of my iPhone as Sandra Oh played out scenes from my professorial life. When two of her character’s aged, tweedy white colleagues began discussing colonoscopy results (“Clean as a whistle! You could serve shrimp off my colon”), an existential dread welled up within me: “Perhaps I’m them now — not the hero but an easy satirical mark.”

I am a tenured English professor, 47 years old, Black as well as white, more likely to wear a hoodie than houndstooth, Nikes rather than tasseled loafers. I led my first college class when I was 23, which means I’ve been a teacher over half my life. By a conservative estimate, I’ve spent some 3,000 hours lecturing. I’ve taught at small liberal arts colleges, Ivy League and large public universities, on the East and the West Coasts, in the South and in the Mountain West. Of all the places I know, I know the college campus best.

That’s why “The Chair” startled me. Unlike most accounts of campus life, it depicts an experience that I recognized as my own. The six-episode series follows Oh’s Ji-Yoon Kim, a newly minted English department chair, as she confronts plummeting enrollments, an aging faculty — and her attempts to reconcile her own progressive values with the realpolitik of administrative leadership, all while attending to life as a single mother of a young adopted child.

I’ve grown accustomed to campus fictions that center students, a sensible creative choice. After all, most of us were students once. And students’ lives are intrinsically interesting. College-age 18-to-20-somethings are navigating their identities, tacking to extremes in pursuit of a centered self. College has long figured as a second womb, a space of quasi-independence in which young people, finally free of their childhood homes, can come of age in mind and body with the more measured paternal intervention of the campus: professors to cultivate the mind; staff to provide hot meals; administrators to offer a baseline of safety, a buffer from law and consequence. Onscreen, most college-based films and television series favor students nearly to the exclusion of faculty, staff and administration, like 2021’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls” on HBO Max and “Dear White People” (both the 2014 Justin Simien-directed film and the 2017-21 Netflix series). If you tour fictional colleges — Faber from “Animal House” (1978), Hillman from “A Different World” (1987-93), Port Chester University from “PCU” (1994), Cal U from “Grown-ish” (2018-present) — you’ll discover that faculty are either overlooked or introduced as comic foils trying to catch a contact high off their students’ youth and cool. Pembroke, the Ivy-inspired setting of “The Chair,” is the first place I saw professors both satirized and humanized, presented as fully conceived members of an imagined community. That matters because the real campus is far more complicated — and compelling — than most projections ever show.

Clockwise from top left: Marisa Tomei, Dawnn Lewis, Ted Ross, Vernee Watson-Johnson, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Lisa Bonet in Season One of “A Different World” (1987-88).Credit…© Carsey-Werner Co. Courtesy of Everett Collection

“The Chair” is part of a renaissance of college comedy, dramedy and satire — onscreen and on the page — offering new understandings of a swiftly changing campus. In the last three years alone, I’ve read a syllabus’s worth of recent campus novels, which variously employ elements of satire in telling their stories: a voice-driven coming-of-age tale in Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot” (2017); a transgender academic detective novel in Jordy Rosenberg’s “Confessions of the Fox” (2018); a high-literary surrealist dreamscape in Mona Awad’s “Bunny” (2019); a fictionalized multigenerational history of an Israeli prime minister in Joshua Cohen’s “The Netanyahus” (2021). These works are both rooted in conventions of campus satire stretching back nearly a century and responsive to life on campus today.

With more people spending more time in college and graduate school, seeking refuge from economic uncertainty; with the proliferation of M.F.A. programs stocked with fiction writers fulfilling the age-old maxim to write what they know; with contentious campus debates over racial justice, gender and reproductive rights, mental health, disability rights, police abolition, academic freedom and so many other issues, it’s no wonder that fictions about college provide such fertile imaginative territory. Satire is uniquely suited to respond to challenging times because it provides a comedic safety valve that admits the existence of tragedy while also holding on to hope that the world can change for the better. One senses all of this in “The Chair.” Pressing in on its expression of the inherited tropes of campus life on film — the strains of Vivaldi opening the first episode, the stately buildings seen from on high, the students cutting paths across the quad — is an insurgent awareness of a modern university in crisis.

Another of Winant’s collages, this one made using stills from films and television shows, including “The Sex Lives of College Girls” (2021), “Legally Blonde” (2001), “Old School” (2003) and “The Nutty Professor” (1963), spliced together with vintage images from historically Black colleges and universities.Credit…Carmen Winant, courtesy of the artist. Source photos (clockwise from top left): courtesy of HBO Max (2), Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, MPTV, Paul Thompson/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images, Richard Foreman, Jr./Dreamworks Distribution/Photofest, Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, courtesy of HBO Max, Buyenlarge/Getty Images, courtesy of HBO Max (2), Paramount/Photofest, courtesy of HBO Max, the Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert A. Sengstacke/Getty Images, courtesy of HBO Max (2)

THE ROOTS OF satire stretch back to antiquity. Narrowly defined, satire is a genre of literature (traditionally a comic poem written in hexameter) that employs techniques such as irony, parody and burlesque to illuminate human folly and vice. However, ask an English professor and they’ll tell you — I’ll tell you — that satire most often functions less as a narrow genre than as a rhetorical mode, a disposition toward life. At a minimum, satire is purpose-driven. One doesn’t accidentally write a satirical takedown of the English occupation of Ireland by suggesting that the impoverished Irish might sell their children to the English as food, as Jonathan Swift did in “A Modest Proposal” (1729).

The campus satire emerged in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century with Max Beerbohm’s “Zuleika Dobson” (1911), a whimsical tale that follows a governess who moonlights as a prestidigitator to Oxford University, where she turns class and convention topsy-turvy. (One could even trace the satirical gaze on academic life back to Swift’s portrayal of the grand academy of Lagado in “Gulliver’s Travels” [1726].) It then made its way across the Atlantic during the interwar period: One early example is the Marx Brothers’ film “Horse Feathers” (1932), which introduces Groucho as the college president Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff. In a memorable scene, he barges into a lecture on anatomy and exposes the professor’s teachings as claptrap. The campus, however, is little more than a convenience, as good a place as the circus or the opera for the brothers to clown.

Groucho Marx (center) and Zeppo Marx in “Horse Feathers” (1932).Credit…Everett Collection

Most modern conventions of campus satire found form in post-World War II literature, with Mary McCarthy’s “The Groves of Academe” (1952), Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim” (1954) and Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures From an Institution” (1954). McCarthy is particularly ruthless when it comes to describing academics, among whom she counts “a certain number of seasoned nonconformists and dissenters, sexual deviants, feather-bedders, alcoholics, impostors.” (Jarrell’s novel, by contrast, filters through a nameless protagonist who offers equal-opportunity comic upbraiding, taking specific aim at a churlish novelist named Gertrude Johnson, allegedly based on McCarthy.)

Recent Issues on America’s College Campuses

  • Slavery Ties: Harvard released a 134-page report on the universty’s four centuries of ties to slavery, in an effort to begin redressing the wrongs of the past.
  • Admissions: The Supreme Court will decide whether two race-conscious admissions programs are lawful, raising serious doubts about the future of affirmative action.
  • Hiring: Outrage ensued after U.C.L.A. posted an adjunct position that offered no pay. Turns out, the school is not unique.
  • Tuition: After a plan for free community college failed to gain traction in Congress, New Mexico is taking the lead in the tuition-free movement.

The rise of the campus novel coincided with major demographic shifts in higher education. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the G.I. Bill, dramatically expanded college attendance. Once the bastion of the privileged few, the campus soon came to be seen as a way station along the road to the middle class. In 1930, only 12 percent of 18-to-21-year-olds attended college; by 1950, that number was nearly 30 percent. (Statistics from 2020 place enrollment at 62.7 percent.) More women also arrived on campus; women now make up nearly 60 percent of students. Racial diversity has similarly expanded; the National Center for Education Statistics reports that almost half of college students now self-identify as a race other than white.

Despite this evolution, the campus has remained surprisingly unchanged in the collective imagination. Part of that fixity comes from nostalgia. For many, the college years are the most fun and formative time of life. It’s an age of self-fashioning, when people claim possession of their identities — racialized and gendered, sexual and social. As such, it’s an exciting place at any age, whether you’re in the process of your own becoming or submerged in the ambience of other people’s awakenings.

Reese Witherspoon (far right) in “Legally Blonde” (2001).Credit…Everett Collection

The campus is also a workplace, increasingly reliant on underpaid part-time instructors rather than tenured faculty. College presidents warn of an impending enrollment crisis, born of the Great Recession’s baby bust. Higher education’s financial model, reliant on escalating tuitions, appears broken, leaving a generation of students — low-income and Black students most especially — saddled with crushing debt.

Yet something about the campus novel, film and television series bends not toward tragic depictions of dire reality but toward satire. Maybe it has to do with ecology. The campus is a nexus of social relations: courtship, custom, identity formation, instruction, service, competition and hierarchy. It’s governed by a seasonal calendar, with certain designated periods of intense activity and others of rest. It’s conceived as a place apart, an ivory tower or, to borrow Don DeLillo’s name for his fictive school from his satirical novel “White Noise” (1985), a College-on-the-Hill. It cultivates its own set of rules and rituals, many of which are inscrutable to outsiders and therefore vulnerable to critique as elitist and out of touch. At a time when values and norms are in flux in almost every sector of society, the campus, by outward appearance, promises stasis. Everyone is enlisted in living — or at least supporting — the life of the mind, or maybe they’re just there to have a good time. Perhaps that is why the campus lends itself so readily to satire; it’s one of the few places contained yet familiar enough in which to stage a comedy of manners.

Melissa McCarthy in “Life of the Party” (2018).Credit…Hopper Stone © Warner Bros., courtesy of Everett Collection
John Belushi in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978).Credit…© Universal Pictures, courtesy of Everett Collection

YOU ARE MORE familiar than you might think with the comedy of manners, even if you haven’t spent much time reading British Restoration theater. William Congreve’s “The Way of the World” (1700), one of the best examples of the form, relies on an audience initiated into the rituals of courtly life, the petty squabbles and vanities of the privileged class. Time-travel three centuries to 2001’s “Legally Blonde” and you’ll find many of the same comic mechanisms at work. Reese Witherspoon’s sorority girl and recent college grad, Elle Woods, is out of place and maybe out of her depth in the staid confines of Harvard Law School but, over the course of the film, she bends and snaps the square-toed culture to her fashionable ways, all while proving she can hang with the brightest minds on campus.

Satire is generally built on types like these, stock characters that an audience can recognize and learn to anticipate, comprising a shorthand vocabulary that creators may enlist in forging their fictions. Think of the absent-minded professor, so brilliant as to have a hard time with everyday things. That comic idea coalesced in the 1961 film of the same name, starring Fred MacMurray, and in Jerry Lewis’s “The Nutty Professor” two years later. It lives on today in characters as far removed from one another as Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth in the long-running Fox animated series “Futurama” (1999-present) and Professor Mito Fauna, D.V.M., Ph.D., Ed.D., etc., from Adam Gidwitz’s delightful children’s book series “The Unicorn Rescue Society,” which began in 2018. Or consider the rare but relatable species of the binge-drinking, too-old-for-college party animal, as exhibited by John Belushi’s seventh-year frat bro, John “Bluto” Blutarsky, from “Animal House”; Will Ferrell’s Frank “The Tank” Ricard from “Old School” (2003); and Melissa McCarthy’s Deanna “Dee Rock” Miles from “Life of the Party” (2018). Types like these invite a smile, maybe a shake of the head, rather than a finger pointed in judgment.

Some satirical types are fashioned to fight. When Ishmael Reed wrote his campus satire “Japanese by Spring” (1993), he was fully enlisted in the 1980s and ’90s culture wars — a time, not unlike our own, when conservatives and progressives waged battle over affirmative action and gay rights, family values and censorship of the arts. Reed’s novel is a satire in the old-school sense of the word. He makes no pretense at realism. Instead, he juxtaposes wild and obvious exaggerations of character (his protagonist is an opportunistic and ideologically mercenary Black professor with the downright silly name of Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt) with even greater absurdities of historical fact (the novel’s fictional Oakland campus, Jack London College, is named for the beloved author of “The Call of the Wild” [1903], who was in fact also an avowed white supremacist who advocated genocide of the “lesser breeds”).

Credit…Courtesy of Penguin Books

Reed, now 84, credits his use of types to his childhood love of comic books and folk tales. “Well, types exist in Black folklore,” he explains. “That’s the basis for a lot of my work in terms of what I call comic aggression, which is used by people who are persecuted.” He points to stand-up performers from Redd Foxx to Richard Pryor, Jack Benny to Lenny Bruce. Comic aggression embodies satire’s seeming paradox: that so much raucous humor can be born out of anger and pain.

The mid-20th-century literary theorist Northrop Frye once wrote that satire must have “an object of attack.” It casts an othering gaze, one that essentializes and passes summary judgment. Satire is generally incurious of motive, unconcerned about the conditions that produced whatever distortion of personality, misdeed or excess it targets for opprobrium. Simien’s “Dear White People” makes clear early on that its object of attack is white supremacy. It renders the campus in Black and white rather than as the multicultural community it is today.

As such, the film does not invite its viewers to ask why the white kids who run the humor club Pastiche on the fictional Ivy League campus of Winchester University choose to host a party inviting their fellow white students to “unleash their inner Negro,” donning blackface and hurling racist slurs. In a meeting to plan the party, one of the club’s leaders invokes Pastiche’s motto, “Sharpen thy sword.” “It’s a reminder that satire is the weapon of reason,” he explains. Then he ominously asks, “So who on campus is being unreasonable?” Their answer is Black students, particularly a biracial woman named Sam, played by Tessa Thompson, whose radio show, “Dear White People,” insists that white students confront their anti-Black bias. Pastiche’s satire itself becomes the film’s satirical target, upending the insidious claim that those who decry racism are somehow the racists. To underscore the point, the film’s closing credits intersperse real images of blackface parties from campuses across the United States.

Credit…Courtesy of Penguin Books
Credit…Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

“ ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE’ really shifted how we think about the campus,” the novelist Elaine Hsieh Chou says, reflecting on the racist party scene. Chou’s debut novel, “Disorientation” (2022), centers on a literary hoax: a white male poet assumes a Chinese name and identity, going so far as to masquerade using yellowface and eye tape. It is a grotesque conceit but, as with Reed’s novel and Simien’s film, grounded in fact. Chou, 35, was inspired — and enraged — by the strange case of Yi-Fen Chou, the nom de plume assumed by a middle-aged white poet from Indiana named Michael Derrick Hudson, who hoped that a Chinese name would improve his chances of finding a publisher for his poems. It worked, and one of his poems was published in Prairie Schooner and later reprinted in the 2015 edition of “The Best American Poetry.”

“The word ‘satire’ makes us think something is so outrageous and absurd that it could never happen,” Chou says. “But nearly everything in the novel happened.” Chou brings receipts, in the form of endnotes, that include, for instance, a 2014 Seattle Times article detailing a production of the comic opera “The Mikado” starring 40 white actors in yellowface. “I wanted to say [to the reader], ‘Don’t just put down this book and say, “Well, that was a wild ride!,” and never think about any of those implications again.’”

The implications of “Disorientation” are inescapable. The novel follows Ingrid Yang, a Taiwanese American graduate student, as she struggles to complete her dissertation. Chou, a former doctoral student herself (she studied literary modernism), knows Ingrid’s world well. She peoples her novel with characters readily available for satire: the arrogant white male professor of East Asian studies, the self-serious campus radical, the model minority conservative. Rather than reveling, as Reed does, in satirical types, however, Chou burrows under them to expose the human complexity that lies beneath. This humanizing approach, common in today’s satirical fictions, blunts the satire as it sharpens the psychological complexity of the characters.

“Sometimes with satire, you can make a point with a very broad brush. Ishmael Reed is in that category; Percival Everett — other writers who are outlandish and having fun with being outlandish,” explains Julie Schumacher, 63, the author of two comic novels set on campus, including “The Shakespeare Requirement” (2018). Schumacher’s first campus novel, “Dear Committee Members” (2014), won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, a first for a book by a woman author. Both books center on Jason Fitger, an irascible but idealistic creative writing professor and English department chair at the fictional Payne University. Like Chou, Schumacher considers herself an accidental satirist. “I would never say that I started out thinking, ‘OK, I’m writing a satire,’” Schumacher says. “I don’t feel like that’s my strength as a writer. I want a character to play against type, to not quite fit the category.”

For a character to play against type, of course, a writer must first render that type legible to readers. In “The Shakespeare Requirement,” Schumacher does this most pointedly with one of Fitger’s colleagues, a Shakespearean scholar named Dennis Cassovan. Like the colonoscopy-conversing codgers in “The Chair,” Professor Cassovan presents as a familiar comic figure: the elderly curmudgeon upholding antiquated ideals. Cassovan’s particular inflexibility, memorialized in the novel’s title, lies in his conviction that all undergraduate English majors should be required to take a semester of Shakespeare. Schumacher generates some good laughs at “the old mossback” Cassovan’s expense, mostly through Fitger’s acerbic voice. But she also does something that no doctrinaire satirist would ever do: she ventures into Cassovan’s point of view, exposing the emotional complexity that accounts for his beliefs. We learn that he is a widower and that he lost his teenage son to cancer. Schumacher nonetheless resists the consolation of pity, inviting her readers instead to recognize that “Cassovan’s true existence had flowered within the confines of this dingy 8-by-10-foot room.”

In this passage Schumacher gifts her character something no stock satirical type could claim: dignity. In doing so, her novel, like Chou’s “Disorientation” and like “The Chair,” joins a new wave of campus satires, many of which are written by women, that aren’t really satires at all. By exposing their characters’ human motives, their frailties and failings, deflated aspirations and unarticulated hopes, they offer something more radical than righteous critique: avenues for empathy and, perhaps, pathways back to community for those who have strayed far away.

Winant’s third collage, made with images from “Dear White People,” the 2014 film that inspired the 2017-21 television series of the same name.Credit…Carmen Winant, courtesy of the artist. Source photos: courtesy of Netflix

THESE UNSATIRES OF the campus are cropping up onscreen, as well, without sacrificing the outrageous qualities that attract audiences. Consider “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a series that stands out for truth in advertising, as we witness the aforementioned college girls having sex in an inspired range of locations. (“None of my friends get down like that!” my 21-year-old research assistant, Chazz Hannah, recently said to me.) Shows like “Grown-ish” and “A Different World” also focus on attractive people consciously coupling and uncoupling, and sex remains a fundamental element of the campus novel, too. In “Moo” (1995), for instance, Jane Smiley titles a chapter “Who’s in Bed With Whom,” then calls roll of campus bedfellows: an undergrad with a grad student, two professors in perfunctory congress, two others in passionate embrace, before arriving at an econ professor who’s “in bed” in a figurative sense, colluding with a billionaire.

Of course, sex is central to these fictions of the campus because it features so prominently in the real college experience. Mindy Kaling and the series’s co-creator, Justin Noble, spoke about returning to campus — Kaling’s alma mater, Dartmouth, and Noble’s, Yale — to interview current students, but “The Sex Lives of College Girls” does not rely on capturing current trends. Quite the contrary, it is built on types — even stereotypes: Bela, a newly unsheltered South Asian girl looking to make up for lost time with lots of sex; Kimberly, a guileless suburbanite hanging on to a platonic long-distance relationship; Leighton, a blond socialite with a legacy pedigree; Whitney, a Black talented tenth striver whose force-of-nature mother is a prominent politician. The series begins with these stereotypes, then works to reveal the humanity that the stereotypes occlude. By the end of Season 1, for instance, Leighton has begun to embrace her lesbianism.

This evolution of character enacts a process of identity formation inherent in college students everywhere. It’s an intimate undertaking often acted out in public, drawing on the influence of others, including professors. “There’s a great craving among students to be told about who they are,” the novelist, playwright and theater professor Julia May Jonas tells me. “And that unasked request, if you answer it, can be very dangerous. It can be at best confusing and at worst dangerous.”

Jonas’s 2022 novel, “Vladimir,” surveys the limits of student-professor intimacy — including sexual relationships. One of the animating forces of the plot is a long history of a married male professor’s affairs with his students. This is a familiar story, enough to be a common satirical plotline in its own right; it’s also a topical one, with recent scandals at both Harvard and Yale surfacing the damage done when professors abuse their power. Jonas, 41, plays an intriguing variation on the theme, however, grounding her novel in the seductive first-person perspective of the philandering professor’s wife and, more than that, having her give voice to a nuanced understanding of campus sexual relationships. The book announces these subversive intentions from its opening lines: “When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me.” Among other things, the line is a riff on one of Jonas’s inspirations, Vladimir Nabokov and his controversial classic, “Lolita” (1955). (Nabokov was also the author of two satirical academic novels of his own, “Pnin” [1957] and “Pale Fire” [1962].)

“Vladimir” is alive to a range of intimacies. Early in the novel, Jonas’s unnamed protagonist revels in its ambience: “I like feeling the thrum of the students’ brains and hearts, uncensored by the classroom setting. In the library their lives swirl around me — I’m aware of their romantic entanglements, their grudges, hatreds, obsessions, all vibrating at a frequency I won’t ever feel again. Never will I love as they love, or hate as they hate or want what they want with such strong and solidified identification.” Jonas’s protagonist looks on her world with an eye alive to both the comic excesses and the enviable vitalities of her students. It invites us to revisit scenes so often played for broad comic effect — the sex lives of college girls, boys and otherwise — as deserving of more nuanced reflection.

Fred MacMurray in “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1961)Credit…Everett Collection

WE LONG FOR all that satire provides — its moral certitude, its keen eye for hypocrisy, its sanity-saving comedy — even as the writers and creators of today’s satirical art bridle against the narrow dictates of the form. This crisis of satire is nothing new. Seventy years ago, in “Notes on the Comic” (1952), the poet W. H. Auden cautioned that satire was exhausted, a relic of a bygone era when satirists wrote for a privileged audience of thousands rather than diverse communities of tens of millions or more.“Satire flourishes in a homogeneous society where satirist and audience share the same views as to how normal people can be expected to behave,” he writes. But what happens when one segment of society’s idea of “normal people” comes up against a resounding chorus of college students across the country — and, indeed, the world — who are naming and claiming their particular identities beyond the confines of gender binaries, inherited racial and ethnic categories, ability and disability? Satire, a form that thrives on homogeneity, cannot help but change in the face of such diversity. One wonders, though, if it can survive.

When “The Chair” landed on Netflix in August of 2021, it provoked a spate of think pieces on academic satire — and an equal but opposite number of essays explaining, if sometimes pedantically, that the series was not, in fact, a satire at all. Annie Julia Wyman, 36, the show’s co-creator (along with the actress, writer and producer Amanda Peet), is definitive on the matter. “ ‘The Chair’ is not satire,” she says. “Satire is a kind of decadent, exhausted, austere and cold form.” Wyman, who holds a doctorate in English from Harvard and has taught courses on comic theory, describes the series instead as “something much closer to pure comedy.” She and Peet conceived the show’s central relationship — between Oh’s Professor Kim and Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass — in homage to the long tradition of the romantic comedy. “It’s about renewal and reintegration and what it takes to go on,” she says. “How can we remake our little society while we keep it afloat in a spirit of love and companionship?”

That spirit is tested in the very first episode. Duplass’s Dobson, an acclaimed novelist, recent widower and now an empty nester, is struggling to hold himself together. He makes his way across campus to teach his lecture class, Death and Modernism. He begins by writing on the chalkboard.

“Absurdism.”

“Life isn’t what you think,” he says. “It will never be what you think.”

“Fascism.”

He points to the word.

“All meaning is ascribed to the State.”

Then he points to “Absurdism.”

“There is no meaning.”

His gesture becomes a Nazi salute. Then he utters a muted “Heil Hitler.”

It’s a horrific moment to watch, all the more so because of the disconnect between the students’ shocked responses and Bill’s unabashed confidence that he’s simply indulging in a bit of pedagogical theater, ironically weaponizing the hateful gesture against itself.

Except he’s wrong.

The camera cuts to students’ faces. No one laughs or cracks a smile. The expressions range from befuddlement to concern. Through it all, Bill continues lecturing, oblivious to the growing commotion, unaware that his career may have just come to an end. By Episode 2, he’s a meme, his ironic stunt now source material for the students’ own satire of him.

So why does it go so wrong? The series offers plenty of satirical reckoning to go around. Bill is out of touch, quick to exercise his freedoms without consideration of his responsibilities. For their part, the students willfully ignore the context of Bill’s gesture, not because it evades them but because they resent his entitlement. His actions after the incident don’t help; he calls a town hall to not apologize. “I want this to be a forum where everyone can voice their opinion,” he says. “You’re a white tenured professor who writes Op-Eds for The New York Times,” one student snaps back. “You really think this is an equal forum?” At season’s end, the tension is unresolved: Bill is fired but fighting it. On the campus of “The Chair,” on campuses everywhere, satire may well be dying. Who will mourn it?

I’m thinking about this in the operating room, positioned on my side, gown open in back. In the final moments before the propofol takes effect, my gastroenterologist attempts to assuage my anxiety — not knowing that its source isn’t my concern over neoplastic polyps but of falling prey to Bill’s mistake. Lecturing is a vulnerable thing; it’s liberating, too. A good lecturer is part teacher, part preacher, part stand-up comic. I’ve danced a two-step, broken into song, laughed and even cried. I’ve marched a 100-student lecture across the quad to teach in an open-air amphitheater. I’ve even taught a semester-long course accompanied by a student D.J. and rapper. I’ve done all of this with the hope that I might inspire my students, or at least entertain them. The experience often leaves me exposed. The only protections are humility and respect for the sensibilities of the young people in your charge. That’s what it means to teach.

“What do you teach?”

My doctor must have seen my salutation in my chart.

“I’m an English professor,” I tell her.

This is usually a conversation stopper in Los Angeles, but not today.

“Well, you must have watched ‘The Chair,’ right? My partner and I binged it in two nights. What did you think?”

I’m out before I can respond. When I come to, I’m in the recovery room, head still cloudy, soul unsettled but clean as a whistle.

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