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Discussing ‘The Chair’ in the Context of Contemporary University Problems

Discussing ‘The Chair’ in the Context of Contemporary University Problems

© Mikhail Dmitriev / HSE University

At the end of December 2021, the Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology (LSES) at HSE University held its traditional Christmas Cinema Seminar entitled ‘Where are universities going?’ Participants discussed ‘The Chair’, a TV series created by David Benioff and Daniel Brett Weiss, authors of ‘Game of Thrones’. 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the Christmas seminar, which LSES has held to discuss hot-button issues after watching famous Russian and foreign films.

Vadim Radaev, HSE First Vice Rector, discussed how today’s teachers face a number of problems that cause stress. Some of these, such as teaching workload and publication requirements, are routine in nature and concern the relationship with the university administration. However, additional problems in teacher-student relationships have also sprung up recently, which we are unprepared for.

Vadim Radaev
© Mikhail Dmitriev / HSE University

It didn’t take us long to find a film that would reflect these problems. ‘The Chair’, which has just been released in the USA, is a grotesque dramedy that doesn’t offer any ready-made answers and solutions. The plot revolves around an English department suffering from low enrolment and budget cuts. The newly appointed chair is Dr. Ji-Yoon, a 46-year-old Korean woman (young by local standards). She tries to make the department a better place but is caught in the crossfire between the university administration, students, and teachers. She eventually gives up hope of changing the department and has to resign.

The mini-series helps us raise several important questions that the film never answers.

The department’s team elects the new chair, and she promises not to make anyone redundant. At the same time, the department is a ‘den of lumbering dinosaurs’—old-school professors who have been lecturing since the dawn of time. The department needs a change; new early career teachers should be invited there. However, when the chair attempts to make some changes, she meets immediate resistance, and the recruitment process is essentially blocked. The question of how to support the generational balance remains unanswered.

Another question is how to reach out to students who are reluctant to read challenging books. Do we need to entertain them by telling stories about writers’ lives or would it be better to dive into studying the texts? Should teachers hang out with their students, or is it better for them to maintain distance in the teacher-student relationship? How should we treat students’ assessments and feedback? When do we need to respond and when should we stick to our position? Shouldn’t we be concerned that the mentorship model that the university used to have is being gradually replaced with a quasi-market logic, which makes the university more like a supermarket or a shopping mall that combines educational services with numerous entertainments?

Vadim Radaev also says that some episodes of the series are based on real life—for instance, from the experience at Yale University where teachers’ attempts to voice their opinions have come into conflict with most students’ expectations, thus leading to teachers’ resignation.

We should realise that students enter the university not only (and increasingly not primarily) to gain knowledge, but also in the hope of finding emotional support in this turbulent world. They expect to be helped to define themselves in the critical formative years. Because instructors are largely unprepared for this new demand, students are growing increasingly frustrated.

Importantly, it is not only students who need help, but teachers as well. They should receive support from their peers and through university policy. In any case, teachers should not be seen as service personnel or sales assistants in an educational supermarket.

Other participants expressed their points of view about ‘The Chair’ series, including the historian and columnist Sergey Medvedev.

Vitaly Kurennoy, Director of the Institute for Cultural Studies at HSE University referred to German sociologist Helmut Schelsky's analysis of the social origins of the Humboldtian model of higher education. The university’s objective emerged during the transition from traditional society to modernity and aimed to remove the individual from the family and society in order to place them in a situation where they could think for themselves. This principle of modern higher education is summed up in Wilhelm von Humboldt's formula ‘Einsamkeit und Freiheit’ (Solitude and Freedom). The university thus provides an opportunity for people to learn to think independently; this is not only a research virtue, but also the most important civic virtue in modern societies. The university shown in the series is no longer a space of independent thought but a place where everything is defined by belonging to a group. It is no longer a place where people learn to think for themselves, but rather a place where various forms of collective action and protest of some groups against others unfold.

Vitaly Kurennoy
© Mikhail Dmitriev / HSE University

Using his own practice of running academic seminars as an example, Vitaly Kurennoy noted that it is becoming more difficult to debate with students. They increasingly perceive the arguments of the teacher who asks them a substantive question and who points out their shortcomings as a personal insult, as a trauma. However, in his view, the film reflects a very important aspect of the university culture: at the end of the film, Professor Bill Dobson refuses the settlement offer and will fight to get his job back. This implies a historical continuity with the right of venia legendi preserved in the Humboldtian model of higher education. This is the ‘authorization to teach’, which was granted only by the university corporation and not by the state. Even such an authoritarian country like Prussia, and later Kaiser's Germany, knew only one exception to this rule: when parliament had to pass an emergency law at the personal insistence of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

However, according to Maria Tysyachnyuk, Coordinator of the Environmental Sociology Department at the Centre for Independent Sociological Research and a LSES guest lecturer, the department shown in the film really did not respond to students' needs: its instructors could not even talk to students properly. However, US universities usually support students, helping them adapt to life without parents and to isolation during a pandemic. ‘I don't think it's a supermarket. It's just that they pay a lot for their studies, so the university could provide a lot of services for them to nurture them carefully, to help them become the independent individuals that they themselves want to be,’ says Maria Tysyachnyuk.

Tenured Professor Leonid Kosals, Senior Research Fellow of LSES, assumes that it is not about money in the end. In Canada, students pay much less for their education, while the trends in Canadian universities are the same. He believes that the crisis of North American higher education reflected in the film is real, but this does not raise any concerns or create negative projections for its future. This grotesqueness does not come from the state, but from the academic community itself, which is responding to the next wave of democratisation amid the development of social networks. It is not always easy to understand how to respond properly; there are enough trade-offs and unpleasant situations at the individual level.

Olga Kuzina, Professor in the HSE Department of Economic Sociology and LSES Senior Research Fellow, believes that students and teachers are parts of a single whole: if one party has the wrong emotions, it means that the other party does not hear it and has to shout in order to be heard. A dialogue is the only way to resolve the problem, and the teacher should act as a grown-up who not only teaches a subject but also sets an example of how one should behave. The university years are one of the happiest times in a person’s life—they influence a person’s future. Therefore, teachers should not say that ‘we teach you some important things, and it is your problem if you cannot understand them’. 'It has never been possible to create the educational process in this logic, especially now,’ summarised Olga Kuzina.

Following 19 Christmas Seminars in LSES, the HSE Publishing House released a book by Vadim Radaev entitled Watching movies, understanding life: 19 sociological essays. An audio version of the book is also available.

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