Netflix’s announcement of the upcoming series The Chair, starring Sandra Oh as the chair of an English department, was met with a great deal of excitement and self-amused jokes from academics across social media. Though that upcoming show may be fantastic (I mean, Sandra Oh!), the most insightful, enjoyable representation of higher education has already finished its second season, but you probably missed it because it isn’t set in a university.
I am referring to NBC’s sitcom A.P. Bio (2018-), created by Mike O’Brien. This middlebrow satire about a vainglorious deadbeat who schemes to never teach at all manages to depict academic labor far more sharply than I wager a prestige Netflix dramedy ever will.
A.P. Bio introduces us to Jack Griffin, a former Harvard philosophy professor who loses his tenure case in viral fashion and must shamefully return home to teach a 1-class load (perhaps the most farcical aspect of this show) of Advanced Placement Biology at Whitlock High School in Toledo, Ohio. The conceit of the show is simple: Jack, played by Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), refuses to teach the students biology, and, as long as the students don’t tattle to their star-struck principal, played by Patton Oswalt, they will receive an A. Jack promises the students, as well as the audience, that this is not “one of those things” where it will ultimately be revealed he’s been secretly teaching them the whole time, or that he will in any way learn from them because, as he says, “I know more than all of you combined so that doesn’t make any sense.” In lieu of class, Jack has his hyper-motivated students help him wreak havoc on his academic rival Miles, the chair of Stanford’s Philosophy department. Jack’s revenge includes such hijinks as elaborately catfishing his rival and posing a student as the Stanford don’s long-lost son. Some students become co-masterminds in Jack’s Shakespearean plots, while others repeatedly try and fail to sneak in learning opportunities.
A.P. Bio offers an absurdist take on well-worn criticisms that have followed in the wake of “No Child Left Behind,” including the problems of teaching to the test, grade inflation, hyper-competition among elite students, and lack of state funding for public education. Even so, the show plays to damaging stereotypes about education and labor. Jack, of course, doesn’t teach what he’s supposed to teach. In one episode, he intentionally seeks out the right-wing bugaboo “teacher jail” in order to find some paid time to research and write; and in another episode, Helen (the jovial administrative assistant played by Paula Pell) refuses a raise out of “love” for the school. Yet A.P. Bio sharpens its perspective as it progresses, and it admirably avoids the easy pitfalls of punching down at Jack’s awkward, obsequious, and sex-obsessed young people, or so-called “excellent sheep.”
At first, I thought my attachment to the show was partially personal. Like many fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I was an easy sell on the potential dark comedic gold of bringing Howerton’s renowned portrayals of curt impatience, simmering rage, and sociopathic tendencies into a classroom of adolescents. What’s more, I myself had recently moved to semi-rural Ohio as a professor at a small, teaching-centered regional university, and enjoyed watching some distorted, monstrous representation of myself as a competitive academic in the show. I also saw my eager, ambitious, and anxious students in the hilarious, brilliant, and diverse ensemble of actors that the show has gathered together in its fictional classroom—and which viewers may not associate with a city like Toledo.
As episodes went on, I realized the show’s satire was surprisingly insightful about labor more broadly in higher education. When assessing the dismal academic job market, the focus has been on the placement rates for Ivy League and other elite PhD programs. This focus has obscured those PhDs who move between jobs in smaller regional universities, community colleges, and high schools. As we know, the warped academic labor market has a far greater need for teachers than tenure-lines. It thus forces many to cobble together low-paying adjunct gigs. Currently, 25 percent of part-time faculty in America depend on one or more public assistance programs—or accept tenuous short-term post-docs or visiting positions. As Charles Petersen outlines, only 33% of instructional staff in higher education are tenured or on the tenure track, compared to 78% in 1969. This situation sees many others, like Jack, opt for salaried jobs in high schools as the “new tenure-track,” though this trend complicates the job market for K-12-trained teachers and, as I’ll discuss shortly, further undermine workers in higher education.
Jack’s Ivy-league pedigree does more than add comedic schadenfreude to the show’s picture of academic labor. The show also dismantles the notion that pedigree connotes merit. Yes, Jack’s pedigree allows Principal Durbin to secure bragging rights over his local rivals, as well as sell the school to helicopter parents. More significantly, high-school administrators like Principal Durbin recognize that hiring teachers who have advanced degrees enables high schools in states like Ohio to participate in dual credit programs. These programs conscript high school teachers to work as quasi-adjuncts at in-state higher-ed institutions to award college credit, including but not limited to general education courses. In this sense, A.P. Bio’s focus on A.P. courses may be outdated, as these programs extend well beyond prodigious, and/or well-funded, elite students—upwards of 61% of students entering the University of Texas system came in with college credit in 2015, and only 23% of those acquired the credit through Advanced Placement alone. For high school teachers facing stagnant wages as well as prospective college students facing soaring tuition costs and student loan debt, these dual credit programs are an apparent financial win-win.
This apparent victory, of course, papers over the costs. Graduates of these programs report feeling over-confident and struggling to adapt to college without these entry-level courses. They also lose time to explore different areas of study, faced with the pressure to declare a major and professionalize even more quickly. On the labor side, already over-extended high school teachers perform duties for these institutions totally disproportionate to their value-added. In 2015, Ohio would pay $160 per credit for a H.S. student taught by a professor on a college campus, $80 if the professor taught on a H.S. campus, and $40 to an appropriately qualified H.S. instructor. When the state boasts “more than $569 million in tuition savings to Ohio families,” those who either cannot find secure employment in higher education or feel the squeeze of financial management at smaller institutions understand the true meaning of this phrase all too well.
Predictably, the show frequently affirms its viewers’ belief in education through heartfelt moments when Jack accidentally teaches his students—or shows his affection for his colleagues and the Toledo community. This, too, is accurate in my experience teaching in Ohio. Even though I know better, I nonetheless feel the affective charge of Helen’s impulse to decline a raise to help the school’s finances. The social bonds forged with not only students but also faculty at mine and nearby institutions were on some level soldered out of a hardy and proud resilience to budget cuts. The “us vs. everybody” ethos has its own compensatory function.
A.P. Bio helps us to see how foolish it is to view the academy as autonomous from labor. In one of my favorite arcs in the show, Jack is inspired by watching an Ohioan eat a spoonful of mayonnaise after a hard day of work and decides to write a pop-philosophy book (a la Steven Pinker or Jordan Peterson) about how blue-collar workers find happiness in the simple things. For his research, Jack, “like Jane Goodall studying the chimps,” begins moonlighting at a number of different jobs, such as fast food and construction, before, in classic fashion, farming out his students to conduct this “research” for him. His initial findings suggest that the ordinary people of Toledo have “four categories of happiness.” According to Jack’s thesis, they have jobs that allow them to see the product of their labor; they have mundane celebrations like “beer o’clock” that distract from inevitable death; they ingest sugary, salty, and fatty things that release endorphins; and they find someone within 20 miles to procreate with “so that [they] feel as though a memory of [themselves] will live on.” The irony, of course, is that by seeing himself as entirely separate from and above these workers, and the book as a tool of escaping Toledo entirely, Jack struggles to unlock the philosophical nugget of “happiness” for himself. It’s not until he embraces the sociality of his own job, completing a student’s plot to chop off his karate teacher’s ponytail and attending a co-worker’s “bangs anniversary,” that he accidentally discovers the deliciousness of dunking fries in “white gold” (i.e., plain mayonnaise).
Transforming these social bonds into class-consciousness and political action among academics is work a sitcom, in my view, cannot perform. But, short of that, A.P. Bio exposes how, while we may like to have a prestige dramedy about an English department chair at a fancy university, a show about a vain boor is the pop culture representation of higher education that we not only deserve, but also need. By uprooting a tenure-track professor and placing him in a high school, the sitcom understands how academics function in a wider network of workers outside of the classroom. Seeing ourselves in this way, we can identify a different set of actions that can contribute to and transform the classroom, but which are not teaching: like showing solidarity during labor strikes, for example. Our current COVID-19 crisis has made some of Jack’s teaching philosophy more relevant, like the political appropriateness of inexpertly transferring learning on-line or our sanctimonious attachment to grades. The crisis has also further exposed the fragility of labor in higher education, and I have been heartened to see responses that build mutual aid networks that include not only students and faculty, but also staff and (speaking of Harvard) subcontractors like dining workers. If Jack has taught us one thing, it is that we can only appreciate white gold when we come together to appreciate white gold.
Vincent Haddad is an assistant professor of English at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. His writing on literature and comics has appeared in LA Review of Books, Black Perspectives, Public Books, Post45, The Comparatist, ImageTexT, and Orbit.