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Sarah VincentSeptember 17, 2021
Sandra Oh in The Chair (2021). Photo from IMDb.

I have to be honest: watching “The Chair” as a recent college graduate was disquieting, but the critically-acclaimed hit from Netflix is also my new favorite show. In the series, a talented Black professor struggles to get tenure; another professor is accused of being a Nazi; screaming student mobs rule the campus; and a female professor seeks justice for years of discrimination in vain.

With social justice scandals and breakdown of discourse becoming commonplace on college campuses, these scenes hit too close to home for comfort. “The Chair” is a clear-eyed look at the changing landscape of American universities and a plea for understanding amid its fears that we are losing the power of dialogue.

Starring Sandra Oh as English chair Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim at fictional Pembroke University, “The Chair” is a sort of romantic dramedy that has resonated with academics and students alike. From police being called on peacefully gathered students to a well-meaning but ineffective Title IX office, the show focuses on the experiences of women and people of color in academia with painful accuracy.

With social justice scandals and breakdown of discourse becoming commonplace on college campuses, these scenes hit too close to home for comfort.

In Sandra Oh’s signature slightly-disheveled style, “The Chair” follows Dr. Kim as she navigates a complicated life of single motherhood, feelings for a recently widowed colleague, and workplace politics filled with microaggressions. As the first woman and person of color to act as chair, Kim hopes to revolutionize the English department by boosting diversity and enrollment numbers. But she soon finds she does not have the support of the university—or the English faculty—behind her. In Episode 4, Kim laments, “I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb because they wanted to make sure a woman was holding it when it explodes.”

But beyond Dr. Kim’s series of personal and professional disasters trying to bring the English department into the 21st century, a secondary theme of “The Chair” is a plea for understanding. Underlying the dramedy is a deep-rooted fear that we are losing the capability for discourse. In many ways, the show is a search for balance: between Kim’s personal and professional life, between innovation and tradition in education, and between students and professors.

The genius of “The Chair” lies not just in its literary quips or its incisive humor about English majors (as funny as it is). The show’s real talent is in its ability to empathize with multiple perspectives.

As Kim discovers in her ultimately short reign, there are no easy answers as chair. To hire younger, more diverse faculty means forcing older professors to retire and abandon their beloved jobs. To give a distinguished lectureship to the only other woman of color in the department means to tread on the toes of trustees who want a celebrity speaker to boost enrollment. To defend her colleague and love interest Bill Dobson from being fired for insensitively discussing fascism in his classroom means risking (and eventually being demoted from) her position as chair.

The genius of “The Chair” lies not just in its literary quips or its incisive humor about English majors. The show’s real talent is in its ability to empathize with multiple perspectives.

In Dobson’s termination hearing, he refuses to defend himself, speaking instead about literature: “[In stories] you’re always trying to see things from someone else’s point of view. You’re trying to occupy a different space.” This is the central trick of “The Chair,” and what makes it so compulsively watchable for students and professors alike: it continually makes us occupy a different space and see the other side.

The show lets us see the very human professor on the receiving end of hurtful comments posted to professor-rating websites—but also students who are bored by an unchanged curriculum and whose feedback on student evaluation forms is ignored. It shows the very real grievances of students tired of a lack of racial justice and diversity on campus—but also the damage done to the targets of their misdirected outrage, like Dr. Kim herself.

I found much of “The Chair” to be a refreshing look at academia, the power of its multiple perspectives lending the show complexity and nuance. But in some ways, watching as a recent graduate was also discomforting; at times it felt like it was holding up a mirror to something I didn’t want to see.

There is a particular scene in “The Chair” in which a college professor attempts to hold a town hall meeting to address student concerns that he is a Nazi. At first, it seems the meeting might accomplish the impossible: the crowd is quieted, people talk one at a time, Dobson speaks on the importance of discussing fascism in the classroom and on the vital contributions of Jewish authors to American universities.

Then the energy palpably shifts. As Dobson tries to apologize, it takes only one student shouting “no Nazis at Pembroke,” for the rest of the students to take up the cry. The town hall ends in chaos and the chance for dialogue is lost. Nuance evaporates and the opportunity to learn from each other—for Dobson to become more sensitive, for the students to become willing to tackle difficult discussions in the classroom—is irreparably destroyed.

In some ways, watching "The Chair" as a recent graduate was discomforting; at times it felt like it was holding up a mirror to something I didn’t want to see.

This kind of scene is not unique to Pembroke, or to any university campus in America. College activism is vital to creating a more equitable education system, but can it at times be destructive? Is this how we college students appear to professors when the loudest and most outraged voices win out? Have we lost a sense of nuance and trust in the power of discussion? Do we, like the Pembroke students, ever pick the wrong targets for our activism? And perhaps most disquieting of all, will we recognize when this happens?

For some of the show, the students almost seem to be the bad guys—a cancel-hungry mob taking shots at the wrong people. This becomes most evident when Kim herself is lambasted for advising Dobson’s teaching assistant not to talk to the press. The campus newspaper runs inflammatory headlines about Kim “issuing gag orders on students of color,” despite her being one of the only professors trying to increase diversity at Pembroke. But in the final episode, Kim gives an impassioned defense of Pembroke’s students anyways: “Why should they trust us? The world is burning. And we’re up here worried about our endowment?”

Despite the misplaced outrage of the students and its role in her being voted off as chair, Kim still recognizes the students’ right to be angry at an institution that will neither represent nor support them. In turn, perhaps the students could take a leaf out of the show’s book and try to see Kim’s side—that sometimes pushing for change is not as simple as it seems.

“The Chair” seems to suggest that the culture conflict between an increasingly social-justice focused student body and the historic dominance of white masculinity in academia is reaching a boiling point on college campuses. The most pressing question the show raises is this: Is real change possible? Will universities do the difficult work of diversifying and modernizing in a meaningful way? Or will they only ever try to appease angry students with conciliatory gestures? With Dr. Kim’s attempts to increase diversity at Pembroke stymied at every turn, the outlook is not optimistic; if changes do happen, it will not be Kim who is making them. But with another woman being elected chair in her wake, it seems progress may still be possible, even if only at a glacial pace.

Ultimately, the best answer the show can offer is its own advice—to take a good look at ourselves and try to listen to the other side.

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