The Chair: is Netflix show too painful for academics to watch?

Scholars offer a range of views on the popular and much-anticipated Netflix series

September 7, 2021
Netflix series "The Chair", from left: David Morse, Sandra Oh
Source: Eliza Morse / ©Netflix / Alamy

When Netflix last year announced a new university-based “dramedy” series from the creators of Game of Thrones, academic Twitter immediately went into overdrive.

Since The Chair focuses on the new head of an English department and stars Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh, many eagerly offered suggestions for plot lines and issues – around race, gender, precarity, “squeezed budgets” and “administrative bloat” – that they hoped to see on screen. So what do they make of the series, which is now streaming, itself?

Gail Marshall, head of the School of Literature and Languages at the University of Reading, felt that “the financial pressures and competing loyalties faced by The Chair rang very true” and that the series also dealt well with “the challenge to English as a subject”. This was reflected in the central clash between a generation of entitled white old-timers now lecturing to empty auditoriums and a dynamic new generation represented by two women of colour: Ms Oh’s character, Ji-Koon Kim, and Yasmin McKay.


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Although she thereby alienates a powerful traditionalist colleague, the latter encourages her students to produce what Professor Marshall called “a Hamilton-esque rap on Moby Dick”. Later, however, we find Professor Kim conducting what seems to be “a reassuringly traditional seminar involving close reading of [Emily] Dickinson. The students, from a range of ethnic backgrounds, respond thoughtfully, sensitively, are fully engaged with the text, and, we’re encouraged to believe, will leave the seminar room with greater insights into language, poetry and their own responses…we’re invited to see that these approaches can be complementary, that neither invalidates the other, that conversations can happen across centuries, that Chaucer can be ‘a badass’, and that literature is vital to humanity.”

What Professor Marshall found less satisfactory was the way that the older characters are “rather mocked, which sat ill with my sense of how respected senior colleagues are in practice”.

“For an American TV series coming from a writers’ room, and aiming for a happy ending,” according to Elaine Showalter – the first woman to serve as head of the English department at Princeton University, and now professor emerita – The Chair was “a great start. Smart plus Heart.” Yet she, too, was unhappy with its assumption that “older faculty will be bad teachers” and would have liked some “more sophisticated examples of student-centred teaching”.

Leonard Cassuto, professor of English and American studies at Fordham University, saw The Chair as “grappling thoughtfully with actual issues that confront humanists in American academia” even if it “[fell] back on caricaturing at times. Professor McHale, the narcoleptic and (literally) old fart, is more of a comic device than a character.” In any event, “the question of how English, and the rest of the liberal arts, can thrive without enough young people entering the profession is a very big and real issue – even if you’re not likely to encounter many doddering professors who repeatedly fall asleep in their chairs in real life”.

Karla Holloway, James B. Duke professor emerita of English at Duke University, disliked the way that the way that the feckless white professor, Bill Dobson, who is “cancelled” by his students for a tasteless attempt at humour, nonetheless becomes “the ‘saviour’ of the chair’s adopted child”, a narrative “that has all kinds of underbellies in the racism, sexism, ageism vernaculars”.

Perhaps the most sobering responses came from two Asian American scholars.

Min Hyoung Song, who directs the Asian American studies programme at Boston College, thought The Chair included “some very good moments of both satire and insight” but also found it “a show I can’t watch for too long”, partly because “it hits too close to home”.

Although his department was “engaged in addressing issues of racial justice”, Professor Song believed it “surely says something about the racial make-up of my department, the school in which I work and the profession” that he might soon become “the first non-white chair…Some of this is reflected in the episodes I’ve watched, and some of it isn’t.”

Meanwhile, Pardis Mahdavi, dean of social sciences at Arizona State University, found The Chair “validating” but also “painful to watch in many ways because it was almost too close to home. I watched scenes and realised that while other people would find them funny, I couldn’t laugh because it was too true…

“The show does an excellent job of portraying the glass cliff that women of colour leaders are on. So many hopes are pinned on us, and yet we have this almost impossible pressure from the top. We are brought in to be fixers, saviours in a sense, but that expectation is what sets us up to fail because there is no way that one person can solve all the structural challenges with racism in the academy.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

A very interesting exploration of the varied responses to The Chair. As a recently retired academic, I found it very entertaining, particularly when capturing the absurdities of academic life ( https://marieconnollybooks.com/Blog/2021/08/27/the-chair/). But I can see that it might be too close for comfort for some.
The North American tenure system makes for a very different proposition to a UK scenario which saw the gradual erosion of such tenure rights in the Education Reform Act of 1988. I still hark to the days of Educating Rita, now that would present an interesting update (42 years later).
I lived this story. It was highly entertaining but slightly traumatic. In my story, the chair chose the administration over support for faculty, which is probably the norm. But I was glad to see the show lampoon the white patriarchy that is "higher ed."

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