Dr T Reviews: The Chair

Note: This review was meant to be satirical. But the academic in me could not resist exploring some themes in The Chair. I couldn’t help it. I wrote a quasi-serious review. I promise there will be another review because The Chair does a wonderful job of capturing the hair styles of academia so well, and that story needs to be told, too.

The opening scene of Netflix’s new series, “The Chair” is brilliant.

We see Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) ascend a flight of stairs to her new office as Chair of the English Department at Pembroke University. As Ji-Yoon walks along a hallway where the walls are lined with paintings of venerated Faculty and Past Chairs (all of whom are white men), we hear Handel’s Zadok the Priest — the Coronation Anthem. This is a coronation of sorts: Ji-Yoon is the first woman and the first person of colour to ascend through the ranks of academia to hold this Chair.

The camera zooms in on the paintings. As this Woman of Colour glides by to assume the mantle of leadership, we see those Venerated Faculty of years past giving Ji-Yoon the side-eye. He is not amused.

Fittingly, as Ji-Yoon settles into her literal chair, her office throne if you will, it breaks and Ji-Yoon topples over.

This first scene captures many of the themes explored in this series about academia: the place of the old guard, race and gender, what being “in charge” really means, and the juxtaposition of the sacred halls of learning with inadequate resources. The Chair literally needs a chair. It’s absurd, and that is partially the point.

So much of what we do in academia is absurd. Yet we do it anyway: search for meaning and maybe even a higher calling in teaching young minds in the midst of layers and layers of red tape, bureaucracy, tight budgets, unhappy students, and brand management. What does it mean to search for meaning in an institution once revered for its ability to make meaningingful sense of the world around us when that institution is increasingly controlled by the spin doctors — those tasked with ensuring that whatever meaning we find is “on brand”? It reminded me of that scene in Dr. Stranglelove where President Merkin Muffley exclaims, “Gentlemen! You cannot fight in here! This is the War Room!”

The Chair nudges us to think about the absurdity of it all. The backdrop of the first season is the crisis that ensues when a popular professor offhandly says “heil Hitler”, giving the Nazi salute, in the context of a wider discussion about fascism, absurdity, meaning-making. A student captures this moment and turns this fragment of the lecture into a meme. Soon, students are protesting on campus. The battle to shape the meaning of the professor’s words and actions begins.

Messages, comments, words, and actions are repeatedly misconstrued or misunderstood in the melee that follows, escalating the perceived seriousness of the professor’s offence. It reflects the basic human tendency to graft our own meaning on the words and actions of others, based on our experience rather than their intent. This too is an invitation to consider the absurdity of how things can quickly spin out of control. But it is also a lesson in power: who gets to decide whose meaning is most important? When power offends, power also has the ability to impose an exculpatory interpretation on its own actions and intent. Why shouldn’t the experiences of those impacted be given weight? Why should intent matter more than impact in cases involving discrimination and prejudice? This is a timely question, and reflects the mess that is American jurisprudence on equality rights.

…who gets to decide whose meaning is more important? When power offends, power also has the ability to impose an exculpatory interprentation on its own actions and intent.

The Chair is satirical, although often it is right on the nose. At one point, for example, the Dean reminds Ji-Yoon that the past accomplishments and brilliant minds of Pembroke University’s professors don’t matter as much as “bums in seats” do. Old school scholarship, meet new school economics. Keep your donors happy and try to nudge the Faculty members drawing high salaries toward retirement. There is a bit of word-play here, too. “Pembroke” is pronounced Pembrook, but it is spelled Pem-BROKE. I hope that this was intentional.

The English Department at Pembroke) faces the familiar crisis of declining enrolment. The Department needs to be revitalized. But how? By cutting the fat and retiring some professors? By a staunch commitment to teaching the classics in the classical way? By adopting new approaches to teaching and learning? By integrating new forms of critical analyses?

The tension is real. In a heated exchange, Ji-Yoon’s older colleague defends his “old school” approach and warns her about pandering to students. Ji-Yoon counters: you cannot be a teacher without students. This debate will be familiar to anyone in academia.

The Chair works hard to bring the stories with which we are less familiar to the foreground. We see two smart and accomplished women of colour navigating an academia that is firmly anchored in the white, male experience. The joys and difficulties of Ji-Yoon’s life as a Korean-American, single mom with an adopted child and a rising career are central. It was good to see Ji-Yoon and her father speaking Korean to each other, with their dialogue translated in sub-titles. This is real life for many Canadian and Americans. We speak a different language at home, and it changes the texture of our interactions.

Interestingly, we see stories about older characters, namely, a set of tenured and established professors. Although The Chair plays into the stereotype of the grouchy, out-of-touch professor with the older male professors, Professor Joan Hambling (played by Holland Taylor) is given more depth. There are more stories to be told here, and hopefully The Chair will be back to add some depth to these characters.

The Chair is rich with stories and sub-stories and thematic arcs. There is an embarassment of riches, really. Unfortunately, six 30-minute episodes hardly did any of these stories and themes justice. This season was a survey course. Let’s hope that we can enrol in a seminar that will give more room for close study next term, er, season.

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