The Chair



Netflix had an interesting television series this year called The Chair

The incomparable Sandra Oh stars as Professor Ji-Yoon Kim a recently appointed chair of the English department at Pembroke University. The department is filled mainly with aging academics spinning their wheels in a fruitless attempt to educate their students. as Chair Kim  tries to get a young black female colleague on the tenure track as she also tries to navigate a tricky relationship with a popular and rebellious fellow professor Bill Dobson  and a young adopted daughter who also largely ignores her motherly advice, as daughters and sons tend to do.

The series grew on me slowly.  At first, I thought this can’t possibly be interesting. The students were typically “woke” and belligerent. The professors were absurd. How could this end well?

Well, I was wrong. In the final episode of the first and perhaps last season I thought things got very interesting. By goose stepping in one of his classes, Dobson got in trouble with the woke rabble and also the staunch and largely vegetative older faculty. The  Dean and the University lawyers as lawyers tend to do, crush her crush on Dobson and insisted she abandon him to the circling university sharks of cancel culture. The Chair agrees to do as instructed.

The Dean tells her that for the good of the department, she must be the intellectual executioner of her young rebellious professor with whom she has a complicated relationship. With no defenders and no obvious good reason to defend the hapless professor. Kim nonetheless embarks on a spirited defence of the recalcitrant academic after her  young daughter wakes her up from her slumber: “Why are you a doctor? When is the last time you helped someone?”

Kim makes a bold attempt at rescuing his caree with a vigorous speech to ancient faculty:

“To be an English teacher you have to fall in love with stories. With literature. What you do when you do that is you’re always trying to see things from someone else’s point of view. You’re trying to occupy a different space.  When you’re in the middle of the story you’re in a state of possibility as opposed to the state of oppressiveness you’re in, in real life. The text is kind of a living thing. And it’s a dance. An on-going conversation that you have with it. Sometimes you love a poem so much, every time you reach it you learn something new. You feel transformed by it. It’s a very complicated but faithful relationship.”

That’s sort of what I said about classics earlier in the year. After that she explains to the faculty what they’re jobs actually are, for they have no clue:

“What are we doing here?  Firing him is not going to change the culture here. (Looking at the Dean) When is the last time you were in a classroom?  Or had a personal interaction with a student? I don’t need you to save my reputation.  Those people (pointing to the protesting students outside) there are our students. Our job is not to trick them, or manage them, or make them fall in line. Our job is to offer them refuge from the bullshit.   To level with them. Why should they trust us?  The world is burning and we are sitting here worried about our endowment. Our latest ranking on World Report.  If you think Bill is a Nazi, by all means fire him. But if you think by getting rid of him you’re going to stop what is going on outside they’re going to see right through that.  What do you think is going to happen when he’s fired and nothing else changes?”


After that, by amazingly crude academic warfare she loses her position as Chair and is replaced by the most unlikely of candidates. She returns to the classroom where she belongs.  She gives the new Chair an appropriate name plate for her desk: “Fucker-in-Charge.”  Kim was a lousy Chair anyway, but we can quickly see she was a great teacher. As she teaches a great poem by Emily Dickinson, we see that she is able to really wake up these “woke” students.  Here is the poem

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

But if you really want to see how a great teacher can wake up a class and a poem at the same time watch this final episode. It’s worth the trip.


Leave a Reply