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A Teachable Moment: Netflix Series ‘The Chair’ is a Captivating Exposé of Life in a Liberal Arts College

A Teachable Moment: Netflix Series ‘The Chair’ is a Captivating Exposé of Life in a Liberal Arts College

  • Some of my friends who have retired from faculty positions don’t have the nerve or inclination to watch it because they are still trying to lick old wounds.

A romantic-comedy, “The Chair” is set in a fictional prestigious liberal arts school in New England. It has rare tender moments but is messy. Like an edited draft or unfinished art. Like life. The collegial atmosphere brews with hot button issues of gender, race, ethnicity, age, adoption, parenting, baby-sitting, tenure and more. 

Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, a Korean American (played strongly by Sandra Oh) is the newly appointed chair of the English department at Pembroke University. She is an anomaly as the first woman to fill the big shoes. She tiptoes around her mentors and other older colleagues, to garner their support while orchestrating her agenda.

But as she tries her hand at open door policy and good old diplomacy, crises explode around her. Student enrollment is dropping. The department has to adjust to their needs. There is pressure from the Dean (David Morse) to retire professors. She tries to salvage the situation by combining classes with a senior professor Bob Balaban( Elliot Rentz) who has no students with the bright black colleague Yaz (Nana Mensah) but he treats her like a peon.

More nails fall out of her chair when Bill Dobson(Jay Duplass), her recently widowed colleague, unravels after his grown-up daughter leaves for college. Once a popular professor he is caught making off-the-cuff remarks in school. This provokes student unrest. Bob Balaban makes condescending remarks about Nana Mensah’s dress at a department party, “It’s a nice outfit, it looks like you have put three dresses together (implying that he won’t recommend her for tenure). 

Everly Carganilla as Ju-Hee “Ju Ju” Kim, Kim’s adopted daughter, is the strongest and most flawed character in the series. Her neurosis coupled with an innate childish curiosity and an unfiltered tongue makes the Chair’s home life hazardous. But her character arc is the most heartwarming as is the portrayal by Holland Taylor of Joan Hambling, a senior faculty member who teaches Chaucer. 

It is fun to see the dowdy Joan get fired up when she uncovers what her students think of her online in the“ rate your professors” forum. In the meantime, Ji-Yoon has a very surreal encounter with another “wealthy white male candidate” who wants to teach Bill Dawson’s course and complete his doctorate on Samuel Beckett. All this comes so fast at Ji-Yoon but she is a quick study. 

The season ends with the following events. Ji- Yoon tries to help Bill, but Bill is removed from the university. Yaz threatens to accept another position at Yale. The senior members vote “no confidence” against

Ji-Yoon. Ji- Yoon resigns and appoints Joan as the chair. Ji- Yoon does what she loves the most, teaching poetry interpretation to a small group of students. Ji-Yoon loses her chair, but in doing so cements her friendship with Bill. It strengthens her bond with her stepdaughter and is hopeful about her future. And the narrative ends on a hopeful note. Because only when we are true to ourselves can we have the audacity to teach hope. In the words of Emily Dickinson:

“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 –

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I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

“The Chair” was created by Amanda Peet, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. It was filmed at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, and the Shadyside campus of Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

It is not a true story but it could easily be true. Many academic institutions are facing dwindling resources. This financial loss heightens feelings of jealousy, resentment, mean-spiritedness and to retain the status quo. The system where tenure depends on recommendations is fraught with landmines. 

It is incredibly difficult for a woman and a minority to attain and retain leadership roles. I am sure many viewers will recall our own experiences. Some of my friends who have retired from faculty positions don’t have the nerve or inclination to watch it because they are still trying to lick old wounds. But “The Chair” makes a resolute point to address the changing times. Perhaps the next season will provide the cast with new skills to command the situation. Definitely worth watching! 

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published many poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and two books, “My Light Reflections” and “Flow through My Heart.” You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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