Let’s spill the pop culture tea: ‘The Chair’ gets academia right more often than not

A man stands in front of a group of students protesting.
Anna Tolkien CM ’24 explains what “The Chair” gets right and gets wrong in its portrayal of academia. (Courtesy: Eliza Morse/Netflix)

This article contains spoilers for “The Chair.”

How can a newly-minted department chair make progress when faced with a permanently unsatisfied angry mob of students and old professors who won’t budge? This is the struggle of Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) while serving as chair of the literature department at the fictional Pembroke University. 

“The Chair,” written by Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, a former Claremont McKenna College professor, follows Ji-Yoon’s time as chair and the different fires she’s constantly putting out to keep the department alive. 

Ji-Yoon says she feels like she was handed a failing department like a “ticking time bomb” because they wanted to ensure “a woman was holding it when it explodes.” “The Chair” attempts to be a romantic comedy set in academia, a drama unpacking the painful and loving relationship between an adopted child and mother and a political narrative about progressivism, cancel culture and university politics all in one. This makes the show multifaceted and interesting but also muddles and misrepresents certain issues. 

Pembroke is a dated institution with a predominantly white staff and scandals rolling out by the second. They can’t keep bodies in seats, and they are losing money by the day. Ji-Yoon is the first woman of color to be chair, and she knows she is the dean’s way of giving some sort of peace offering to the furious student body who are demanding more diverse staff. 

The show portrays the very real struggle between older, tenured professors and younger, more progressive faculty. It dramatises university bureaucratic politics in a way that feels intense, high stakes and enthralling. 

I was interested by the tension between the older, whiter faculty who resent the younger, more diverse faculty’s ways of teaching and engaging with the material. As a literature major, my peers often question how my field is relevant. In the show, Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah) responds to this question by asking students to tweet their favorite line from Moby Dick and create raps to unpack the reading material. Her older professor supervising her tenure is horrified by this and sees it as disrespectful and improper. 

I found Yaz’s method to be fresh and exciting — the more ways professors can get students to value literature the better. Whether that be through music or social media, I respected her commitment to making the material feel relevant and accessible. The older professor’s disgust toward her teaching methods represents the barriers to making literature more accessible. This struggle between them is one of the most well-done aspects of the show. 

On the more emotional side of “The Chair,” the romantic ‘will-they-won’t-they’ tension between Ji-Yoon and Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) — Ji-Yoon’s co-worker and long-time friend — is great. I found the portrayal of Bill struggling after losing his wife but wanting to be in love again to be honest and real. I related to Ji-Yoon’s character who fell in love with teaching to the point she never let herself find a partner. They are two characters dancing between a relationship, with the lines blurry and confusing. I found it impressive that the show was able to build such a believable and multifaceted relationship between the two in just six 30-minute episodes. 

My favorite character on the show was Ji-Yoon’s daughter Ju Ju (Everly Carganilla). The show portrays her as lonely and angry because her mother is always at work, which perpetuates the misogynistic criticism of women working while having children. This is harmful as women already deal with not being taken seriously in the academic world, and vilifying Ji-Yoon as a bad mother because she’s working is perpetuating negative stereotypes. 

Ju Ju is feisty and emotional, asking absurd questions to her babysitters and to Bill about his dead wife. Ju Ju’s relationship with her mother and frustration about being Mexican while her mother is Asian reflects the confusing journey of understanding cultural identity and differences when you are adopted. I thought this was emotional and could start an important dialogue about the adoption process for children. 

Unfortunately, the show bites off more than it can chew when it comes to tackling student activism. It ends up portraying students as an angry, uninformed mass who blindly cancel professors. Bill is cancelled for making a Nazi salute in class as a joke when trying to describe the difference between fascism and absurdism, and the student body drags him across social media for it. 

Instead of focusing on the real issue — that the professors have no budget and the staff lacks people of color — the students are fixated on destroying the reputation of these teachers. While this message was valuable, I found myself offended by the critique on student activism.

The students’ concerns about his antisemitic gesture are used to make Bill look weak and garner viewers’ sympathy, which propels the false narrative that students at universities are on a witch hunt to shame faculty.

I found Ji-Yoon’s monologue during Bill’s termination hearing insightful. She criticizes the tenured faculty and asks, “Why are we in here when our students are out there?” She realizes that firing one professor doesn’t solve the issue; what actually makes progress is personally connecting with the students and hearing their concerns. The show makes a statement that cancel culture is unproductive as it focuses pressure and hatred on a single individual compared to focusing on the larger, more impactful issues. 

This is the type of thinking we need from faculty. Universities worry about calming scandals to ensure they keep their position on news outlets’ ranking lists. Instead, they need to commit to hearing students’ concerns and genuinely connecting with them to ensure a safe and inclusive campus. 

Despite the show’s misstep with how they portray students, I really enjoyed “The Chair.” If you are looking for a well-written show with complicated characters and relevant themes, “The Chair” is the show for you. 

Anna Tolkien CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a media studies and literature dual major and loves her pugs, iced coffee and Timothée Chalamet movies.

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