We just finished watching the Netflix series The Chair. The story begins as Ji-Yoon Kim becomes the first female chair of the English Department at an American college. She has lots on her plate. Some of her colleagues are way past retirement age and hardly any students sign up for their classes, while a brilliant black female professor who is very popular with students isn’t receiving the academic recognition she deserves.
Another professor makes a Hitler salute to illustrate a point during a lecture and the student body stages a protest. Then there is the wealthy donor who wants a famous actor rather than a distinguished scholar to give an important annual lecture at the college.
And as if she doesn’t have enough to juggle at work Ji -Yoon is trying to parent her adopted daughter who has behavior issues. She struggles to maintain a good relationship with her traditional Korean father and is trying to figure out if she wants to include romance in her life.
The Chair tells an engaging story with lots of action and humor but I would offer these three observations.
The syllabus at the university in the film was so steeped in tradition. The students were mainly reading things like Chaucer and Shakespeare and Melville. The work of white writers, mostly male seemed to dominate the courses offered. We didn’t see professors using contemporary texts by a diverse group of authors which I know quite a number of universities do by now.
I think the series realistically showed just how hard it is for single parents to juggle a challenging work-life and less-than-perfect family life. Ji-Yoon has reached what she thought would be the pinnacle of her career. She is the chair of the English department. She is also finally a mother something she’d always dreamed of being. And yet her life is so much harder and less fulfilling than she had imagined.
I thought it a bit unrealistic that every older professor in the department was portrayed as out of touch with students and dull in the classroom. My experience both as a teacher and student of English in secondary schools and universities leads me to believe that age isn’t always a factor as to whether a teacher is interesting or relevant.
The Atlantic reviewer calls The Chair “the best Netflix drama series in years.” Have you seen it? What did you think?