From its depictions of institutional, disciplinary, and intra-departmental politics to its complex rendering of individual characters, the Netflix English-department-based dramedy The Chair presents a startlingly familiar picture of what it’s like to work in an English department. However, as well-written and movingly acted as The Chair is, I found watching it uncomfortable, awkward, and even painful at times. Not because it strikes any false notes in its portrayal of an English department; its portrayal of English as a discipline is realistic, if problematic. Ultimately, however, the show’s main strength is its ability, as a popular text, to bring ongoing discussions of structural inequality within the academy into public discourse.
I work at a Canadian, teaching-focused, primarily undergraduate regional university unlike the Ivy League institution evoked in The Chair, and – even more significantly – unlike Sandra Oh’s character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, I am not a racialized professor. But much about the way the show represents academic life was recognizable to me from my own experiences and my awareness of life at other universities. I bristled at the mention of budget cuts; I squirmed through awkward interactions between new and senior professors; I cringed at the mid-career professor’s refusal to take responsibility for the implications of his free speech.
But the main question I had while I was watching it – aside from why Dr. Kim would quote Harold Bloom in a complimentary way – is: who is this show for? If its imagined viewers were those of us who teach in English departments, what does it have to offer besides re-enactments of situations we have already lived through?
Certainly, the way the department is represented makes it unclear why anyone would want to teach English or take an English class. The faculty is stubbornly deadlocked along gendered, generational, racial and even pedagogical lines. Any progress gained in the appointment of Dr. Kim, the first female and first Asian English department chair at Pembroke University, and the hiring of bright young Black scholar Yaz McKay, is lost by the end of the series. In all but a handful of scenes, students are figured as obstacles or threats; shrill, rash, hinting at impropriety and endangering careers. Teaching is a source of precious little joy. The series presents only two full-throated arguments for why literature matters, both delivered under dubious (if entertaining) circumstances: Joan Hambling’s public attack on a student who left her a bad review on RateMyProfessor.com; Bill Dobson’s self-defence at his disciplinary hearing after refusing to apologize for giving a Nazi salute in the classroom.
From the first scene, which features Dr. Kim falling off a broken chair in a rather heavy-handed visual metaphor, it’s clear the writing is geared towards throwing her into as many irresolvable situations as it can to maximize the narrative tension. This strategy works to reveal her character, but it is sadly not an unrealistic portrayal of the experiences of people of colour in positions of power within the academy. It was immensely frustrating to witness the complacency and complicity of privileged characters, as their colleagues struggle to succeed within a system designed to derail them. I was exasperated with the conclusion, which depicts the rolling back of long-overdue progress and the triumph of regressive forces.
At first, I thought the show offered a kind of schadenfreude for those who imagine English as a discipline comfortably ensconced in the ivory tower rather than any lesson for those of us who teach in English departments. But it is powerful to see a popular Netflix show dramatize for a non-academic audience the struggles and discussions many academics are engaged in at the moment around what equity, diversity and inclusion look like in our departments and our institutions. What do we teach? How do we teach it? Who do we teach it to? Who gets to teach? Who has power? Who is left out of the conversation? Whose interests are we serving?
Literature itself is not the issue; in fact, as the show demonstrates, in the right hands, studying literature can open space for discussions about identity, power, and empathy that provoke us to awareness and action. But the series’ tragic conclusion also makes clear to a broad general audience that English departments are part of larger institutions with deep roots in social injustice whose function has historically been to preserve and replicate systems of oppression. Filling positions of power in a fundamentally broken system with the very people that it has oppressed does not constitute meaningful progress. As the narrative arc of The Chair shows us, the institutions themselves must be radically re-imagined.
Heather McAlpine is an associate professor in the department of English at the University of the Fraser Valley.