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Former department chair discusses new Netflix show

November 17, 2021

Netflix debuted The Chair in August this year, a show about the English department at the fictional Pembroke University, which centers around Ji-Yoon Kim, the department’s first woman of color to serve as chair.

According to Creighton University professor Kevin Graham, who served as associate chair and then chair of the philosophy department for a total of nine years, the show creates a startlingly accurate image of the inner workings of a humanities department, especially when it comes to the professors in the department.

“Part of what The Chair depicts is how humanities faculty members are frequently introspective to the point of being almost socially dysfunctional,” Graham said. “As one of my colleagues says, one of the reasons that people become professors, especially in the humanities, is that they’re very intelligent, but they have personality traits that make them almost completely unsuitable for any other form of employment.”

One of the characters Graham identifies as showing some of the classic characteristics of a dysfunctional professor is Elliot Rentz, an aging white male American literature professor. This dysfunction especially shows up in Rentz’s relationship with another American literature professor, Yaz McKay, a young Black woman. Rentz is the chair of McKay’s tenure committee, but seems to have no interest in interacting with her.

“At one point in the show, McKay invites Rentz to coffee, and given her vulnerability at this point as someone who’s up for tenure, this is a gesture of remarkable openness,” Graham says. “And he completely misses it. He just says, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that; Tuesday is my research day.’”

Graham was disappointed—though not surprised—by this reaction on the part of Rentz.

“You can’t have coffee with somebody on your research day?” Graham asked. “You’re going to totally rebuff a social invitation to get to know a junior member of your workplace who is subordinate to you and is a woman of color? Do I have to draw you a picture about why this is entirely the wrong move?”

Graham has also worked with people who remind him of the character of Bill Dobson, a brilliant European literature professor with a substance abuse problem. The one who reminds him the most of Dobson, Graham said, was a person he worked with in graduate school.

“At one point, this guy made appointments with a bunch of us to discuss our papers for a course we were taking from him, and he just got drunk for a week and missed all of them,” Graham said. “He was completely AWOL for an entire week, and at that point I thought, ‘I can’t work with somebody who’s as unpredictable as this.’ He’s brilliant; he came up with landmark philosophical ideas, but I couldn’t deal with that much unpredictability.”

Graham felt that the accuracy of the professors in the English department was apparent from the beginning of the show. In the first scene with dialogue, Kim walks into her first department meeting as chair, sits down to run the meeting, and Rentz tells her that she’s not sitting in the right seat. She looks at him and then moves to the chair he directs her to sit in, which, says Graham, allows him to be in charge of the meeting.

“This exposes that she still feels vulnerable as a woman of color in her position, despite the fact that she has the formal title of chair,” Graham said. “It’s a reality that university faculties, unfortunately especially in the humanities, are still dominated by older white men. Most of them were hired to teach the Baby Boomers, when we needed a lot more faculty, and so we still have a lot of those folks around.”

This, Graham says, is where he is unable to relate to Kim, though he can understand that she is struggling and that the show’s depiction of that is realistic. Kim is a Korean-American single mom depending on her first-generation non-English speaking father for child care.

“She’s feeling torn between white-dominated academic culture and Korean culture, that have very different expectations of her as a woman,” Graham said. “I don’t have to deal with any of that. I’m privileged to be white; I’m not depending on my parents for daycare; I’m not a single mom.”

Graham also says that because of this, he was never put in the position that Kim is in the show, where she, as a person of color, is trying to stand up for McKay, the only other person of color in her department.

“That brings with it a particular set of pressures that I don’t know about firsthand,” Graham said. “I can recognize the show as dealing with them in a very realistic way, but I can’t identify with them personally.”

Much of the action of the show is centered around the fallout from a clip that surfaces of one of Dobson’s classes where, in talking about absurdist and fascist ideologies, he satirically makes a Nazi salute.

This is not received well by the student body, which immediately begins a campaign to get Dobson fired. Dobson tries to defend himself, seeming to take the stance that he should be able to say anything he wants on a college campus. Graham does not agree with this.

“You have to acknowledge that some kinds of speech hurt people,” he said. “You should still be able to talk about that, but just saying, ‘I have free speech’ isn’t good enough if somebody is a member of a group who was slaughtered by Nazis in concentration camps. They’re going to want more than that.”

Graham felt that the students’ reaction to this event, especially their impatience, was represented well, but he was disappointed that the audience never got to know any of the students on an individual level.

“It was just ‘the students,’ and they were generally all represented as having the same reaction,” Graham said. “I think it would have been more interesting to get to know some student who was particularly effected by this, because in my experience, not all students react the same way. That’s just not how it happens.”

On the whole, Graham believes that it is important that both the university administration and students know when something horrible like this happens in the classroom, but that it is a complex situation.

“With any video evidence, having context is really important,” Graham said. “Having a two-second clip of anything doesn’t prove much of anything. The more context you have, the better off you are. I do think sharing these videos on social media is a net positive, but with it, you have to develop a whole new set of skills for evaluating visual evidence.”

This situation highlights one of the greatest difficulties of being chair, according to Graham: being the boss of people who are also your colleagues and friends. Kim and Dobson are close friends and even seem to have romantic feelings for one another during this time while Kim is trying to get Dobson to manage the fallout from his actions.

Graham says he never had the problem of a romantic relationship with a colleague, but that he still struggled with how his relationships with some of his colleagues changed.

“I always tried to keep things professional between me and my colleagues, and that was hard at some points, because we had related just straightforwardly as colleagues and friends for so long,” Graham said. “Now, I’m having to say, ‘Look, I’m your boss, and the University has some expectations about how we’re going to handle this problem, and I think those are reasonable expectations, and you need to follow them.’”

Because of this struggle, Graham understands why Kim tries so hard to defend Dobson and why, at times, she does things with good intentions which make the situation worse.

“I count myself fortunate never to have been placed in nearly so difficult a position as Kim was in the show, but I think she does make some unfortunate decisions,” Graham said. “I think she lets her personal feelings about Dobson cloud her professional judgement, but I don’t want to be too judgmental about her; I understand the desire for companionship.”

The show ends with Dobson leaving the university and the department delivering a vote of no confidence to oust Kim as chair.

Though Graham felt this was a realistic reaction, he felt the show didn’t acknowledge the grief that Kim would experience following her disastrous term as chair, especially when it came to the fact that McKay, the main hope for reviving the English department, seems to be leaving to take a job at another institution at the end of the show.

“She’s leaving partly as a result of the way Kim has bungled her term as chair,” Graham said. “I can’t imagine somebody like Kim not feeling entirely torn up by that experience and having to take some time to grieve that. You couldn’t just walk back into the classroom and feel normal. There would be a sense of loss there, and probably a sense of guilt.”

The main thing Graham wonders about, though, is whether The Chair was popular at all—he finds that hard to imagine, because the show seemed to appeal to a very niche audience of academics.

“There are fewer philosophy professors hired every year in North America than there are football players drafted into the NFL,” Graham said. “That’s how small an industry we’re talking about, and they made a whole show about people like us—we’re not as interesting as the NFL.”

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