“To be an English teacher, you have to fall in love with stories, always trying to see something from others’ points of view,” asserts Professor Bill Dobson. Dobson, a main character in The Chair and portrayed convincingly by Bill Duplass, is a faculty member at fictional Pembroke University—an elite private institution. “You try to occupy a different space in the middle of possibilities,” Dobson continues. “It’s a dance, an ongoing conversation that you have with the text.”
That monologue—something you would expect to experience in a lecture or read in a book—is the turning point of the Netflix series that debuted last week. It's a curious turning point, too, because of where Dobson says it. With his career on the line because of a classroom misstep that fueled campus-wide protests, Dobson’s words are spoken before a Review Board that has the power to terminate his professorship.
One panel member is Dobson’s chair, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kimm (portrayed wonderfully by Sandra Oh), the first woman and person of color to chair Pembroke’s English department. As the camera pans the scene, you can see in her eyes that she is moved deeply by Dobson’s choice of words.
Dobson continues, describing his relationship with literature as a “complicated but faithful relationship”—just as is his relationship with Pembroke and his role as a faculty member.
The Review Board chair, Dean Paul Larson (played by David Morse), trivializes Dobson’s response. ”Thank you for that lecture,” Larson replies. Dr. Kimm, though, sees it differently. Kimm asks the Board, “Why are we here?” and wonders what will be gained by removing Dobson from the faculty. “Firing him is not going to change the culture here,” she concludes.
She then urges the group to stop thinking first and foremost about the endowment and where the school is ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Instead, she gives her version of the answers to fundamental questions: What is a college for? What is the purpose of a college education? With that, she declines to participate further.
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It is an ending that I could not have predicted, given what I viewed in the first five episodes of The Chair (150 minutes) and the first 19 minutes of Episode 6. Up to that point, The Chair focuses on higher education’s subtext. Creators/scriptwriters Amanda Peet and Annie Wyman show higher education with warts and pitfalls, and they portray deeply flawed characters, including Dobson. We witness a dramatization of well-known faculty eccentricities and student proclivities, well-documented scandals and struggles, newspaper headline issues galore, and all the other things that characterize modern-day higher education. Depicting some of that is important and necessary, but the big question is how far and deep do you go in the process?
None of it—none, I emphasize—addresses the moral of the story of The Chair. In my view, it is about what higher education has become and why Dobson and Kimm respond as they do.
Both characters refuse to be further sidetracked from their vocation and life’s work. They say NO! to industrialized, donor-driven, and corporatized higher education. They remain true to what drew them to academia in the first place, and they refuse to be bought off by a system that uses hegemonic means to gain complicity.
The sad reality is that many of the things that influence—and sometimes corrupt—everyday life in America (money and politics are at the top of the list), afflict higher education, too. But what is important to remember—and The Chair does that in Episode 6—is why many academics decide to enter the professoriate.
It is because they were called “to do the work,” that is, to teach/research, engage with and mentor students, collaborate with colleagues, and advance knowledge and understanding through scholarship. Being an academic, you see, is not just something that one does. It is very much who one is.
The heroic storyline of The Chair is that Dobson and Kimm are faculty members, first and foremost—even when making that choice comes with personal and professional costs. Neoliberalism loses in The Chair, and the Collegium triumphs.
Following the path dramatized in The Chair is not easy. It never is. But the alternative—the status and trajectory of higher education—is arguable much worse. How long will it be before the Dobson’s and Kimm’s of higher education are outnumbered? That day may already be here. If it isn’t, then The Chair’s primary contribution is as a clarion call. Faculty, everywhere, step up before it is too late.