Netflix’s “The Chair,” released August 20, depicts the fictional English department at Pembroke University. Although fictitious in its creation, “The Chair” speaks to the realities of higher education’s struggles and contributions to making the voices of students and marginalized groups heard and providing an inclusive and diverse example for departments and student bodies.
As “The Chair” opens, the camera pans over portraits of white academics, implying that higher education was formed and maintained by the intellect of white men. However, the lack of historical representation contrasts with the present moment of Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh, a woman of color, coming to her office as the chair of the department. As Netflix audiences, we are invited to reflect: What voices have been historically hushed up? Do students see their identity represented in the faculty? Do marginalized teachers feel that their intellectual contributions are valued by their contemporaries?
These questions not only attempt to challenge the notion of dominant historical narratives, but also require higher education to re-conceptualize what is taught, how educators teach, and the impact on students. Notably, Dr. Yaz McKay, played by Nana Mensah, understands the mission (s): Professors must connect with their students creatively and critically. Departments need to validate the presence of people of color to effectively revitalize the types of intellectual and creative work that universities should support. Promoting change, whether in literary canons or rusty policies and procedures – permanence being one of the show’s primary goals.
The first season of “The Chair” ends with content from Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim being back in class and Bill Dobson (played by Jay Duplass), the controversial professor with a record of admiration for students, stands. fighting for his teaching post after accusations of Nazi sympathies. The resolution, however, does not always reverberate in American higher education.
In Maine, conversations about voice and performance are on the rise. In an article published in July 2020 by Maine Public, professors and staff at the University of Southern Maine raised concerns. In a letter written by the Faculty and Staff of Color Association, one of the action points was to “take active steps not only to recruit, but also to retain professors, staff and students of color”.
Additionally, in a 2015 article written for the Bowdoin College student-run journal The Bowdoin Orient, racial disparities between faculty and staff were cited as a persistent barrier, with the location being “The Maine Problem. ”, As one of the article’s subtitles indicates. The implications of location create a lack of presence and, as a result, voices of people of color.
According to the US Census Bureau, about 94% of Maine’s population was White in 2020, leaving 6% to identify as Black or African American; American Indian and Native Alaskan, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; two or more races, or Hispanic or Latino.
A report published by Robert Dana of the University of Maine in January 2019 and updated a year later found that 76% of faculty and staff at the university identified as white and 6% as non-white ( 18% were reported as unknown). Similar to the student body, 82 percent identified themselves as white and 12 percent as non-white (6 percent were reported as unknown).
In comparison to Kamala Harris being sworn in as Vice President of the United States, her victory instilled hope in the little girls, who saw their identities represented in her, that they too could hold high office. . The same goes for higher education. As “The Chair” enables viewers to understand that the presence of professors and staff of color validates their voices and scholarship and that of their students, attention must be drawn to inclusive pedagogies in real life. , embracing readings by people of color and providing space for student experiences should be seen as academic, as a classroom and community effort.
While Netflix hasn’t announced a second season of “The Chair,” one would expect it to continue to highlight the role of higher education in positioning people of color and, in particular , women of color, as the series already shows, as emblems of a generational understanding of anti-racist and anti-sexist conversations in intellectual and creative spaces such as English departments.
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