Move Over Faculty: How The Chair Portrays Today’s College Students
Much fanfare has emerged about The Chair on Netflix, especially among my academic colleagues. Some find it funny and poignant; others are leaning into its satire, and some just feel validated to see themselves represented on a series that is “trending now.” While the chatter seems to be mostly about how accurate the portrayal of the faculty experience is, there is much to be learned in looking more closely at the student characters in the series.
As a researcher who studies Generation Z, those born from 1995–2010, I found The Chair particularly interesting in its depiction of today’s college students. While the series was primarily centered on faculty, the presence of students certainly impacts the show’s multiple storylines. Based on the extensive research my co-author, Dr. Meghan Grace, and I published in Generation Z Goes to College and Generation Z: A Century in the Making, I wanted to explore the show’s portrayal of the students, in particular.
While clearly a fictional story taking place suspended in time during a non-COVID era, The Chair did get the main themes about students spot on. However, the series missed out on the details, causing some apparent discrepancies. Some of these were easily noticeable even without having my research background, while others were more nuanced and may have been overlooked by the average viewer.
For one, I found The Chair’s most accurate interpretations of students centered on the obvious — their commitment to social justice as well as their extensive use of technology, both having been discussed in scholarly and mainstream media for years. Hence, the primary themes addressed are true to life. However, the gaps, exaggerations, and misalignments in the details are also apparent and at some points undermine the main themes.
The Chair evidences a very intellectual student body that is both informed and engaged around various issues of injustice, particularly racism and anti-Semitism. Because this topic is essentially the series’ main storyline, it makes sense to some extent that nearly every word uttered by students is focused on showcasing their knowledge of privilege and oppression. While in real life, social justice is a significant concern for most in Generation Z, portraying this student body as a monolith of social justice activists who have no other passions, concerns, or characteristics misses the nuance when it comes to the depth of this generation. Most young people care about financial security, are highly entrepreneurial, and are DIYers. They are close to their parents, prefer to learn on their own, and would rather make an impact than garner great wealth. Simply looking at them as a one-dimensional personality loses the essence of the true nature of this generation.
The limited portrayal of students in The Chair appears to make them look like their only role in higher education is to hold their elder, uninformed faculty members accountable to supporting and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is not just limited to enlightening the main character who is a white male faculty member. One scene showcases students confronting and attempting to educate Professor Kim (Sandra Oh) about the challenges for faculty of color in trying earn tenure, disregarding the notion that she clearly experienced the tenure process as an Asian-American woman in order to get to the point that she is now the department chair.
Although the students may be relegated to a single purpose (the social justice advocate), Professor Kim does seem enlightened about the more complex issues driving this generation’s concern for social justice, particularly through her comment about students asking themselves, “Why am I scanning this sonnet when there are so many things to be worried about?” She further hits the mark bringing up their worries about climate change and racism, which we have found in our research to be the most prominent issues for this generation. Further, Professor Kim highlights the complexity of students’ concern for social justice when she discusses young people’s lack of trust in adults when it comes to addressing important issues. She says, “Why should they trust us? The world is burning.” This is likely the most significant line in the entire series regarding the portrayal of today’s students, albeit not actually said by one. The skepticism of adults in power to do the right thing, save the planet, and create inclusive and equitable policies reflects an overwhelming sentiment of Generation Z.
Concerning activism, the series does highlight instances of student protests, which is realistic in terms of Generation Z’s advocacy efforts. However, the series veers off course when portraying students as angry, aggressive, confrontational, and audacious, especially when they collectively appear as a background chorus yelling, challenging, and even chanting at faculty about injustice. In reality, much of the activism of college students is far less aggressive and often involves boycotting and digital activism, both of which are less confrontational advocacy initiatives. Many in this age group are also very respectful of authority figures, seeking out their advice and counsel, especially with those they interact with regularly, rather than challenging them, particularly in a public setting.
In addition, Generation Z is savvy and smart, often finding ways to undermine or circumvent a system that does not work for them instead of solely fighting or protesting it. In the series, it is clear that Pembroke University is plagued with systemic racism. So, rather than engage in discrete activist strategies as the fictional students do, like writing a letter of support for tenure for a faculty member of color or signing a petition, in reality, there would have been more coordination by students to deploy each action together as part of a movement in order to create large-scale campus change.
Overall, simply portraying students as “woke,” serving as the moral compass of the campus misses the point about why they care so much about social justice. It is not just to hold individuals accountable for their behavior; this social change generation wants to make systemic and structural changes to make their local and global communities better for everyone.
Generation Z has been referred to as Zoomers, iGen, and Digital Natives — reflecting their extensive use of technology and social media. So, it is not surprising that issues related to technology are woven into the storylines. However, similar to its take on social justice, with technology use, the series captures some overarching themes accurately while offering discrepancies in the details.
First, the main conflict presented in the series stems from the viral spreading of a student video of Professor Dobson’s (Jay Duplass) behavior during a lecture. Given that we know young people are quick to pull out their phones to record any incident that may elevate into binge-worthy watching, there is some real truth to the reality of this situation. But, in the same vein, in the scene with Professor Hambling (Holland Taylor) berating a student outside of the Humanities library for supposedly posting a bad online review, there is a group of students gathered watching with not one recording it on their phones. In reality, several would have quickly pulled out their devices, recorded, and posted that incident within minutes. If that would have happened, season two might have been about this particular scandal plaguing the newest department chair.
Another notable discrepancy has to do with references to contemporary social media. For example, there is a big to-do about junior Professor McKay (Nana Mensah) having 8000 followers and using Twitter for an assignment that is clearly too progressive for the older faculty members. Yet, Twitter is not a primary platform of choice for Generation Z. So, the effort to portray Professor McKay as hip and cutting edge with the ability to connect with the students lands awkwardly by referring to a platform they use less frequently. Rather, they are on TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, or even Instagram. In some ways, Professor Kim seems to be the most enlightened about students’ technology use, as evidenced in her saying, “These kids don’t watch TV. They’re on TikTok.” However, earlier in the series, she seems completely disconnected from understanding students in saying that they need to know that “Knowledge doesn’t just come from spreadsheets or Wiki entries.” I am not sure if any students, especially those in the Humanities, would really seek information from these sources.
Further, the RateMyProfessor storyline accurately addresses the scenario of students posting bad online reviews of faculty. However, the details of how that occurs seem to be inconsistent with patterns of real-life student behavior. Students do post and read reviews on this site, but they do not usually post more than once a semester and would certainly not go to a library and post every day at the same time as was depicted in the series.
While Gen Zers like experiential learning, the scene with the overly prepared and creative performances of students in class singing and dancing to their own renditions of literary works is not entirely reflective of how this generation of students likes to learn. Because they prefer intrapersonal (individual) over interpersonal (group) learning, most would not be fans of anything performative where they could be judged by others; social media provides enough of that for them. These extravagant performances and a fully participatory student audience are likely included to emphasize just how in touch Professor McKay is but are not generally demonstrative of Generation Z students in a classroom setting.
In addition, most Generation Z students see themselves as effective multi-taskers, toggling between platforms, documents, and even devices during class. Yet, in every classroom scene in The Chair, with the exception of the one in which a student records the viral video in Professor Dobson’s class, we are presented with 100% completely engaged students, many with only blank notebooks and pens. There is no technology, everyone is paying attention, and they are all hanging on the professor’s every word. That would be a faculty member’s dream!
Overall, references to technology and social media in The Chair are value-added as they reflect today’s higher education landscape. However, similar to social justice, some of the details did not come across as satirical license but instead as inconsistencies with real-life student behavior.
Does Any of This Matter?
In one sense, it is refreshing to see a TV show about academia, especially because it is such a unique culture. And, if the series is designed solely to take things to a satirical extreme, in many ways, it succeeded. The social justice-conscious student body and the viral video leading to a publicity nightmare for the institution are all too real. The little details, however, misaligned with realistic behavior of today’s college students left me wondering what was and was not intentional. Clearly, having a scene with shirtless male students in the campus recreation center working out to songs laden with profanity seems like an intentional choice to exaggerate the type of climate that gyms and workout spaces can feel like despite the fact that this would never be a reality on a college campus. Missing details like attributing modernity to older social media platforms and failing to grasp college student behavioral norms, though, feels like a missed opportunity.
As a researcher who has dedicated many years to studying Generation Z, I know the importance of helping educators clearly understand today’s college students. But, with exaggerated and inaccurate stereotypes of young people presented in the media, educators may be prone to deploy strategies that are inappropriate or simply misaligned. Instead, research can help us understand the collective motivations, learning preferences, concerns, values, and communication patterns of this generational cohort, helping us develop policies, practices, programs, and curriculum that are truly in alignment with who they are.
Season two of The Chair may be nearly a year away, and who knows what conversations we will be having then. Yet, our real-life students are counting on us to show up today. So, let’s get to work to better understand and leverage their capacity now. Higher education depends on it.
Research shared in this article can be found in Generation Z: A Century in the Making by Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace.