The Push and Pull of Vocation in The Chair

This fall, NetVUE hosted a virtual roundtable discussion about the theme of vocation in the Netflix series, The Chair. Kirsten Oh, professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University, offered these comments about the main character’s Korean American identity and the experience of women of color in academia.

Old Main on the campus of Washington and Jefferson College, where much of The Chair was filmed. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This invitation gave me the opportunity to binge-watch the series again with an eye toward family systems and its influence on vocation as presented in The Chair’s main character, Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, played by Sandra Oh. (And to answer the question that may be on some minds, NO, unfortunately, we are not related).

My initial viewing of the first few minutes of The Chair sent me to a space of euphoria. With Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D-Major,” The Chair begins with a bravado that proclaims a sense of arrival. And to have a Korean-Canadian who happens to share the same last name as me play the leading role of an American female professor—I felt represented. This, of course, is a widely shared sentiment among many Asian American female professors. To have our identity, belonging, and purpose showcased on a public screen is at once a surprising and astounding experience. In her friend and the embroiled colleague Bill Dobson’s words, Professor Kim indeed “ascended the ranks of her profession, the corner office, the publications, and so on.”

Yet, soon after, Gloria fades and she attempts to sit on a broken desk chair. I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh no ($%&#),” this probably foreshadows that her stint as a chair will flop and will be short-lived. And spoiler alert, her role as chair belies the academic system some of us who straddle the intersectional identities as women and persons of color face, that is the glass ceiling at both the teaching and leadership positions in departments, and within the institutions as well. In reviewing the series with a vocational lens there are at least these two movements that “push and pull” the various vocational contexts.

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Vocational gluttony and our fascination with unity

In a recent essay in The Christian Century, L. Roger Owens confesses that he is guilty of what a wise friend dubbed “vocational gluttony.” Recognizing his own malaise in that descriptor, Owens wonders, “Was I greedy for excessive variety in my vocational pursuits? Was I refusing vocational simplicity, refusing to focus, to settle down, to be satisfied?”

Owens goes on to refer to the “trifecta” of Mary Oliver, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard, writers who variously invoke the significance (and necessity?) of a one, true calling. There is a compelling power to the idea of a unified singularity when it comes to how we understand our life’s purpose.

Woodcut attributed to Albrecht Dürer from Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, published in Basel in 1498. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a theme that Daniel Meyers’ takes up in “Plurality of Vocations: Finding Seasons Rather than Singularity.” Daniel writes, “Vocation has too often been framed as a singular pursuit.  I hope imagining a plurality of callings might open new doors of reflection, new questions of discernment, and new ways of living out life’s many seasons.”

Ultimately, Owens’ settles upon the metaphor of a “through line,” the underlying reason for his many pursuits:

Vocation doesn’t have to be about focus, finding the one right thing, discerning the one right job, landing in the one right place. Instead, we might begin to discern whether there’s a through line that gives coherence to the variety of pursuits that call for our attention. We might look at our lives and say, Yes, these pursuits make sense as chapters in a coherent vocational story, even if on the surface the relationship among them is not obvious.

L. Roger Owens, “Vocational Gluttony,” The Christian Century (September 28, 2021)
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Giving and receiving advice

What advice would you give to a young adult today?

We ask a version of this question to each of our guests on the NetVUE podcast, Callings. The answers are varied, alternating between encouragement and gentle warning, the pragmatic and the more idealistic. In a “bonus episode” to round out season one, we compiled those words of advice in an episode called “Vocational Advice for Undergraduates.” The advice-givers include Darby Ray, Eboo Patel, Amanda Tyler, Rabbi Rachel Mikva, Father Dennis Holtschneider, and Shirley Showalter. 

At just over 30 minutes in length, the episode offers a taste of the other, hour-long conversations and our hope is that you will go back and listen to the ones that pique your interest, if you have not already listened to the earlier episodes.

Because of its brevity, and because the advice is directed at young adults, you might also consider using this episode in your work with undergraduates. Here are some ideas for how you might do that.

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