It's not HBO, it's college: 'The Wire' as textbook

Staff writerApril 11, 2010 

  • David Simon, creator of "The Wire," returns to HBO at 10 tonight with a new show, "Treme." Based in New Orleans, it tells the city's post-Katrina story through the lives of its residents. Pop culture editor Adrienne Johnson Martin said "Treme" left her feeling "immersed, giddy and longing for more." See the rest of her review at blogs.newsobserver.com/tv.

  • "The Wire" is just the latest example of university professors building courses around pop culture. Here are some other examples:

    "Arguing With Judge Judy: Popular 'logic' on TV judge shows," University of California-Berkeley.

    "The Science of Harry Potter," Frostburg State University, Frostburg, Md.

    "Elvis as Anthology," University of Iowa.

    "Star Trek and Religion," Indiana University.

— Watching 60 hours of television might seem like the college course of a lifetime, but "The Wire" was no ordinary program, and its Duke University counterpart is not a typical class.

Fans, during the five-season run on HBO of "The Wire," praised it for its nuanced approach in taking on the gritty social ills affecting inner-city Baltimore, including drugs, violence, political corruption and a distressed public school system. As a class, "The Wire" provides enough intellectual ignition on enough different subjects to be classified under four departments: African and African-American studies, cultural anthropology, international comparative studies and sociology.

This is not a media or pop-culture course; there are no quizzes on arcane "Wire" trivia. Instead, a recent session featured clips from the show, the lecture "Gender Violence and The Violence of Gender," and conversation that veered from parochial schools to sexual slavery to Machiavelli's "The Prince."

Anne-Maria B. Makhulu, an assistant professor of African and African-American studies and cultural anthropology, devised the course after being encouraged by her department to come up with new classes that would appeal to undergraduates. She initially proposed a class on global ghettos.

Then Makhulu, who specializes in studying South African cities, devoted part of a semester-long leave last year to watching all 60 episodes of "The Wire." She realized that the neighborhoods portrayed in the show had a lot in common with the African neighborhoods she has long studied.

"Those shantytowns might as well be the West Baltimore of Cape Town or Johannesburg," Makhulu said. "They have the same structural difficulties. They are places of grave, grave unemployment and underemployment. They are kind of caught in the trap of how this global economy operates to make certain people not useful to it any longer."

If it sounds like heavy stuff, it is. In the words of Austin Boehm, a senior majoring in political science and political theory: "It's been pretty intense."

Drawing on their lives

"The Wire" focused on criminal activity in Baltimore, with drug dealers and police officers as its main characters. Its title is a reference to a police wiretap.

Shifting perspective each of its five seasons, the show focused on dockworkers, Baltimore public schools, politics and journalism. Often described by critics as one of the best, if not the best, show ever to appear on television, the final new episode aired on the premium cable channel in 2008. Its influence on popular culture has grown as people watch it on DVD and universities devote courses to it.

Middlebury College in Vermont offers the class "Urban America and Serial Television: Watching the Wire." Harvard University will offer a class on "The Wire" this fall.

Makhulu's students seem highly engaged. During a class last week, six to eight hands seemed to go up each time she asked a question. During a conversation about the problems students face in public schools, students shared their own not-so-long ago experiences with teachers, both good and bad. Students used the show to draw parallels in their own lives.

"A lot of this is about race and class and inequality and injustice and corruption and sexuality and sexual violence and abuse," Makhulu said in an interview after class. "These are things that can be really tough to talk about, but once you get going, people have an enormous amount to say. Most people have some personal jumping-off point."

Teaching "The Wire" might be new, but using television to teach highbrow concepts is not. Richard J. Pioreck, an adjunct associate professor of English at Hofstra University in New York, has taught "How 'The Simpsons' Saved American Literature" for years. Much as Makhulu uses "The Wire" as a gateway to other topics, Pioreck relies on "The Simpsons" to introduce great works of literature. Halloween episodes of "The Simpsons," for example, provide entry for studying the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

If there's a knock on modern students, Pioreck said, it's that they know how to take tests but not think on their own. But he has found that subjects like "The Simpsons" give students a familiar place to begin intellectualizing.

"When you give them an opportunity to synthesize and think, they can do very well," he said. "They make the connection. They don't need me to point everything out to them."

Assigned to watch

Students in Makhulu's class are expected to watch all 60 episodes of "The Wire." In addition, there are assigned readings that inform what they've seen, and a blog to which they are expected to contribute.

There are no traditional tests, but each student must complete a final project that is based on a theme from the show. Some of the possibilities include sexuality, music and the drug trade. The projects do not have to take the form of a traditional research paper, although a written portion is required. Students are encouraged to produce a video, write a piece of music or compile a scrapbook.

Xavier Watson, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago, has thought about making the underground economy and sex work the subject of his project. A strip club plays an important role in "The Wire," as do the deaths of women smuggled into the country as part of a sex-slave operation.

"It's easy to think of 'The Wire' as a show about drug dealers or cops," he said, "but we've gotten past that pretty quickly."

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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