HBO’s “The Wire” plays leading role in ILS course

November 10, 2011 By John Lucas

What is regarded by many as one of the greatest television shows of all time won no major awards, had low ratings and went off the air after just five seasons. However, HBO’s “The Wire” has been described by some critics as “Charles Dickens on the small screen,” and possibly the best work of fiction created in the 2000s.

Its cops-versus-dealers portrayal of Baltimore’s intractable drug war deftly incorporated social themes such as the death of the city’s port unions, public schools, racial politics and governmental bureaucracy. The city of Baltimore was the main character and star.

Since the show ended in 2008, it has become the focus of classes in academia, including Integrated Liberal Studies 275: Narratives of Justice and Equality in Multicultural America here at UW–Madison, taught by instructor Shawn Peters.

Inside UW–Madison recently talked to Peters about his class, the reaction of students and the role of social media in instruction.

iUW: How did you come to include “The Wire” as part of the course material for ILS 275?

Shawn Peters: When I was conceptualizing and then planning the course, I started thinking about including texts that were not only intellectually challenging but also accessible. Basically, I wanted to include serious material that my students could get immersed in. I’ve been a fan of “The Wire” for a while, and it occurred to me that it would be perfect because it touches on so many of the themes we’re highlighting in the class. And it’s just flat-out gripping viewing.

It’s one of five core texts for the class. The others are the books “American Dream,” about welfare reform in Milwaukee, “Code of the Street,” “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” and “Life on the Outside.”

iUW: Could you describe a bit about the course and its aims?

SP: The course explores how a convergence of factors ­— race, poverty, public policy, and criminal justice — influence the reality of justice and equality in American life.  It’s not a theoretical history of those two ideas but rather a practical tour of how they are reconfigured out on the street. We also talk about how stories of justice and equality are told in a variety of cultural forms — shows like “The Wire,” popular music, books, political discourse. The goal is to provide a full and nuanced portrayal that challenges students to rethink some of their core assumptions about American public life.

iUW: Is it somewhat unusual to include TV as part of a course?

SP: I am by no means the first person to teach “The Wire.” It’s been done at places like Harvard and even UW-Milwaukee by a great professor named Marc Levine.  We’re complementing it with a couple of other films, including the Henry Louis Gates documentary “America Beyond the Color Line” and another documentary called “Omar & Pete” about incarceration and recidivism in Baltimore.

iUW: Though critically lauded, it was something of a niche show. Do students have any memory of it, or are most new to it? How have they reacted so far?

SP: Some students already are familiar with the show and have viewed all five seasons. Most, though, come to it fresh. Their response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. After we had watched a couple of episodes, students started approaching me and asking if they should buy the complete series — about 60 episodes, total.

iUW: Through the life of the show, several themes about Baltimore are highlighted. Is there one season that particularly resonates with you here in Wisconsin?

SP: For the sake of simplicity, we’re only watching season one. But I could see just about every season having some kind of connection to issues and events here in Wisconsin. Season two, for instance, focuses on the implications of the downturn in the manufacturing sector; season four takes on the miserable state of public education in urban America. Either one of those seasons could be excellent teaching tools.

iUW: Students seem to be tweeting through the class sessions. Can you explain how social media play a role in your discussions?

SP: I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and I’ve always been a little frustrated by how students respond to texts. They might read something on Tuesday night and then try to discuss it on Thursday afternoon, by which time they might have forgotten some important insight or connection. 

Also, even in good verbal discussions in class, students need to speak sequentially; they can’t all talk at once. Twitter helps to mitigate those problems. Students respond immediately in our hashtag (#wire275) while we’re watching the show together, and those tweets form the starting point for our subsequent discussion.  Then, following class, I aggregate the tweets and their separate written responses from our Learn@UW discussion forum into a “remix” organized by themes. So we’re not just offering 140-character wisecracks and then forgetting about them. We’re creating a collective text as we go along. 

iUW: What’s your favorite part of the show?

SP: I grew up in the Baltimore area, and there are a few characters with that distinctive Baltimore accent. Hearing that makes me a little homesick.