Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Harvard Prof Mounts a Defense of Teaching "The Wire"

PAWNS"The Wire" is a fictional television show that many people really liked and that many people think is a very revealing take on The Way We Live in Urban Cities now. As you probably know, it is being taught at universities including Harvard, in a seminar on urban inequality. Now comes a defense of that choice: "'The Wire' is fiction, but it forces us to confront social realities more effectively than any other media production in the era of so-called reality TV," writes the director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard Kennedy, an esteemed sociologist. How is that possibly true? It's fiction. It's made up. (Also has he not seen "Jersey Shore"? Half-kidding!)

His case:

Of course, our undergraduate students will read rigorous academic studies of the urban job market, education and the drug war. But the HBO series does what these texts can't. More than simply telling a gripping story, "The Wire" shows how the deep inequality in inner-city America results from the web of lost jobs, bad schools, drugs, imprisonment, and how the situation feeds on itself.

Those kinds of connections are very difficult to illustrate in academic works. Though scholars know that deindustrialization, crime and prison, and the education system are deeply intertwined, they must often give focused attention to just one subject in relative isolation, at the expense of others. With the freedom of artistic expression, "The Wire" can be more creative.

Yes, more creative than… the truth.

The study of fiction is a fine thing! It's, you know, what you do in some of the humanities! There's lots to look at in terms of critical reading and representation with this COP DETECTIVE CRIME SHOW. But this is an admission that kids are too… stupid? Inexperienced? Homogeneous?… to learn without fiction and illustration. (And no, it's not just because the professor's own good work was an inspiration for parts of "The Wire" itself.)

Here it is: "There's this question of how you appeal to young people who feel-not all of them but many of them-far removed from the type of people who are the major characters in The Wire," is what a "The Wire"-teaching Duke prof said. (I'm not sure how the gang at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies would feel about that statement.)

So the claim is that the top-notch sociology students of America are unfamiliar with (and probably not of) the urban poor and they will learn empathy and be introduced to poor people through a made-up TV program. That seems a little broken.

47 Comments / Post A Comment

blueprint (#2,019)

I'd argue that the value of "The Wire" isn't its ability to better illustrate said realities, but presents them in a way that genuinely engages the students.

No one, especially an Ivy League student, is ignorant to the shitshow that is urban living. But "The Wire" presents it in a way that makes people actually care about the "downtrodden". (At least for fifty minutes).

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

If the students aren't already engaged, why are they taking a sociology class on urban inequality?

saythatscool (#101)

"No one, especially an Ivy League student, is ignorant to the shitshow that is urban living."

Apparently, you have never met an Ivy League student.

bzcohen (#2,764)

I took a class on "The Wire"-crosslisted between African and African-American studies, cultural anthropology, international comparative studies and plain ol' one-word sociology-not initially because of any grand educational aspirations, but mostly because it would force me to watch all 60 episodes of the show. (Which it did. Also, it met at noon, twice a week.) Our syllabus was plenty aspirational. We were explicitly told, time and again, that this wasn't a television class, and it certainly wasn't. (Do those exist? I hope not, because that means I took all the wrong courses.) Still, while I won't remember much of what the scholars wrote, I do recall pretty much every scene in the show, which says something, I think, and maybe the wrong thing. And it probably just proves your point. Anyway, all in the game, I suppose.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Ben, it's almost like you actively strive to fulfill every applicable stereotype.

saythatscool (#101)

@pete: Ben took a seminar on applicable internet stereotyping – crosslisted between international comparative humors, 4chan and plain old two-word effeminate elitism. His syllabus was written on Balk's cock and he will never forget that rainy evening off the quad with Nick Denton's wandering hands.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

In fairness, undergrads often fulfill every applicable stereotype, too.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

I think highlighting the McNuggets scene, as the prof does in the beginning of his article, is particularly daft – I always took that to be more indicative of D'Angelo's skewed outlook on life (where it's not worth working a regular, salaried job) than a genuine indictment of the labor market.

sunnyciegos (#551)

Choire, how did your Wire viewing go? I vaguely recall one or two recaps. Did you get totally crushed by season four or WHAT?

Amanda Hirsch (#7,419)

It's not a matter of students being dumb – it's a matter of human beings responding to powerful storytelling. Listen to executive producer David Fanning talk about FRONTLINE on PBS, an award-winning journalism series – it's not just about conveying the facts; it's about using the power of storytelling to convey information in a compelling way. I wouldn't want students to rely solely on a fictional piece to shape their understanding of a real-world circumstance, but as a complement to other sources, I think it's a brilliant choice.

Besides, sociologists have a well-known proclivity for juking the stats.

jolie (#16)

The notion that "those kinds of connections are very difficult to illustrate in academic works" is a reasonable argument for showing a fictional television program in class and calling it sociological instruction really ticks me off. IT IS YOUR JOB, SIR, TO ILLUSTRATE THE CONNECTIONS VIA THE USE OF ACADEMIC WORKS.

Bingo. Two words: La zee.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

And it's not like sociology books are bad at storytelling! Can't they just read "gang leader for a day" or something? Smug affluent people everywhere told me that was good.

Chris (#5,644)


I see what you're saying, but why fault him for using all the tools that are available? You try getting kids to care about shit – it's not easy.

jolie (#16)

Right, but I'm not talking about "kids" Chris. I'm talking about adults enrolled in a master's program at the Kennedy School of Government.

Chris (#5,644)

Yes, but I still think using every tool available to deepen a classroom experience is a good thing.

deepomega (#1,720)

Am I wrong in reading that this is an undergraduate course? That's pretty much where I'd draw my bright line of awesome/not awesome.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

In favor of Chris, it seems to be for undergrads; in favor of Jolie, having tried to get undergrads to understand fairly basic New Yorker articles, any time you're taking away from comprehension by watching TV is probably not very well-planned time, and is more a way of making sure you get high enrollment.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

Um, college courses. It's not like high school, where you just show up to class and watch a documentary because the teacher is too lazy to teach. These are assigned texts, and they offer a very useful starting point FOR discussion and comprehension in the classroom. Why is everyone being so Puritanical all of a sudden?

tigolbitties (#2,150)

ah yes, please use those academic works – many of which were written by white men with no experience whatsoever in the inner city, using some problematic sociological frameworks like Wilsons' "underclass", or behavioral sociology, or criminology, etc… Why would this professor ever want to challenge those entirely "factual", "truthful", "knowledgeable" accounts of what happens in these urban areas.

Chris (#5,644)


"Gang Leader for a Day" was really good, and I'm not even affluent. Or smug.

katiebakes (#32)

They should just release the series on LaserDisc to give it that real "multimedia classroom" feel.

keisertroll (#1,117)

My school only has Philips CDi.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Oh my god you guys I'm nostalgiaing so hard.

Put it on a filmstrip with an accompanying audiotape and you'll really be on to something.

Hoover (#2,245)

I don't agree with this at all. I think the social sciences aren't just about putting together a bunch of facts, they're about figuring out a framework to understand them–a framework that's basically narrative. Fictional accounts of real things can be an important way of helping people develop that narrative framework, and they aren't necessarily less valid narratives just because they're shelved in a different section of the bookstore. For example, a lot of people are citing Gang Leader For A Day–is that book really that different? Venkatesh went and talked to a lot of people who were directly involved in the subculture he's describing, and put it into a book–so did David Simon and Ed Burns.

I mean, I don't think that any professor should teach The Wire uncritically–I think it's just as interesting as a document of how elites are thinking about social problems right now as it is a comment on those social problems–but I don't think it's correct at all that it doesn't belong in a social science classroom just because it's fiction. I mean, is it a problem for people studying World War I to read Wilfred Owen (or Pat Barker for that matter)?

propertius (#361)

In English Literature, sure. In history, no.

Hoover (#2,245)

Why do you think that?

mrschem (#1,757)

Jesus, just put them on a bus to Baltimore or Boston or the Bronx, even.

Jim Demintia (#1,815)

'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'

saythatscool (#101)


So you're saying I shouldn't teach ichthyology by having the class watch a DVD of Finding Nemo while I nap? Huh.

This is making me nostalgic for the academy. Pass the cheeba.

JoannaOC (#7,421)

Oh, people, I can make students read a dozen academic articles about "human rights violations" and the coup in Chile, but if I also make them read the novel The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (fiction! made up! but based on real things the author knows!), they weep and tell me that it makes the dry academic facts more real to them. Fiction and story-telling make emotional connections that are extremely powerful; "the truth" is also about empathy and connecting the dots, not just statistics. And if anyone things that "academic" studies aren't also artful constructions that construct the truth just as much as fiction, then they are kidding themselves.
Plato knew this; have you forgotten?
Don't forget that fiction has often played a role is raising consciousness around social change, even when it's not particularly artful fiction.

There's a difference between watching TV and reading, though.

Even Plato knew that.

saythatscool (#101)

I took a seminar called "Platonic Viewings of Daytime TV" at the learning annex last year.

I thought daytime TV was all sexy and stuff.

"neither poetry nor prose, spoken or written, is of any great value"

saythatscool (#101)

@gnarly: She meant Dana Plato.

mrschem (#1,757)

Studs Terkel, E L Doctorow?

gumplr (#66)

@formerly (and echoing Hoover a bit further up): One of the most rigorous (and riveting) classes at my college was an education course based around an extensive reading list — from canonical stuff by Paulo Freire and Jonathan Kozol to case studies to policy papers, news reports, interviews, etc. — and a nearly 100% discussion format, both within the 150+ student lectures and the dozen-person-per discussion groups that met outside of class.

We spent a couple of days on school shootings, and while this was seven years ago and I don't remember the texts we read, I do remember being shown Gus Van Sant's Elephant. Like The Wire, Elephant is a carefully treated, fictional account firmly grounded in a contemporary reality. (Its title refers to the following parable about five blind men and an elephant, as recounted by Van Sant: "One thinks it's a rope because he has the tail, one thinks it's a tree because he can feel the legs, one thinks it's a wall because he can feel the side of it, and nobody actually has the big picture. You can't really get to the answer, because there isn't one.")

There's no resolution at the end of Elephant, but the film still promotes a better understanding of the subject matter by serving as a starting point for conversation. Elephant (and The Wire) can be teaching tool because they present a visually-engaging narrative that can complement an extensive reading list and provoke conversation in a way that maybe case studies and statistical analyses can't. Sometimes it helps to see a big picture.

But is the objective conversation?

Jeremy_W (#5,194)

I feel as though I'm missing something with the backlash here. I recall taking a number of "nonfiction" courses in history, poli sci, sociology, etc., during college, in which a syllabus of largely academic and nonfiction works was complemented by a novel or other work of fiction. These fictional works added to my understanding of the subject matter. A few people have already made this point quite well.

How is this so different? Is it really because The Wire was a television show, and, if so, are people arguing that visual media cannot produce powerful insights about society and aid as an educational tool in the same way that books can?

I would agree that most popular television doesn't meet this standard, but I think that is a failing of popular television rather than necessarily a failing of the medium. Personally, I think The Wire holds it's own against any written works that seek to show describe contemporary life in American cities.

Jeremy_W (#5,194)

Dammit, I knew I couldn't get through a comment that long without a typo.

MrTeacup (#4,677)

Most subjects that deal with abstract concepts use examples and illustrations, in order to "make things more concrete", to ground the abstraction in reality. (Or maybe it's the opposite, it shows how everyday concrete reality is more than what it appears, it can only be known through an abstraction. The abstraction adds something to our understanding of the illustration that we wouldn't see otherwise.)

I don't think people are complaining about that – or if they are, it's a dumb complaint. The real problem is with the idea that fiction humanizes a social problem through relatable characters that we empathize with (by seeing our narcissistic self-reflection in them) and inevitably a villain that we can identify and oppose ourselves to. The Wire is good because it fails to do that – there are no heroes or villains, no morals and no life lessons imparted here. The tragedies are never adequately explained within the narrative universe, and this opens a void through which it implies the abstract sociological explanation.

Jordan Pedersen (#7,488)

I think you have a really simplistic understanding of the what divides fiction from non-fiction. You claim that the Duke Center for Documentary Studies would take offense to the idea that upper class college kids could learn something from fiction, implying that documentary would offer a clearer and truer view of urban life.

But documentary is, in many ways, just as easily manipulated as traditional narrative. You've got a certain perspective (both ideologically and literally) and the ability to edit footage in order to elicit a certain response in both media. And though the expectation with documentary is that the events in front of the camera are not influenced by the filmmaker, a cursory investigation of documentary history will show otherwise. Even your own mention of "Jersey Shore" confirms that the documentary is frequently sensationalized.

Even more galling is your assertion that "The Wire" is simply made up. All fiction, to some degree, is inspired by the experience of the creator but, naturally, augmented dramatically so as to make it as entertaining as possible. But the extent to which this occurs certainly differs from work to work. To say that "The Wire" has as little to do with "truth" as, say, "Lost" is apparently off-base. Your analysis smacks of bitterness more than careful consideration.

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