Reflections on Teaching The Wire

27Aug09

First, I should indulge in self-promotion to link to this well-done profile of me and the Film & Media Culture program at Middlebury, from the local free weekly, Seven Days. Aside from reminding me of my rapidly graying hair, I’m quite happy with how it turned out!

The author found me first through a link to the course I taught last spring, “Urban America & Serial Television: Watching The Wire.” All summer, I’ve been meaning to write a blog reflecting on the course, but it never happened. At first, it felt too fresh and I wanted time to reflect, but then I fully shifted into summer mode of writing, watching, and playing (not necessarily in that order). But now as the fall semester looms and my mind turns back to syllabi and scheduled screenings, it’s time to look back at the spring spent in virtual Baltimore.

First off, this was the most satisfying course I’ve ever taught. It truly felt like a shared community of learners exploring the program and its contexts, with nearly every student fully engaged and excited about what we were working on. In large part, I was blessed with great source material – the show clearly rewards close attention, and if anything, I felt myself holding my students back from wanting to just keep watching episode after episode. Even though we met for 7.5 hours a week (5 of which were spent watching episodes), I felt there was not enough time to discuss everything that was on people’s minds. Luckily, the class blog captured the overflow, making it the most vibrant online discussion I’ve ever run.

The rest of the credit for the course’s success was the caliber of the students – the course filled with all seniors, and they spanned majors broadly, from Political Science to Computer Science, with a good dose of humanists of course. If anything, I wish I could have taken more advantage of these differing backgrounds – when I teach the course again in Spring 2010, I’ll assign more open-ended writing projects to allow students to apply their various methodological backgrounds to understanding The Wire. But because of the students engagement and backgrounds, we had great discussions about the possibilities of drug legalization, education reform, and shifting economic conditions of 21st century America. (And yes, about TV too…) While there’s a tendency at Middlebury for seniors to mail in their final semester while working on theses and job searches, almost everyone was as present and engaged as any class I’ve taught.

While I don’t want to undermine the success of the course, I have been thinking about how in many ways it was the most traditional course I’ve taught. Typically my courses span a broad range of material, whether it’s the history and systems of television, an international survey of animation, an overview of cultural theory, or the gamut of digital media. The Wire course was closer in scope to a single-author literature course on Shakespeare or Melville, looking in depth at a single set of texts and their broader significance. Obviously, there’s no inherent hierarchy between courses focused on breadth vs. depth, but it feels quite odd to have had such pedagogical success with a mode of teaching that seems quite rare within my media studies paradigm.

It’s also a shame that this model of teaching probably couldn’t work for other television series. Some of those concerns are logistical – at 60 hours, The Wire is just the right length to be able to teach in full over a semester without seeming too rushed, but other programs that might demand dedicated pedagogy are simply too long to fit into a semester. And few shows offer the rich contextual dimensions, allowing us to explore major social and political issues through the lens of television – sure, you could do a course on The Sopranos and tackle the history of organized crime and the like, but it wouldn’t feel as vital and important as The Wire. While I do believe that television can offer an aesthetic richness comparable to other media like film and literature, I can’t imagine teaching a single series just focused on aesthetics without equal consideration of the social and cultural dimensions it explores.  Do readers have ideas for other shows that could sustain a semester-long focus with such textual and contextual depth?

As mentioned, I’m planning on teaching the course again next spring (and am already fielding requests for students trying to get in!). I’m definitely going to shift some readings and assignments – it was quite difficult to assign readings that are actually about The Wire, as they typically referenced events from future episodes and spoiled some first-time viewers. I may actually compress the viewing into the first 10 weeks, leaving the final 2 weeks for reading about the show and talking through the broader implications for television. I know I’ll approach the course with some hesitation – I don’t want to try to recreate the experience of Spring 2009, but it will certainly cast a shadow on the course, making it hard not to compare the new crop of students with my first crew of Wire-philes. Hopefully there will be new discoveries and surprises, both within the show and the pedagogical experience.

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6 Responses to “Reflections on Teaching The Wire”

  1. My last semester senior year at Midd was in desperate need of this course. For what it’s worth, since The Wire ended, the closest thing I’ve experienced to it — in terms of offering such contextual and historical depth — is Mad Men. But that would almost be an American History course focused on the 60s, rather than a… well, whatever your course on The Wire focused on — it’s such a rich, multi-tiered text (which is what makes it so unique… and therefore a hard act to follow). Maybe you’ll just have to teach The Wire every year for the next decade…

  2. 2 Joel Burges

    Jason, I’m teaching a course called “Fiction after TV” in the spring at MIT, and am wondering whether you think it would be worth focusing students’ energies on a single show or a multitude. The impulse is always the latter, especially with the broad rubric of this course, which will encompass some literature too. How do you pedagogically approach multiple versus single show courses? Advantages and disadvantages? What would translate well from the single show course into the multiple show and text course? Thanks, again, for such a rich blog. Joel

    • Interesting questions. The advantage of the depth approach is to really understand seriality and ongoing storytelling in a way that showing an episode or two from a range of texts cannot. But it can lead to a narrow vision of the medium. So for such a course, my instinct would be to take a broad approach, with maybe one or two shows as a case study to focus on with some depth. You might also look at my friend Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s syllabus for Television Authorship, as she focuses on David Simon across a range of programs. Good luck, and please share your syllabus once it’s done!

  3. 4 Dyfrig Jones

    A question for you. I’m teaching a course on TV drama, and will be looking at The Wire during the week when we’re discussing genre conventions, and challenges to them. The problem I have is picking a single episode of The Wire which will be accessible to those who haven’t watched it before. I’m trying to avoid using first episodes, as they don’t tend to be representative of the whole. Can you suggest an episode which may work as a single-viewing?

    • This is a problem with The Wire, as the first eps of each season are the only ones comprehensible to newcomers, but they are far from representative of the series as a whole. I regularly show the pilot in my Intro to TV course, and it goes over well enough (and gets some students inspired to continue watching on their own). Good luck…


  1. 1 All the pieces matter: analysis, essays, and anything else on The Wire « the readjack.com blog

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