Shawn Peters: Using “The Wire” to Teach Justice and Equality

“It ain’t about right. It’s about money.”

So argues D’Angelo Barksdale (brilliantly portrayed by the actor Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) in the first season of The Wire, the award-winning HBO drama. This semester, undergraduates in the Division of Diversity and Campus Climate are analyzing director David Simon’s depiction of Barksdale and his confederates in the urban drug trade as part of my course, “Narratives of Justice and Equality in Multicultural America.”

The course is being offered in both semesters of the 2011–12 academic year through UW–Madison’s Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) program. The collaboration we’ve undertaken with ILS (with the generous help of professors Cathy Middlecamp and Mike Vanden Heuvel) reflects the division’s ongoing mission to promote academic excellence for our students by developing creative partnerships with departments across campus.

“Narratives of Justice and Equality in Multicultural America” 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 overview of those two ideas but rather a practical tour of how they are reconfigured out on the street by ordinary people. The goal is to provide a full and nuanced portrayal that challenges students to rethink some of their core assumptions about American public life.

To get at these issues, we’re working with a variety of texts, including Jason DeParle’s book on welfare reform in Milwaukee (American Dream), Elijah Anderson’s classic Code of the Street, and Paul Butler’s recent Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. We’re also learning from some fantastic guest lecturers, among them Professor Pamela Oliver (an expert on racial disparities in sentencing) and representatives from UW–Madison Law School’s Innocence Project. There are documentary films as well: Henry Louis Gates’s America Beyond the Color Line and Omar & Pete, a look at the lives of two African American men after they are released from prison.

The real backbone of the course, however, is The Wire, a grim and engaging portrayal of life—and, quite often, death—on the streets of West Baltimore. Far more than your typical cops-and-robbers TV drama, the show provides a perfect window to the main issues we’re engaging in the course.

I am by no means the first person to use The Wire in the classroom. It’s been done at places like UW–Milwaukee (by professor Marc Levine) and even Harvard, where it’s taught by the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson. I’m in full agreement with what Wilson has written about why the show is worth teaching: “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. It does not tie things up neatly; as in real life, the problems remain unsolved, and the cycle repeats itself as disadvantages become more deeply entrenched. Outside the world of television drama, sociologists aim to explain what causes certain social conditions and then assess the merits of competing theories. The solutions, however, are usually less clear. The Wire gets that part right, too.”

In an effort to fully engage students, I’m experimenting with my pedagogical approach. For example, I’m minimizing the amount of straight lecturing that students must sit through. Instead of putting students to sleep with 75 minutes of oratory, I’m giving them the chance to experience The Wire together and then react in real time. To do that, we’re responding to the show on Twitter; all of the responses are filtered into the hashtag #wire275.

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 is no panacea, but it helps to mitigate some of those problems. Students respond immediately in our hashtag while we’re watching the show together, and those tweets form the starting point for our subsequent discussion.  Comments aren’t lost or forgotten.

We’ve used student tweets like these to start revealing discussions about justice and equality in contemporary America:

“Sometimes you could work the hardest and never have the resources to advance in society and life.”

“It’s unfair to die for doing the right thing.”

“Manipulating the situation always puts the system on top.”

Following class, I aggregate the tweets and students’ 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.

Students also are collaborating on group projects inspired by our work. In an effort to foster creativity and innovation, I’m encouraging them to eschew the standard academic paper and instead work on digital narratives or educational games. (I’ve been helped immeasurably in this endeavor by two colleagues who work in the DoIT Engage program here on campus, Chris Blakesley and Cheryl Diermyer.)

These projects are outstanding. One group is designing a game called “Real Life” (inspired by the classic game “Life”) in which players encounter a variety of formidable obstacles: finding adequate housing and transportation, paying rent, and obtaining a job that pays well.  A digital narrative group is interviewing a diverse group of students to learn more about how educational policies have impacted individuals. Another group (inspired by Touré’s recent book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?) is making a short documentary film titled The Most Racist Thing That Has Happened to Me.

So far, the overall results for the course are encouraging. Judging from their tweets, posts on the website, and comments in class, it seems that students are seriously engaged in our texts. And, purely on their own, they are making connections to things outside our course: one student referenced a controversy regarding a recent prizefight, while another posted a link to speech by Elizabeth Warren in which she invoked the concept of the social contract (a major theme throughout the course).

As a teacher, those are the moments I really value—when students use the course materials as a starting point and engage in serious reflection on their own.

Shawn Peters, PhD, is the writing specialist in the Center for Educational Opportunity. He has taught courses through the English Department and the Religious Studies and Integrated Liberal Studies programs at UW–Madison.