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How ‘The Wire’ is inspiring new classroom curricula

April 10, 2016 at 3:57 PM EDT
Columbia University this week held a conference on how lessons from ‘The Wire’ -- the critically acclaimed TV series on Baltimore’s inner-workings of gangs, media and government -- cut across academic disciplines. The show has become a popular talking point in many classrooms across the country. NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan reports

HARI SREENIVASAN: For these college students homework includes watching a TV show.

FRAN BARTKOWSKI: ‘The Wire’ just begged for all kinds of social, political, cultural analysis.

SHERRI-ANN BUTTERFIELD: When we were watching the show together, we both kept thinking, “this would be great as a class.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sociology professor Sherri-Ann Butterfield and literature and gender studies professor Fran Bartkowski .are co-teaching this 15-week course based on “The Wire” at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

The crime drama set in Baltimore, tackled a different aspect of the city’s problems each season; from how gangs function to how the political class, and the press enable the problems to grow.

Student: Even though it’s a fictional show, you can’t help but to not feel sad for how these things end when you realize if there was some change in the system, things might be different.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The fourth season of ‘the wire’ focused on middle school students who are recruited to sell drugs.

MARLO STANFIELD (character on ‘The Wire’) First we’re gonna give you the corner up on Payson. It used to be Bodie’s old corner.

STUDENT: Some school systems say that kids don’t want to come to school and learn. I like how they look at their backgrounds and show why they come to school and act the way that they do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This is the second time Butterfield and Bartowski have taught this class. But it’s not just this college, New York University, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard have used “The Wire” as teaching material. The professors shared their experiences teaching “The Wire” at a conference this weekend at Columbia University. English literature professor Eileen Gillooly organized it.

EILEEN GILLOOLY: It shows up in evidence classes in law schools. It shows up in African American classes on masculinity, sociology classes, anthropology classes. It’s just – you name it, it shows up there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gillooly drew comparisons between “The Wire” — created by David Simon — and nineteenth century novels.

EILEEN GILLOOLY: It really is like a text. It’s so carefully put together. It repays reviewing, the way a good text replays rereading, so every time I read ‘The Iliad’ or ‘Bleak House’ or ‘David Copperfield,’ or whatever i see more and more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You’re putting David Simon with some pretty high company?

EILEEN GILLOOLY: (laughing) Well, i suppose if… if TV is coming into its own as genre, he’d be one of those people that’s making it come into its own.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This semester the Rutgers class is using the show’s portrayal of racial inequality as a springboard to analyze the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

SHERRI-ANN BUTTERFIELD: Black Lives Matter came as a movement because some people believed they’d hit a ceiling– like we are done with this.

STUDENT: It’s not just about people getting shot and killed. It’s the injustice that happens after their civil rights have been violated.

SHERRI-ANN BUTTERFIELD: Whether you agree with how it gets portrayed or not, that lends itself to great levels of debate and engagement. The students find themselves caught between, “Well, I thought I knew what I would’ve done before seeing this show, and now that I see the interconnectedness of systems, i’m not sure how I would’ve handled this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You don’t walk away saying, ‘I see what the fix is.’

EILEEN GILLOOLY: Right. There is no fix.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bartowski says it’s possible she will teach “The Wire” again.

Fran Bartowski: have certainly asked myself, and people have asked the question of would you, you know, are there other shows that you would teach? And there might be a couple. But none of them are quite as complex and rich, i think, as this is and remains.