Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2012 (July 12, 2012)

Untangling 'The Wire'

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July 12, 2012

The Wire LaptopWhat do HBO’s The Wire and the 19th-century literary masterpiece War and Peace have in common?

According to Donna Oliver, they’re both examples of rich and complex serial narratives.

“Like War and Peace, The Wire takes up issues of deep social and moral concern in a sprawling serial format,” says the Martha Peterson Chair for Distinguished Faculty Service and professor of modern languages and literatures.

The gritty serialized drama, which ran from 2002-2008, is full of so much strong material that Oliver and a group of faculty decided to build an entire course around it. Though other colleges have developed courses devoted to The Wire, Beloit’s version—“Untangling The Wire: The TV Serial as a Transformational Work”—is unique because it is taught from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives.

From music and political science to philosophy and anthropology, 15 faculty members visited the class to share their knowledge on 12 topics.

“My favorite element of the class was how much it varied from week to week,” says sophomore Toby Walters. “I felt like I was taking more than 10 different single-serving classes spanning a number of disciplines.”

His favorite was “The Life of Kings: Journalism and Journalists in The Wire,” taught by Shawn Gillen, an English professor and lead advisor for Beloit’s journalism minor.

Along with that of drug dealers and law enforcement, the perspective of Baltimore-based journalists is told in The Wire. Subsequently, Gillen used characters and clips of the show to discuss the state of journalism and to explain how newspaper staffs are organized.

Conversely, John Kaufmann’s class, “Acting on a Wire: Building Character through Status and Reversal,” used characters and clips to show how social and professional standings in the law enforcement and drug worlds can be established through elements like language and body positions.

The assistant professor of theatre arts’ favorite part of the class was when he asked students to read a particular line aloud from The Wire to demonstrate how one piece of dialogue can convey multiple intents based on how the actor chooses to say it.

The opportunity to be taught by professors from departments outside of classes a student might otherwise take was what appealed to sophomore Sara Kasten about “Untangling The Wire.”

“I learned a great deal about the many facets of urban life in Baltimore and throughout all U.S. cities, with a bit of Victorian serial literature and other viewpoints as well,” Kasten says. “It was highly interesting and very educational.”

In addition to learning bits of information from a number of disciplines, Walter says he learned the value of deeply analyzing a text, which was one of Oliver’s goals for “Untangling The Wire.”

Graded “credit/no credit,” students were expected to attend class, participate in discussions and related activities, and submit weekly short responses in advance of each class session.

For example, prior to “Social Capital on the Street and in the Statehouse” taught by Elbert H. Neese Professor of Economics Emily Chamlee-Wright and Associate Professor of Sociology Charles Westerberg’94, students were required to read articles on social capital and then write about how a particular scene addressed those issues.

Students also learned about The Wire first-hand from cast member Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, who visited the college in April to meet with classes and to do an Inside the Actor’s Studio-style interview that was open to the public.

Oliver, who calls herself the “facilitator” of the course, says “Untangling The Wire”—or even a course on another serialized drama—may be taught again in the future.

Perhaps “A Conversation with Mad Men” or “Studying The Sopranos”?

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