AMST/FMMC 0277 – Urban American & Serial Television:
Watching The Wire
Professor Jason Mittell, Axinn 208, 443-3435
Office Hours: Wed 10-11:30 / Thu 10-11:30
Class Meetings: T/Th 1:30 – 4:15 pm, Axinn 232
Mon 7:30 – 9:30 pm, Axinn 232
The Wire is dissent; it argues that our systems are no longer viable for the greater good of the most, that America is no longer operating as a utilitarian and democratic experiment. If you are not comfortable with that notion, you won’t agree with some of the tonalities of the show. I would argue that people comfortable with the economic and political trends in the United States right now — and thinking that the nation and its institutions are equipped to respond meaningfully to the problems depicted with some care and accuracy on The Wire — well, perhaps they’re playing with the tuning knobs when the back of the appliance is in flames. – David Simon
Frequently hailed as a masterpiece of American television, The Wire shines a light on urban decay in contemporary America, creating a dramatic portrait of Baltimore’s police, drug trade, shipping docks, city hall, public schools, and newspapers over five serialized seasons. In this course, we will watch and discuss all of this remarkable—and remarkably entertaining—series and place it within the dual contexts of contemporary American society and the aesthetics of television. This is a time-intensive course with a focus on close viewing and discussion, and opportunities for critical analysis and research about the show’s social contexts and aesthetic practices.
The goals of this course are two-fold. First, we hope to understand The Wire in the context of its medium: how does it fit within and go beyond the norms of television? What makes it distinct from other media? Second, we will examine the show’s portrayal of urban America as a window into a number of social problems and conditions distinct to contemporary society, including the drug war, the underclass, urban policies and development, post-industrial cities, political corruption, urban education, and mass media coverage. How does The Wire get us to understand, and to feel, these conditions in a novel and affecting way? And where does it leave us, in terms of the potential for solving these social ills?
Required Reading (available for purchase at College bookstore and on reserve at library):
Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Peter Moskos, Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
Richard Price, Clockers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).
David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (New York: Broadway Books, 1998).
There are two copies of The Wire on reserve for use at the library under PN1992.77 .W53 2008D.
Assignments & Assessment:
Students will be assessed on their participation in the course, both in-class and online, and on three assigned essays. More details will be forthcoming throughout the semester on these assignments.
Since much of the in-class time will be spent viewing The Wire collectively, students are expected to extend their discussion outside of class onto this blog. Students are expected to make at least 2 postings of significance per week – these can be detailed comments on another posting, including discussion questions posted by the professor, or original posts on a topic of your choosing. The goal is not to quantify participation, so students who contribute to the blog in a variety of ways will be considered active, while students who do not participate regularly or with substance will be penalized.
Students are expected to attend class punctually and ready to watch The Wire, with reading accomplished each week and prepared to engage in discussion. Students who miss more than 2 class meetings without excuse will be penalized significantly, as will students who are frequently late or disengaged.
You will be graded based on the following scale, using a 4.0 scale on all assignments:
• A (4.0) indicates truly excelling on assignments, demonstrating mastery of the material and significantly surpassing the expectations of the assignment.
• B (3.0) indicates above-average work, clearly achieving the course goals and completing all assignments in a strong fashion.
• C (2.0) indicates satisfactorily meeting the course requirements in an adequate fashion.
• D (1.0) indicates not achieving course goals and not adequately meeting expectations.
• F (0.0) indicates dramatically failing to meet course goals and course expectations.
Late papers are highly discouraged, as they throw off schedules for both student and professor. If you must hand in any assignment later than the deadline, please contact the professor in advance as soon as the situation becomes apparent – together arrangements can be made, often without penalties. If a paper is not turned in on time without making advance arrangements with Professor Mittell or a Dean’s excuse, the paper will be penalized by one mark (e.g. an A- becomes a B+) for each day of lateness.
All papers should be submitted via email as an attached .doc or .rtf file format document – Professor Mittell will reply via email within 24 hours when a paper has been received. Unless you have received such a notification, you should email him to ensure that the paper was in fact received. Please do NOT slip papers under the door to Professor Mittell’s office.
All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work beyond the confines of a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers and exams must include the statement of the Honor Code along with the student’s name (as a digital signature) in order to be graded. There is a no-tolerance policy for academic misconduct in this course! The minimum penalty for academic misconduct will be a failing grade (F) for the course – further academic and disciplinary penalties may be assessed. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V.
Printing & Computer Use Policy:
Writing assignments for this course are either based on this blog, or should be submitted via email, with no printing required. Many readings are online – students are welcome to print or not print at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on readings either via digital annotation or separate notebook or word processing file. You should bring readings to class each day, either via paper or on a laptop screen. Feel free to use laptops throughout all class meetings except during screenings, where the light from the screen can disrupt the viewing experience. If you are on your laptop, you are expected to engage with course materials, not free-range surfing the web, checking email, Facebook, etc.
Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Professor Mittell as soon as possible. If you know that you will have conflicts due to athletics or other college activities, you must notify Professor Mittell in advance and arrange to make up missed work – athletic absences are not excused and it is the student’s responsibility to make all arrangements.
Email is Professor Mittell’s preferred mode of communication (besides face-to-face conversation!), generally checking regularly during the work week – if you email him asking for a response and do not receive one within one working day (M-F), assume that your email may not have been received. Office voicemails will typically be answered less promptly. Please do not call Professor Mittell at home.
This page has the following sub pages.