Friday, August 26, 2016
Last updated: 11 months ago

Student-run seminar studies urban decay in UBC course on The Wire

Screenshot courtesy HBO

Press photo courtesy HBO

This semester, on the third floor of Buchanan D, the gritty streets of Baltimore are being brought to the attention of a small but committed cohort of students taking a UBC course on the TV show The Wire.

“Power, People, and Politics in the HBO Television Series The Wire” is a student-directed seminar (SDS) course organized by English literature major Sharon Doucet, who leads discussions and facilitates student-generated presentations. Each member of the seminar presents two discussion topics — one on the material of the series, another on the large body of scholarly work that the series has generated.

For the uninitiated, The Wire is David Simon’s too-close-to-life drama produced by HBO, a five-season titan that ranks with The Shield and The Sopranos as one of the many unforgettable crime-and-punishment dramas of the first decade of the 21st century. The series focuses not on a character, or even a particular ensemble, but the city of Baltimore. It is the story of institutions — the way they grind, sieve, and eventually corrupt and destroy even the best within them.

Student-directed seminar courses count for three credits, and any student can pitch an idea to the SDS advisory committee. Doucet’s inspiration came when one of her peers encouraged her to lead an SDS in her final semester. After thinking about what topics interest her, she realized she had the perfect match in The Wire, having studied under one of its best scholars, Tiffany Potter, author of The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television.

The open and collegial atmosphere of the seminar is one of its major selling points, with the small class size allowing for a deep investigation from the interdisciplinary viewpoints of the members of the class. After the two discussions, the seminar breaks into a freewheeling discussion of the overarching issues that the series confronts.

The course is broken into three segments. The first covers sex, gender and race; the second addresses issues of economics and politics; and the third wraps up with a look at the urban geography of The Wire, and the layers of physical, technological and social structures and the ways in which they create real and artificial boundaries.

It wasn’t easy for anyone to pick one theme that they thought was most important. Brendan Clyde, a senior majoring in psychology, felt the most important themes were education, politics and community infrastructure, but that it made the most sense in an American context. “[I couldn't] really relate personally,” he said. “I think Canada is a much different place, a much different environment.”

None of the members of the seminar had lived in the United States or spent much time there other than on vacation except for Doucet, having grown up in California. “I think it’s hard for us to relate, in our bubble in Vancouver,” she said.

Doucet felt that the criminal element of society and the effects of poverty once it has become endemic are something that are very hard to combat, and very hard to escape for many people, especially minorities. “Should people be allowed to be brought back to society, are crimes in the past going to haunt you forever?” she said.

But at the same time, The Wire‘s nuances can be applied to real life. “I saw a lot of that,” Doucet said. “There’s a lot of gang culture, pit bull fighting, while at the same time a lot of the people involved in dog rescue programs are also black young men.”

The SDS program at UBC lends itself to an interdisciplinary approach, and offers an escape from the usual fare. Apparently, the sentiments are shared. “There’s a bit of a disconnect between courses that students are interested in and what’s on offer,” said Toby Sirzyk, a student enrolled in the course.

The offer of intimacy, wide-ranging conversations, and the genuine interest of not only the director, but also Potter — who is the faculty sponsor and will be marking papers — means that this SDS will be one of the most unique things on offer at UBC this semester.

Any time an institution as large as this is willing to open the doors to truly interdisciplinary viewpoints on an issue, let students take more responsibility for their education and do it under the umbrella of one of the best television series of the past decade, we all have something to learn and to gain from it.