Harvard Goes Hard

by by Beatrice Igne-Bianchi

Watching episodes of the 2001-2005 hit HBO series The Wire will be homework for some Harvard undergraduates enrolled in a new sociology course next year.

Last weekend in Cambridge, a panel of Harvard professors and actors from the series discussed how the show’s gritty depictions of Baltimore’s inner-city streets will be used to help students—and the rest of the population—understand and contemplate real-life social issues plaguing America’s cities.

For the new course, Sociology Professor William J. Wilson will use The Wire as a case study for poverty in America, said African American studies chair Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.

During the discussion, Professor Wilson said, “The Wire has done more to enhance our understanding of the systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the poor than any published study,” as reported by The Crimson.

While it may be a first for the Ivy League, using The Wire as central text in a college course is not new.

Both Duke University and Middlebury College have offered classes that prominently feature the series.

Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke, Mark Anthony Neal, said in an email that he has used The Wire in his courses on black masculinity and hip-hop. His colleague Mark Hansen, a professor of Literature at Duke, taught “Phenomenology of Film and Media” in which students watched The Wire as one of many texts in contemporary media. Last Fall, Professor Jason Mittell, an Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College, offered a course called “Urban American & Serial Television: Watching The Wire.”

But Harvard’s strict focus on the sociological dimensions of the series is a first for academia. The Wire has usually been placed in the context of media and writing classes.

Shaundra Crittenden, a senior sociology concentrator at Harvard, believes that “the show is a far less sterile and far more complicated account than much of the research concentrators study in more traditional classes.” Furthermore, she hopes that “with more students intellectually engaging the topic, a more nuanced understanding of urban inequality—one that challenges the widespread notion that social capital and standing are largely individually determined—will emerge.”

The information learned through the new Harvard course is not to be kept within Ivy walls. Actors at the Harvard panel discussion encouraged audience members and the Harvard community to not simply sit and contemplate these harsh realities on the show, but to be proactive about finding ways to solve these real-life problems. Sonja Sohn, who portrayed detective Kima Greggs, said that, “these circumstances will not change if you do nothing.” Harvard students have a lot on their plates.