Course Brings Students Into the World of "The Wire"

Friday, January 24, 2014

by David King '08

HBO’s popular series “The Wire” won many devoted fans and earned critical praise for painting a picture of\ modern day Baltimore for everyone from police and city hall, to the drug dealers, a dwindling middle class and teachers cash-strapped school districts.

This semester, some Saint Joseph’s University students will get an up-close look at that world, examining sociological texts and volunteer experiences in the city of Philadelphia alongside the David Simon’s television series as part of the course “The Wire: Crime, Community and Urban Inequality.”

For Maria Kefalas, Ph.D., professor of sociology, the series provides a good framework to talk about complex social issues.

“The great thing about ‘The Wire’ is that it holds a mirror up to urban life,” Kefalas says. “It communicates straightforward academic research on poverty, crime, violence and education in a clear way that sociologists haven’t always been able to.”

Since going off the air in 2008, “The Wire” has been used as a basis for a number of college courses because of its ability to present realistic portrayals of all walks of life in the city.

For the first time, Kefalas is making her course based on the show a service learning class. Students will spend three hours a week volunteering in programs such as Connection Training Services, which provides economic, housing and social needs of the disadvantaged populations of Philadelphia; Interim House, which provides services to women with substance abuse and mental health issues; and the Juvenile Justice Center, which serves the needs of disadvantaged children, youth and families.

“We want to get students on the ground to see what’s going on in their own city,” says Kefalas. “The goal is for students to come out of the course with a real understanding of urban America.”

Many of these Philadelphia neighborhoods resemble the parts of Baltimore that “The Wire” was set in. The students will also meet and speak with police and public officials who work in these high-crime or disadvantaged areas.

Also a first for the course, an actor and writer from the show will visit campus to discuss their experiences with “The Wire.”

On January 28 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Presidents’ Lounge, Charley Scalies '62, an actor who appeared in the show’s second season as Thomas “Horseface” Pakusa, a union dock worker, and Rafael Álvarez, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and staff writer on “The Wire” will speak with students.

According to Kefalas, one of the challenges of a course based on a popular show is getting people to think about it from a sociologist’s point of view rather than a fan’s.

While “The Wire” won fans with characters like Omar, a stick-up man who robs the city’s drug dealers, Kefalas emphasizes that there’s nothing redeeming about the violence the show depicts.

“If you’re watching and not paying attention, you may miss the tragic and horrific consequence of violence,” says Kefalas. “But the show really depicts the crisis in urban America. No one escapes unscathed, especially the children it depicts, and the characters aren’t portrayed in a heroic way.”

Much like the series itself, students usually leave the course with no easy answers and a better understanding of the challenges cities face today.

“One of the things that sticks with students is how broken the system currently is for everyone involved,” Kefalas says. “They understand the tragedy of the kid who slings on the corner and recognize how difficult it can be for the police day in and day out.”

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