FYSE 1015, Fall 2022 - Watching The Wire: Urban American & Serial Television

Professor Jason Mittell (he/him), 208 Axinn, 802-443-3435, jmittell@middlebury.edu

Office Hours: Mon / Wed: 11:00am-12:30pm or request a meeting via https://calendly.com/mittell

Class Meetings: T/Th 1:30 – 2:45 pm, Axinn 104

Screenings: Mon 7:30 - 9:30 pm, Axinn 100; T/Th 3:00 – 4:00 pm, Axinn 100

Jump to course schedule

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 twenty years after its debut, 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 main 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, policing and racial justice, 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? Where does it leave us, in terms of the potential for solving these social ills? And what does it look like 20 years later?

This syllabus will be updated as the course progresses. Students are responsible to check regularly for updates.


Required Reading/Viewing:

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 10th anniversary edition. The New Press, 2020

Karen Gocsik et. al., Writing About Movies, 5th edition. Norton, 2019

It is the student’s responsibility to get access to assigned readings. All books are on reserve at Davis Library and available through the online college bookstore. Other required readings will be available via Canvas. Screenings will be required for this course each Monday night at 7:30pm and each Tuesday and Thursday at 3pm in Axinn 100; if missed, it is up to each student to screen the required materials on their own before the next class meeting – the entire series of The Wire will be available to students through Canvas.

How This Course Works:

This course uses an unconventional approach for assessing student learning roughly termed “ungrading.” You will not receive a “grade” for any single assignment, with only a final course grade registered on your Middlebury transcript. While Jason will register that grade, he will not assign it—you will. Such self-grading means that students are fully responsible for their own learning, and it is meant to fully sever the link between that learning and the “outcome” of grades. This grade will emerge through ongoing conversations between each student and Jason; while he reserves the right to alter the grade that a student assigns, it is a sign of mutual trust and shared responsibility for learning that he does not anticipate doing so.

Even though there will not be grades, there will be lots of feedback, evaluation, assessment, and revision—these will all hopefully be channeled toward maximizing learning. Students will write a statement on their learning goals, write self-reflections on their learning, meet with both peers and Jason to discuss their progress, and undertake revisions based on feedback. In exchange for students’ hard work, Jason agrees to take however much time is needed to ensure students understand expectations and practices, and are poised to succeed to their desired goals. His goal is to help each student achieve their learning goals, and to be transparent about expectations for learning throughout the semester.

Learning Goals:

This course is designed around a series of core learning goals, assembled in a hierarchy of sophistication. Students will highlight their own specific learning goals from this list, as well as devise their own. These are roughly grouped in tiers that correspond to expected grade levels, with each student expected to reflect their particular goals via written and conversational reflection.

All students who pass the course (C) will demonstrate the ability to:

•    Discuss television representations using specific details as tied to social contexts

•    Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to examine television

•    Communicate their ideas orally and via writing with fluency and clarity as appropriate for first-year college students

•    Revise their writing to improve both ideas and communication

Students who achieve a higher level of accomplishment (B) will also demonstrate the ability to:

•    Analyze television with original insights, effective use of sources, and connections to existing research

•    Engage in supportive and constructive criticism with peers, and respond to critique with a productive and open-minded ethos

•    Actively watch television and communicate their perspectives respectfully to peers via online and in-class discussions

Students who achieve the highest level of accomplishment (A) will also demonstrate the ability to:

•    Create, substantiate, and communicate original analytic arguments that synthesizes multiple concepts, appropriate types of evidence, and detailed critical insights

•    Write with engaging prose that furthers their critical ideas

•    Meet class expectations per the assigned schedule with consistency


This is a College Writing course, meaning that there will be a significant amount of writing required throughout the semester. If you do not complete the three essays to a satisfactory level, you will not pass the course.

Assignment details will be on the course website throughout the semester, but here are the three main essay assignments:

Scene Analysis

Students will select one scene from the first season of The Wire and analyze how it works to convey its ideas.

Book Analysis

Students will select a nonfiction book about a topic related to the content of The Wire and analyze how the book conveys its ideas versus the approaches seen in the television series.

Final Project

Students will choose a keyword that interests them and write a research-driven project about the intersection of that term and The Wire. Students will also prepare presentations on their projects for the final week of class and the first-year student symposium.

Online Participation:

Since much of our time will be spent viewing The Wire, students are expected to extend their discussion outside of class onto the Canvas site and/or Discord. We will use Discord for more casual conversation as we work through the series, as well as a site to discuss any other topics of relevance to the class or your first-year experience. Canvas will have more structured discussion posts for each screening. It is expected that students actively engage with these online sites to discuss course material and respond to each other. While there is no mandated quantity of posting, a good goal is to make 2-3 significant contributions per week – these can be you starting a discussion thread or responding to others. Online discussions are also a good place to practice writing in a variety of voices, ranging from more to less formal.

Active Attendance:

You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having completed assigned readings & viewing, thought about the material, and prepared the necessary assignments. Students who miss a class should find out what they missed from their classmates and learn the necessary material. Students are expected to actively engage in class discussions, speaking and listening to each other with mutual respect and productive contributions. The course will tackle many challenging issues, so students will be expected to both speak and open their minds, while being mindful of the impact that words and images might have on classmates. Jason welcomes all feedback on how to best make our classroom a productive space of engaged dialogue.

If you are feeling ill or have tested positive for COVID, do NOT attend class! Jason will work with you to catch-up with whatever you miss, but you should not risk the health and safety of others to attend class.

Course Policies:

On Caring:

We are living in unprecedented, difficult times, and everyone is facing numerous struggles. Nobody signed up for life during a pandemic, and we do not know what this semester will bring. As such, Jason commits to try to be as caring and compassionate as possible, foregrounding flexibility, transparency, and an acknowledgment of our shared personhood in challenging times. He asks that each of you do the same toward all of us (including him!). If things become particularly difficult for you, please reach out to Dean Sellers for assistance, and let Jason know that something is going on—whatever you feel comfortable sharing is fine, but it’s always better to inform faculty immediately that you are facing challenges rather than waiting until things have gotten severe.

Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Jason as soon as possible, and consult the Disability Resource Center for more assistance. If you know that you will have conflicts due to athletics or other college activities, you must notify Jason 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.

Students are expected to check their Middlebury email accounts daily and monitor the Canvas site for information – please configure Canvas to notify you (via email and/or text) right away about Announcements, as this will be how most communications to the entire course will be distributed. Jason will check email and the class Discord regularly during the work week – if you message him asking for a response and do not receive one within one working day (M-F), assume that your message may not have been received and follow-up.

Watching audiovisual media can be intense, with skilled artists creating emotionally vivid and often disturbing images and sounds. This course assumes that students are able to watch media that is often challenging and disturbing in its representations without need for protection or warning; in fact, engaging with discomfort and challenges is a significant part of a liberal education and an opportunity for discussion and learning. However, there are some instances where a student may have had personal trauma that creates specific triggers for severe emotional distress. If that applies to you, please take responsibility to research what episodes of The Wire might contain such representations and determine how to watch them in a way that minimizes their impact on you.

As a writing intensive course, students may find it helpful to seek academic support for their writing. The Center for Teaching, Learning & Research has many resources available, including writing, time-management, and study skill assistance. The course has a designated writing tutor, Emma Johnson—she will know the assignments and approach to the course, but you are welcome to work with any peer or staff tutor via CTLR.

Printing & Computer Use Policy:

Writing assignments for this course are done through Canvas, 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 any assigned 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, Instagram, etc.

Conversations and presentations within the space of this class—both in-person and online—are considered private, to be shared only among those of us in the course. Any recording, photographs, and screen-capture of voices, images, and text produced by students and faculty alike cannot be shared without permission of those authors. If you wish to share your own work and ideas beyond the confines of the class, you are encouraged to do so.

Academic Honesty:

All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work except as stipulated for a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers must include the statement of the Honor Code along with the student’s name (as a digital signature) in order to be graded: “I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment.” 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.


Daily Schedule

Monday nights meet in Axinn 100 at 7:30pm;

T/Th seminar meetings at 1:30pm in Axinn 104, followed by 3pm screening in Axinn 100

Tuesday September 6: Course Intro

WATCH: 1.1 “The Target”

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 1.2 “The Detail”

Week 1 – Season 1

Monday September 12:

WATCH at 7:30pm: 1.3 “The Buys” and 1.4 “Old Cases”

Tuesday September 13:

READ: David Simon, “Letter to HBO”

Jason Mittell, “The Wire in the Context of American Television”

WATCH at 3pm: 1.5 “The Pager”

WRITE: Statement of Learning Intentions via Canvas

Thursday September 15:

WATCH at 3pm: 1.6 “The Wire”

READ: Karen Gocsik et. al., Chapters 1-4

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 1.7 “One Arrest” and 1.8 “Lessons”

Week 2 – Season 1

Monday September 19:

WATCH at 7:30pm: 1.9 “Game Day” and 1.10 “The Cost”

Tuesday September 20:

WATCH at 3pm: 1.11 “The Hunt”

Thursday September 22: [Jason out-of-town]

WATCH at 1:30pm: 1.12 “Cleaning Up” and 1.13 “Sentencing”

READ: Karen Gocsik et. al., Chapters 5-10

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 2.1 “Ebb Tide” and 2.2 “Collateral Damage”

Week 3 – Season 2

Monday September 26:

WATCH at 7:30pm: 2.3 “Hot Shots” and 2.4 “Hard Cases”

Tuesday September 27:

WATCH at 3pm: 2.5 “Undertow”

Thursday September 29:

WATCH at 3pm: 2.6 “All Prologue”

WRITE:  Draft of Essay #1 due

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 2.7 “Backwash” and 2.8 “Duck and Cover”

Week 4 – Season 2

Monday October 3: [Jason out-of-town]

WATCH at 7:30pm: 2.9 “Stray Rounds” and 2.10 “Storm Warnings”

Tuesday October 4: [Jason out-of-town]

IN-CLASS: Meet in Davis Library Lobby (near circulation desk) at 1:30pm for session with Amy Frazier (which will be in Library 145 if you're late for class)

WATCH at 3pm: 2.11 “Bad Dreams”

READ: Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow – read Preface through Chapter 3

Thursday October 6:

WATCH at 3pm: 2.12 “Port in a Storm”

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 3.1 “Time After Time” and 3.2 “All Due Respect”

Week 5 – Season 3

Monday October 10:

WATCH at 7:30pm: 3.3 “Dead Soldiers” and 3.4 “Hamsterdam”

Tuesday October 11:

WATCH at 3pm: 3.5 “Straight and True”

READ: Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow – finish book

Thursday October 13:

WATCH at 3pm: 3.6 “Homecoming”

WRITE: Topic proposal for Essay #2 due

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 3.7 “Back Burners and 3.8 “Moral Midgetry”

Week 6 – Season 3

Monday October 17:

WATCH at 7:30pm: 3.9 “Slapstick” and 3.10 “Reformation”

Tuesday October 18:

WATCH at 3pm: 3.11 “Middle Ground”

Thursday October 20:

WATCH at 3pm: 3.12 “Mission Accomplished”

WRITE:  Proposal for Final Project due

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 4.1 “Boys of Summer” and 4.2 “Soft Eyes”

Week 7 – Season 4

Monday October 24:

WATCH at 7:30pm: 4.3 “Home Rooms” and 4.4 “Refugees”

Tuesday October 25:

WATCH at 3pm: 4.5 “Alliances”

Thursday October 27:

WATCH at 3pm: 4.6 “Margin of Error”

WRITE: Draft of Essay #2 due

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 4.7 “Unto Others” and 4.8 “Corner Boys”

Week 8 – Season 4

Monday October 31: [Jason out-of-town]

WATCH at 7:30pm: 4.9 “Know Your Place” and 4.10 “Misgivings”

Tuesday November 1: [Jason out-of-town]

WATCH at 1:30pm: 4.11 “A New Day” and 4.12 “That’s Got His Own”

Thursday November 3: [Jason out-of-town]

WATCH at 1:30pm: 4.13 “Final Grades”

WRITE: Annotated bibliography for Final Project due

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 5.1 “More with Less”

Week 9 – Season 5

Monday November 7:

WATCH at 7:30pm: 5.2 “Unconfirmed Reports” and 5.3 “Not for Attribution”

Tuesday November 8:

WATCH at 3pm: 5.4 “Transitions”

Thursday November 10:

WATCH at 3pm: 5.5 “React Quotes”

Weekend independent viewing: WATCH: 5.6 “The Dickensian Aspect”

Week 10 – Season 5

Monday November 14:

WATCH at 7:30pm: 5.7 “Took” and 5.8 “Clarifications”

Tuesday November 15:

WATCH at 3pm: 5.9 “Late Editions”

Thursday November 17:

WATCH at 3pm: 5.10  “-30-”

WRITE:  Draft of Final Project due

Thanksgiving Break: November 19-27

Week 11 – Reading, Writing & Revising

This week will feature a number of readings about The Wire, conversations about the writing projects, and opportunities to make progress on revisions. Details to come. [No screenings]

Week 12 – Finalizing Projects & Presentations

This week will feature presentations of final projects in-class.

Friday December 9: First-Year Student Symposium

Monday December 12: All final drafts of writing due

Finals Week:

Students will schedule final conferences with Jason to discuss final portfolio of writing, overall course engagement, and reflect on the semester of learning (and assign a grade)


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