Teaching “The Wire”

October 26, 2010

We’ve had a number of posts here before about teaching.  Here’s a question I’ve seen debated a fair bit: does HBO’s, The Wire, have educational value?  In particular, can it be a productive part of a college course in sociology?

I’ve just begun watching the series myself, and yes, I am enjoying it.  But I didn’t need to watch it, or like it, to know that it could help teach.  In fact, it strikes me as curious that there would be public debate about whether The Wire could be curriculum.

Ishmael Reed thinks that the show reinforces stereotypes about blacks.  I’m not sure about that yet, one could argue exactly the opposite, but even if it this is true, what better way to address the stereotypes prevalent in popular culture, than to critique them in a class which also requires reading rigorous social science?

Some point out that one can learn a lot more facts  in an hour of reading about urban social problems than one can by watching one episode of a fictional television program.  I certainly agree, but there are a couple obvious responses: First, popular and critically acclaimed television may have an emotional impact is a valuable part of education, and in some ways cannot be matched by other content.  Second, watching The Wire need not replace reading peer-reviewed studies or other academic approaches.  I think it is quite plausible that one could expect students to do a typical reading load and have them watch some episodes of the Wire on top of that.  So for me there is no question about whether The Wire can be used in education, the only issue, but a very real one, is how it should be used.

Here’s what I find odd about this whole debate… how many unimportant and/or poorly taught classes are being taught this semester, in colleges all across the country?  Answer: lots.  How many articles do you see about important issues in higher education published in outlets like The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post?  Answer: few.  The reason this debate is prominent is that people want to read about The Wire, while pretending to read about important issues in education.  OK, that shouldn’t be a revelation for most people.  But it is worthwhile to have pointy headed types pointing out that that is what’s going on.

If, like me and millions of others, you can’t help but be interested in a somewhat silly debate about The Wire, William Julius Wilson and Anmol Chaddha defend their class in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

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what i think about in the shower

October 21, 2010

So, i’m of the opinion that the only birthdays you are allowed to celebrate are 1-9, 13, 16, 18, 21 and any ending in a zero. So my question is this – what’s the most parsimonious way to mathematically account for those possibilities?


a (more positive?) nod to Christakis & Fowler

October 7, 2010

Yes, i am aware of my elongated absence from this blog. And i have to plead…well i don’t know what my excuse is, so i’ll just say “howdy all” instead.

A recent article from PLoS One by Christakis and Fowler seems to be getting much less publicity than did their series of papers from the Framingham Heart Study. We’ve talked briefly about some contentions with that work here before.* The thing is that, by my reading, this newest paper is much more compelling and interesting than even the sum of their previous networks-based research, imo.

The new paper is an elegant finding – in essence that we would be better equipped for predicting flu epidemics if our estimates were based on surveillance of the nominated friends of a random sample, than we would get from tracking the random sample itself. It is firmly rooted in previous social networks research and a core idea/finding therein – Felds’ 1991 (gated) “Why your friends have more friends than you do.” And perhaps more importantly, is very clearly and simply potentially useful.

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*Incidentally, while i have been somewhat critical of their FHS work, i ended up trying out their Connected book for my current Intro Sociology class. i’ll have to get back to you on how effective a book it is for those purposes.