Monday, September 26, 2011

Teaching The Wire at UW-Madison: Week Four

This semester (Fall 2011), I'm teaching a course through the Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) program at UW-Madison. Entitled "Narratives of Justice and Equality in Multicultural America," it's an outgrowth of some of the nonfiction writing and composition courses I've taught over the last decade.

We're engaging a variety of texts, including Jason DeParle's great book on welfare reform in Milwaukee (American Dream), Elijah Anderson's classic Code of the Street, and Paul Butler's recent Let's Get Free. The real backbone of the course is Season One of HBO's critically-acclaimed drama The Wire. In my mind, the show provides a perfect window to the main issues we're engaging in the course: poverty, violence, criminal justice, and politics.

In an effort to engage students more completely, I'm teaching the course in a somewhat novel manner. The most obvious change in my teaching style is that I'm trying to minimize the amount of straight lecturing. Instead of putting students to sleep, I'm giving them the chance to engage our main text (The Wire) together and then respond in real time. To do that, we're responding to the show on Twitter; all of the responses are filtered into the hashtag #wire275.

Thus far, the results have been great. I've been teaching for over 20 years, and I've never previously had the experience of seeing (or hearing) instantaneous student responses to a text. Twitter gives students the ability to put their thoughts down quickly, before they are lost or forgotten -- or before the instructor takes the conversation in a different direction.

Reflection is important, too; the substance of the students' input can't simply be 140-character bursts of thought. We have meaningful discussions in class, and students are required to post weekly responses on our course website. Moreover, they will be working together on group projects inspired by our work. As I try to break the teaching/learning mold, I'm encouraging them to eschew the standard academic paper and instead work on performances, digital narratives, or educational games.

So far, the results are encouraging. Judging from what their Tweets, posts on the website, and comments in class, it seems that students are seriously engaged in our texts. And, purely on their own, they are making connections to things outside our course: one student referenced the controversy regarding a recent prizefight, while another posted a link to speech by Elizabeth Warren in which she invoked the social contract. As a teacher, those are the moments I really prize.

This week, it's on to Episode Three, "The Buys"....

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