The American Studies course What is America? offers different perspectives on the topic. Dr. Rasul Mowatt's fall 2020 section of the course, Finding The Wire — The Two Americas, uses the critically-acclaimed television series to foster a sense of the need for, and role of, critical thinking in addressing societal issues as the responsibility of a just democracy.
An interview with Dr. Mowatt, a professor in the Department of American Studies, is below.
What is American Studies?
It is an interdisciplinary project aimed at the examination and critique of America. Why an interdisciplinary project? Because scholars from a range of disciplines and fields bring their respective lenses and combine those lenses for a unique approach to the area of study. It is a project because it is ever-evolving and ever-defining itself.
American Studies is not solely American History, but history is considered. American Studies is not solely American literature, but literature is considered along with other artifacts and materials.
Within this same series of considerations, the very idea of America is both specific to the United States and the Americas in the Western Hemisphere and beyond (North, Central, South, the Caribbean, U.S. Territories, and military bases and installations). America is also a tangible aspect of both citizenship and nationhood, and is also conceptual as being a set of ideals and a way of thinking.
How does The Wire relate to this year's Themester topic? How would you draw in students who are unfamiliar with the show?
Mowatt: The Wire is an indictment of the U.S. policy, the War on Drugs, and its impact on cities within the U.S., specifically Baltimore. This fictionalized (but close to realistic) depiction of Baltimore democracy is tested by the commitment to implementing this policy.
This commitment has turned law enforcement away from solving crime to creating and maintaining a status quo of two Americas. Within one, quality of life is bountiful and supported by economic endeavors aimed to benefit those living within. Within another, poverty, crime, and degradation are a fundamental part of life that inhibits growth.
The show is used as a visual text to illustrate how cities have fallen victim to the adherence to this policy, while also seeing how those policies now find themselves in rural towns in the state of Indiana, which in many cases has higher incarceration rates than Baltimore or New York.
Additionally, The Wire features the beginning or early careers of actors now more known, such as Idris Elba, Michael B. Jordan, Amy Ryan, and Aiden Gillen, among others.
AMST-A 100 is offered by various professors under several titles. What is unique about this particular section of A100? What is similar to other sections?
Mowatt: Both the subject matter and “text” are unique to this particular section of A100. The Wire is not the focus of any other course nor is the close examination of cities.
The similarity with other A100 courses is that the class will assist a student interested in the major or minor and will fulfill requirements of both, while also assisting a student with gaining a better insight to what America is or may be beyond the given or assumed.
What type(s) of students would you encourage to enroll in this course? What qualities should they have? What will you expect of them?
Mowatt: Any student wishing to explore or be curious about society would be interested in this course. But in particular, students in city/urban planning, political science, sociology, history, public health, media, journalism, and education would find even more things to be interested in within The Wire.
Each season focuses on a different aspect of the implications of War on Drugs: Season one focuses on law enforcement, season two on labor unions, season three on political office, season four on the schools, and season five on the media. While each season has these foci, The Wire is both a Greek Tragedy and Dickensian narrative on modern societies. The sole expectations are openness to perspectives beyond the given along the political continuum, interest in taking this exploration through viewing the show, and willingness to challenge their own conventions on crime, poverty, and the urban.
Why is it important for students to take this course? What knowledge of skills will they gain?
Mowatt: Students wishing to major or minor in American Studies should take this course or other A100s, and students wishing to improve their analytical skills of forms of media and research articles should consider this class. Additionally, students wishing to articulate that analysis within a research paper should also consider the class.
What do you expect to be the most engaging or exciting assignment in the course?
Mowatt: The final essay is the most exciting aspect of the course. While it is long and laborious, I work with each student throughout the semester in developing it as each weekly assignment directly contributes to the final essay. What students begin in “fear” ends with a newfound awareness of the sociopolitical landscape in the U.S. Of course, watching episodes of The Wire in class and discussing them also lends itself to exciting discussions too.
It seems from the course syllabus that this class will mostly examine race in society at the local level. Will you also review race politics at the state, federal, and global levels?
Mowatt: Yes and no. The War on Drugs disproportionately impacted racialized populations in the U.S., but this is only in the initial aspects of it. As rural Indiana is witnessing, class is also an indicator of the impact on low and working class White communities.
And, while the show does not spend time addressing it, gender is also heavily associated with the War on Drugs, as women are overly represented in poverty and among the working class as well as in addiction to crack cocaine and meth. Patricia Hill Collins refers to the “Matrix of Domination:” race, class, and gender as joint parts of the politics at the state, federal, and global levels tied to drugs. In regard to the global, the “shoot to kill” policies implemented in Rio and São Paulo, Brazil are the legacies of the War on Drugs in the U.S.
In 2019, from January to August, 1,249 people in Rio state were killed by police officers. In Mexico City and throughout Mexico, the femicide rate rose to about 10 percent in 2019 with 1,010 cases, which is an average of 10 women killed per day. Many of these deaths are associated with the activities of drug cartels. In both examples, and in Baltimore, policies of ineptitude, corruption, and wealth favoritism forms the basis for these deaths.
What, to you, is the most interesting aspect of this class? What do you learn or gain from teaching it?
Mowatt: The show is the most interesting aspect of the class. The Wire is heralded as one of the greatest TV shows ever, and it is a result of the writing, the casting, and close adherence to the plot point. The War on Drugs was an utter, devastating failure. To see students join the legion of fans of the show is nice, but to see students gaining a greater, more articulated awareness of this indictment is what I gain the most from teaching it. Their insight is not my own, so how they come to it is what I learn.
Do you have anything else you'd like to add?
Mowatt: As one character from The Wire notes to another, in this War on Drugs, “No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.” Maybe in examining The Wire we can learn to end the losing and create a more just society.
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