Meehan takes geography students to “The Wire”

Omar Little, of "The Wire," is key to Meehan's geography course
Omar Little, of "The Wire," is key to Meehan's geography course

Omar Little, one of the most popular characters in the critically acclaimed HBO drama “The Wire,” is a stick-up man who robs drug dealers. He dresses like a hip-hop gangster and he’s capable of pulling a gun in the blink of an eye and putting it in his victim’s face, laughing all the way.

He also helps University of Oregon assistant professor Katie Meehan teach a course in urban geography.

How many college classes require that students “be willing to watch four to six hours of television each week”? Welcome to Geography 442/542, where Meehan uses the gritty “Wire” series to examine how capital and culture shape the American city.

Produced in and around Baltimore, “The Wire” focused on the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, schools and the print news media over five seasons, ending in 2008. Recognized for its realistic portrayal of urban life and deep exploration of sociopolitical themes, “The Wire” has been described by many critics as one of the greatest TV dramas of all time.

Then a graduate student at the University of Arizona, Meehan was overwhelmed when she first encountered the series, as she explained in a video interview with UO journalism student Erik Gundersen.

“I watched the whole series in three months – every night, four hours at a time,” Meehan said. “I thought, ‘this is the greatest series on all the urban issues of the world that I’ve ever seen, wouldn’t it be great to teach a class around this?’”

Meehan recognized that Baltimore’s ills as portrayed in the show – deindustrialization and capital flight – were the same facing many U.S. “rustbelt” cities. With “The Wire” providing the text, she asks students to answer questions such as “what explains persistent urban decay?” by drawing on Marxist understandings of capitalist urbanization, the built environment and socio-spatial difference.

Meehan, a speaker in DUKTalks, a recent showcase of talented faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences, treats her students to anything other than the normal educational approach. She opened a recent class by pumping rap group Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” through speakers, then asked students to interpret what the lyrics say about the stereotypical black male.

Turning to “The Wire,” Meehan played a clip that forces students to reconsider stereotypes of homosexual men as soft or effeminate: In it, Omar – who is gay – is affectionate with his boyfriend, although he doesn’t wear his homosexuality on his sleeve and throughout the series he remains one of its most powerful, assertive characters.

“Once students develop empathy for certain characters they take them seriously – it gives them the tools to think through abstract and often difficult concepts,” Meehan said.

Glenn Peterson, an undergraduate geography major, said students expecting the course to be a cakewalk will be disappointed.

“You can’t just sit on Facebook and casually glance over at the TV – you have to understand what is happening, sometimes rewinding multiple times to get a feel for what just happened,” Peterson said. “(The show) introduces you to many new ideas that you may, or may not, have experienced in your life, such as sexism, racism and homophobia.”

Meehan was awarded the 2011-2012 Sherl K. Coleman and Margaret E. Guitteau Professorship in the Humanities from the Oregon Humanities Center, which included funds to support and further develop the course.

Geography can be much more than the memorization of cities and capitals; geographers argue, in fact, that space is important to society’s constructions of gender, race and sexuality, she said. Meehan and her students investigate “the geographies of social difference” in a major American city, including how race, class, religion, gender, and sexuality shape bodies, identity and place.

Meehan plans to teach “The Wire” for a few more years, but that doesn’t mean her fascination with gripping television dramas will come to an end. She’s already got designs on a course in “political geography.”

The text?

“Deadwood,” another acclaimed HBO drama, set in 1870s South Dakota and exploring prostitution, misogyny, violence, politics and, according to Wikipedia, “bringing order from chaos.”

-- story and photo by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications