Scenes from The Wire

Next Wednesday I’ll be doing a presentation at the ACCS conference titled “Is Less More? What The Wire Has to Teach Us About Institutional IT” wherein I use clips from David Simon’s brilliant series The Wire to examine the lie that is “Do more with less” in institutions generally, but higher ed specifically. Keep in mind the theme of the conference is “Doing more with less.” The idea for this presentation comes  from the first episode of Season 5 titled “More with Less,” and I’ll actually be starting with the following scene wherein the managers at the Baltimore Sun newspaper frame the changing mediascape and the corporate/institutional response to the situation by announcing buyouts, cutbacks, layoffs, and the necessity to do “more with less”—despite operating at a profit.

The entire fifth season is framed by Bunk’s classic quote from the opening sequence of episode 1 of Season 5:

The bigger the lie, the more they believe

Fact is, as David Simon notes in several interviews that “despite being an oft-repeated command to dying institutions, the ability to do more with less is an inherent impossibility.” And herein lies the crux of my argument, we cannot effectively do more with less, rather we need to re-think our relationships as thinkers, learners, and teachers apart from the institutions rather than within them. This does not necessarily mean breaking away from these institutions all together because for the time being the are feeding some of us, but rather to act between and amongst a number of individuals at these various educational institutions throughout Virginia to build a larger network of resources, connections, and a real grass roots sharing of resources to start thinking and acting on how educational technology may allow us to re-imagine, or simply circumvent, the economic and political trappings of institutions.

In short, it is a call to cooperatively create a hub of activity happening at the various campuses around Virginia that we jointly support and cultivate a community of teaching and learning that is distributed, premised on people not infrastructure, and helps us collaboratively imagine what the power of a system of higher education connected through nodes of individuals first, rather than institutions, might ultimately look like.

I’ll actually lay out a design I have in mind for this in another post to come shortly, but in the mean time I’ll end with Captain “Bunny” Colvin, whose inspired speech about no more lying about the state of our institutions and what they serve to re-enforce—“learning for their world not ours,” “they see right through us” and we can’t continue lying about doing more with less. And not only less money and resources, but the lesser vision education more generally has provided us with. It’s time to imagine a world outside of that—and while I’ll probably get much the same reaction Bunny does, it seems to me something worth presenting and pushing for.

This is half-baked, but useful as I try and put this one together. More to come soon, and any ideas to make this stronger would be greatly appreciated.

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18 Responses to Scenes from The Wire

  1. great post. wish I could be in the crowd at ACCS!

    It’s not about doing more with less. That’s just plain stupid. Anyone promoting that as a way to solve a financial crisis should be fired on the spot. It’s about being selective. Doing the most important subset, for less. Changing what you do. If you have less resources, you can’t maintain the status quo. Something has to give. It also doesn’t have to be a (completely) bad thing. It can be the kick in the ass to make hard decisions that are avoided when Things Are OK™.

  2. Reverend says:

    D’Arcy,
    Yeah, that’s actually a great point, and one I will actually work in to this presentation. We need to be selective, share what works for others freely, and build on that cooperatively. And by thinking about what we do in out smart part of the institution, can we do some of this stuff more effectively with greater room for innovation and self definition. I also agree it’s not compleletly bad, as long as we aren;t deluded into thinking working harder with less resources under the same constructs will actually lead to some kind of greater outcome.

  3. Luke says:

    It’s an odd feeling, supporting an online publishing platform at a university these days… the argument for my work is very close to the one you’re addressing here. Fact is, the tools we use do allow us to “do more with less.” We can publish and network and collaborate with little of the overhead that it took to do such things just a few years ago. That recognition is in fact part of what energizes/animates much of my work. And yet it also makes me a valuable cog in a problematic machine, as my successes are used less frequently to extend the phrase into a transformative philosophy — “do more with less… so that ultimately we may do more overall” — then as evidence for why progress can be proclaimed even as resources are cut.

    I guess that tension is the root of your argument, and the collaboration plan you seem poised to propose is part of an effort to maintain control over the fruits of your labor, to stay a step ahead of the machine. This whole thing also riffs on the central thesis of The Wire, that America’s institutions are unmitigated disasters that chew up and spit out the individual. Simon et al managed to beautifully locate humanity within that process, and the values at the center of your various projects very much represent the humanity in “higher education.” Kudos for that.

    I’ll also note that I’ve tried to envision something similar for CUNY to what you seem to be suggesting in Va, and it’s something that seems at once entirely doable and politically impossible. So we proceed on a smaller scale, collaborating around the edges, transforming where we can.

    • Reverend says:

      Luke,

      Thanks for this comment, the issue you raise is huge, and you frame it in a far more nuanced way than I do here. The tension is, indeed, between the fact that we can do more with less in this small realm as a wy to promote investment in other parts of the project, namely people, so that we can realize something beyond simply reiterating the same structure again and again. What’s more, is that idea of humanity is at the core of this, and that is really the idea. The entire conference theme suggests an institutional directive that immediately frames our existence as state IT workers and educators, what if we simply questioned that?

      More than anything though, I love to read you riff on The Wire, much of this presentation is born from those riffs over the last two years, and that show haunts me daily in the best of all possible ways. Appreciate you clarifying some things for me here, will bring them in and give you no credit 🙂

  4. Luke says:

    Credit is for COMPSTAT.

  5. Reverend says:

    The CompStat Wikipedia article is yet another invaluable resource for this presentation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CompStat

    Particularly the critique here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CompStat#Critique

  6. Brad says:

    I appreciate the focus on people and connections between people. For the most part infrastructure has exceeded our human capacity to utilize it. We need people willing to use the infrastructure and feel empowered to connect with each other.

    Reminds me of the whole Open Ed area. There are administrators still looking at building large repository infrastructures that interoperate, when we already have one large repository to rule them all called the web, and those that are interested in sharing and connecting have already been doing so for many years.

  7. Luke says:

    I should qualify my comment above, lest my friends get pissed at me, by saying that the notion of a collaborative hub is very much what the CUNY Academic Commons is built upon, and I didn’t intend to fly by its existence in my quick note about CUNY. The Commons is premised on the notion of collaboration and sharing, and it’s obviously a model you should reference. Even still, the Commons is limited (because of resources and politics, not philosophy) to faculty and graduate students, and thus is more directly a model for collaborative scholarship than collaborative teaching and learning.

  8. Alan Levine says:

    Gotta dig into some Omar wisdom, “How you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?”

  9. Chris Lott says:

    Neither “you can do more with less” nor “you can’t do more with less” are sensible statements without context. Of course one can do more with less… have you ever watched the economical motion of a fine athlete? Have you ever looked closely at a sumi-e painting? Have you read Issa? Martial? Have you ever spent a night or two in a tiny cabin with no “amenities” in the wilderness so far from anything that you not only can’t hear the sound of traffic or any other human invention, but you can’t even bring them to your mind when you try to?

    But, like many profound, even spiritual ideas, it is also profoundly misapplied in other, tempting (to point haired bosses, at least) contexts. There’s a lot of truth, I suspect, to individuals doing more with less using contemporary technology– the whole “practice” thing I rant about at every opportunity– but it doesn’t “scale up” to create “sustainable opportunities” and it has nothing to do with “enterprise architecture” or any other such bullshit.

    Incidentally, I was just watching the episode of The Wire when Bunny lays it all out– that’s actually the most recent episode I’ve seen. I loved it. But Bunny, I’m guessing, is doomed.

  10. Chris Lott says:

    @Alan – one of my favorite Omar moments is when he’s asked how he can rob drug dealers for so many years and still be alive to talk about it. He responds, “Day at a time, I suppose.”

  11. Reverend says:

    @Chris,
    That is one of my favorite The Wire scenes of all time, especially when he calls out the lawyer, “I gotta shotgun, you gotta briefcase.”

    Here is all seven minutes of that scene for good measure:

    And you are absolutely right about context and “more with less” in regards to institutions, which is what The Wire is criticizing, makes very little sense when it is often a wholesale reduction in human power while ramping up useful measures of “efficiency” as we see in CompStat, and Bunny’s modest proposal with hampsterdam is perhaps the greatest moment of the whole series in my mind.

  12. Chris Lott says:

    Part of the problem is the corporate world’s insistence on using the word “more” as a univalent term meaning an increase in quantity. I’d give my left nut for CompStat compared to the information systems at the University here and the resulting, Kafkaesque operational architecture that derives from it.

  13. We should consider The Wire every day. Damn, that’s a fine idea, Rev.

    …but I’ve only just started season 4, so will cover my ears and eyes until I make progress into 5.

  14. Pingback: Weekend Reading, Still (!) Not Spring Break Edition - ProfHacker.com

  15. Ken says:

    Young Jim! I remembered your post regarding the use of “The Wire” in your pedagogy. Thus, I felt the need to share this lunchbox full of awesomeness with you:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/10/AR2010091002676.html

  16. Reverend says:

    Ken,

    That is awesome, and I would so like to be one of the people in that class. I love the way the article talks about how well the fictional series can create relationships between and amongst the various factors of urban disinvestment and the general and ongoing attack on the urban under class. I agree with this, and the academic papers and books frame the issues well, but not nearly as powerfully, The Wire brings it home.

    Thanks for this, and I look forward to hanging at eDUI in November.

  17. Pingback: Weekend Reading, Still (!) Not Spring Break Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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