Undergraduate Course Descriptions

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COMM 2130 (formerly 213)

Social Media and Social Life

The irruption of social media as a means of communication has been said to transform many dimensions of social life, from how we interact with significant others to how we engage in public life - but has it, really? Regardless of the specific technology (blogs, micro-blogs, social networking sites, peer-to-peer networks), social media make interdependence more prevalent, and exposure to information more pervasive. But social networks, and the ties that bring us together, have long mediated the way in which we obtain information, engage in public discussion, and are recruited or mobilized for a public cause. So what has social media brought to the table that is new? This course will evaluate the evidence that can help us answer this question, as well as challenge conventional views and discuss questions that remain open. The effects of social media on ideological polarization, social influence and peer pressure, agenda-setting dynamics, and the formation and effects of social capital are examples of the substantive topics and theoretical debates that will be considered.

COMM 2260 (formerly 226)

Introduction to Political Communication

  • Fall 2021

This course is an introduction to the field of political communication and conceptual approaches to analyzing communication in various forms, including advertising, speech making, campaign debates, and candidates' and office-holders' uses of social media and efforts to frame news. The focus of this course is on the interplay in the U.S. between media and politics. The course includes a history of campaign practices from the 1952 presidential contest through the election of 2020.

COMM 2445 (formerly 244)

Civil Dialogue Seminar: Civic Engagement in a Divided Nation

  • Fall 2022

The goal of this course is to help students develop concepts, tools, dispositions, and skills that will help them engage productively in the ongoing experiment of American democracy. This nation’s founders created a governmental structure that sets up an ongoing and expansive conversation about how to manage the tensions and tradeoffs between competing values and notions of the public good. These tensions can never be fully resolved or eliminated; they are intrinsic to the American experiment. Every generation must struggle to find its own balance, in no small part because in every era people who previously had been unjustly excluded from the conversation find a way to be heard. That inevitably introduces new values and changes how enduring ones get interpreted. The challenge of each generation is to develop that capacity to its fullest. The goal of this course is to equip you to engage fully in your generation’s renewal of the conversation. Class sessions will use a variety of modalities: lecture, discussion, case studies, opportunities to experiment with the tools and techniques of civil dialogue, and writing. Each session will include some theory or historical context, a case study, exploration of a key concept of civic dialogue with a related tool or technique, and an interactive exercise. This course is part of a larger effort by the university (called the Paideia program) to help Penn students build these skills.

COMM 2600 (formerly 211)

Media Activism Studies

  • Spring 2022

This seminar provides an introduction to the politics and tactics underlying various types of media activism. The class will examine interventions aimed at media representations, labor relations in media production, media policy reform, activists' strategic communications, and "alternative" media making. The course will draw from an overview of the existing scholarship on media activism, as well as close analysis of actual activist practices within both old and new media at local, national, and global levels. We will study how various political groups, past and present, use media to advance their interests and effect social change. Each member of the class will choose one case study of an activist group or campaign to explore throughout the semester.

COMM 2700 (formerly 270)

Global Digital Activism

This seminar examines the forms, causes, and consequences of global digital activism, defined broadly as activism associated with the use of digital media technologies (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, and the Chinese Weibo). The goal is to provide students with a theoretical tool-kit for analyzing digital activism and to develop a critical understanding of the nature of contemporary activism and its implications for global social change. Major cases to be examined include the "Occupy Wall Street" movement in the U.S., the Arab Spring, the "indignados" protests in Spain, and internet activism in China. Students are required to conduct primary, hands-on research on a contemporary case (or form) of digital activism and produce a final research paper. This research project may be done individually or in small groups.

COMM 2920 (formerly 292)

WARNING! Graphic Content: Political Cartoons, Comix, and the Uncensored Artist

  • Spring 2022
  • Spring 2021

This course examines the past, present, and future of political cartooning, underground comix, graphic journalism and protest art, exploring the purpose and significance of image-based communication as an unparalleled propagator of both noble and nefarious ideas. The work presented will be chosen for its unique ability to demonstrate the inflammatory effect of weaponized visual jokes, uncensored commentary, and critical thinking on a society so often perplexed by artistic free expression and radicalized creative candor.

COMM 2991 (formerly 290-301)

Special Topics // Digital Platforms, Power, and Policy

  • Fall 2022
  • Spring 2022

From Amazon to Uber, digital platforms play an increasingly central role in our society, including as public spheres, as political tools, as sources of entertainment and news, and as sites of commerce. At the same time, companies that operate these services face growing public scrutiny—the so-called “techlash”—for spreading hate speech and misinformation, undermining user privacy, algorithmic discrimination, exploiting workers, abusing their market power, and environmental destruction. The goal of this course is to provide clarity to the flurry of debates about platforms by critically examining: a) characteristics and definitions of platforms; b) their socio-political and economic influence; and c) the growing list of policy proposals to address that influence, including platforms’ own policy initiatives. Drawing on news reports, policy proposals, scholarly research, and our own engagement with platform tools, we’ll learn to describe, assess, and critique platforms’ power, to evaluate policy interventions, and to draft our own solutions.

COMM 2991 (formerly 290-302)

Special Topics // Good Talk: The Purpose, Practice, and Representation of Dialogue Across Difference

  • Fall 2022
  • Spring 2022

Good Talk is an exploration of dialogue across lines of difference. This is a non-traditional, student-centered course that is highly personalized to the individual. Instead of promoting a single model for what "dialogue" is, what it looks like, and how it should be done, the course exposes students to multi-media texts representing a diverse range of identities and communication challenges. We take representations of dialogue -- in graphic novels, memoirs, performance, social media, and more -- seriously as sources of dialogic theory. The goal is for you to put into practice your own working theory of dialogue that is meaningful for your values and relevant for the kinds of scholarly, professional, community-based, or personal work you are invested in. This is an SNF Paideia course.

COMM 3220 (formerly 322)

History and Theory of Freedom of Expression

  • Spring 2022

If we were to fashion new laws for speech from scratch in our media-saturated, fake news world, would they be different laws from those we have? The rootedness of free speech in our civic DNA springs from enduring philosophical arguments over what truth and knowledge are, what human nature is like, and what we think society owes to and requires from its members. We explore foundational debates at the core of the First Amendment, the evolving interpretation of the amendment by the Supreme Court, its determined historical challengers, and struggles over its applicability to contemporary controversies. We address strong claims that unfettered speech is central to democratic societies and strong claims that society can be made more democratic by removing discriminatory speech from social media and public discourse more generally. Every society limits speech in significant ways. What are these limits in the United States, why are these the limits, and are they the ones we want? This reading and discussion seminar meets for lively, informed dialogue and debate.

COMM 3230 (formerly 323)

Contemporary Politics, Policy, and Journalism

  • Spring 2022
  • Spring 2021

This course focuses on how modern media intersect with politics and government in the 21st century. Case studies will include examining media coverage of the Gore v. Bush 2000 presidential election recount, 9/11, Barack Obama’s election and presidency, the Trump administration, and the 2020 election. The course will include several guest speakers, all of them prominent press/political figures. In addition, students will participate in a DC field trip where they will get to hear from, and interact with, Washington leaders in the fields of politics, policy, and journalism. Course materials, in addition to a number of books, will include the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, left- and right-wing social media sites, cable broadcasts, and network news shows. There will be three written assignments: an analysis of the first two weeks of the next Administration; a column or op-ed; and a final research paper. In this discussion-based seminar there will be a premium on class participation.

COMM 3390 (formerly 339)

Critical Perspectives in Journalism

  • Spring 2022
  • Spring 2021

This course aims to provide students with a critical understanding of journalism. It combines theoretical perspectives on the making of news with primary source material produced by and about journalists. Students analyze theoretical material on journalism – about how news is made, shaped, and performed – alongside articles and broadcasts appearing in the media, interviews with journalists in the trade press, and professional reviews. Topics include models of journalistic practice, journalistic values and norms, gatekeeping and sourcing practices, storytelling formats in news, and ethical problems related to misrepresentation, plagiarism, and celebrity.

COMM 3560 (formerly 356)

Youth, Digital Culture, and Online Harassment: A Participatory Research Workshop

  • Spring 2022

From trolling to cyber-bullying, online harassment has increased exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic and it disproportionately impacts school-age youth. This ABCS course provides a hands-on opportunity for students to conduct community service and fieldwork investigating digital culture and online harassment. Over the course of the semester, students will review scholarship in Feminist Media Studies and Digital Inequalities, while undertaking participatory focus groups in partnership with students in a West Philadelphia school. In this course, students will merge theory with action through weekly seminars and fieldwork sessions. Together, our community of researchers will produce a collaborative report sharing original findings and evidence-based recommendations on how to prevent and address online harassment. This dynamic, hands-on course is perfect for students who want to tackle real-world communication issues, develop their research skills, and learn more about feminist Communication scholarship.

COMM 3600 (formerly 301)

Understanding the Political Economy of Media

  • Spring 2021

This course has two aims. First, assuming that communications are central to any society, it situates media systems within larger national and international social relationships and political structures. Second, this course critically examines the structures of the communication systems themselves, including ownership, profit imperatives, support mechanisms such as advertising and public relations, and the ideologies and government policies that sustain these arrangements. Considering case studies ranging from traditional news and entertainment media to new digital and social media, the course provides a comprehensive survey of the major texts in this vibrant sub-field of media studies.

COMM 3710 (formerly 371)

Youth Driven Health Campaigns

  • Spring 2022

Through this academic based community engagement course, you will mentor and collaborate with a team of high school students to develop a media campaign. This is an opportunity to apply communication research to addressing a real-world community-identified problem. The course will cover health communication theories and campaign development with a special focus on youth participatory action research. Together with high school students, you will gain hands-on research experience with problem identification, formative data collection and analysis, message design, and evaluation. Course work will include weekly readings and assignments relevant to each phase, periodic reflections, and a final group presentation related to your team's campaign. Engagement work will include approximately 2 hours in the late afternoon/early evening (outside of class time and based on availability) facilitating campaign development with one of the Netter Center's high school programs.

COMM 3770 (formerly 377)

Philosophical Problems of Journalism

This course explores the relationship between journalism and philosophy by examining particular issues in epistemology, political philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics. Topics will include: the concept of a "fact"; the role of the press in the state; whether journalists (like doctors and lawyers) operate according to specialized "professional" ethics; and the limits of journalism as a literary or visual genre. Course readings will include philosophical texts, breaking print journalism, and blogs that specialize in media issues.

COMM 3780 (formerly 378)

Journalism and Public Service

  • Fall 2022
  • Fall 2021

In this course we examine links between journalism and public service by scrutinizing core concepts involved, practices that sometimes put journalism and public service in conflict (e.g., investigative reporting, coverage of war), and how journalism stacks up against other forms of public service from NGO work to government employment. Beginning with a reading of Robert Coles's classic The Call of Service, we dissect the notion of the "public," assess so-called public-service journalism by reading Pulitzer-Prize-winning examples, and reflect on the news media as a political institution. Individual weeks focus on such topics as the conflict that arises when a journalist's obligation to a confidential source clashes with a duty to the judicial system, whether the business of journalism is business, how journalism and NGO work compares as public service, and whether journalism by committed political activists (such as I.F. Stone) surpasses mainstream "neutral" journalism as a form of public service.

COMM 3950 (formerly 395)

Communication and the Presidency

  • Fall 2022
  • Spring 2022
  • Fall 2021
  • Spring 2021

This course examines the vital aspect of communication as a tool of the modern Presidency. Reading and class discussions focus on case studies drawn from modern Presidential administrations (beginning with FDR) that demonstrate the elements of successful and unsuccessful Presidential initiatives and the critical factor of communication common to both. This course is also an introduction to primary research methods and to the use of primary research materials in the Presidential Library system.

COMM 3970 (formerly 397)

New Media and Politics

  • Fall 2022
  • Spring 2021

This course examines the evolving media landscape and the political process from three perspectives: 1) the voter, 2) political campaigns and candidates, and 3) the news media. The course opens with a broad overview of the main theories of political communication and a historical review of the role played by new media technologies in U.S. political campaigns leading up to 1996, the year the internet debuted in presidential campaigns. The course then follows this evolution from the 1996 presidential campaign to the present, in the midst of the 2022 midterm elections. We will take a deep dive into the landmark changes brought on by new media technologies to mobilize, persuade, inform, and fundraise around modern presidential campaigns. While the course takes a historical perspective, it will also focus on the contemporary landscape with special emphasis on changing voting laws, public opinion polls, Covid 19, social media and misinformation and their implications for current and future political campaigns, journalism, and voter participation.

COMM 3991 (formerly 390-301)

Special Topics // The First 100 Days

  • Fall 2021

This course will focus on the decisions and events of the first One Hundred Days of the Biden presidency in light of historic precedent and the factors that have typically accounted for success and failure of a president's first one hundred days. Our assessment of the Biden transition will attend to multiple contextual issues: the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s race crisis, immigration and trade issues, and the conduct and outcome of the 2020 elections. The course objective is to enhance students’ understanding of the presidency and national political leadership, with special emphasis on the critical role played by political communications. This course will be run as a directed research seminar. Students will be required to write short reports and a final research paper on a relevant topic approved by the instructors. Students will be expected to base their papers, in part, on primary research materials such as historical materials to be found online pertaining to past presidents and transitions and/or interviews with or study of past and present presidential staff, politicians, lobbyists, presidential appointees, journalists, and consultants involved in or knowledgeable about the transition process. Students will be expected to contribute fully to weekly discussions that will feature distinguished visitors experienced in presidential and national politics.

COMM 4040 (formerly 404)

Media and Politics

Media and Politics will examine multiple issues specific to the past and present political media environment in the United States. Focus will be primarily, though not exclusively, on the contemporary news media. Topics covered will include political primaries, how elections have been influenced by the rise of partisan media, selective exposure, freedom of political speech as it relates to elections, the theoretical purpose of elections, money and media, political targeting, etc. We will also explore the quantitative and qualitative methods underlying what is and is not known about how elections work. Under the supervision of the professor, students will write an original research paper examining a specific topic in greater depth.

COMM 4050 (formerly 405)

Media, Public Opinion, and Globalization

  • Spring 2022

This seminar will examine American attitudes toward globalization and the role of the media in shaping public opinion toward events and people beyond our borders. Students will participate in original research on attitudes toward issues tied to globalization such as immigration, international trade, support for international organizations, isolationism, and so forth. Students will also spend time systematically studying the implications of American media coverage of these issues.

COMM 4110 (formerly 411)

Communication, Activism, and Social Change

This course examines the communication strategies of 20th and 21st-century social movements, both U.S. and global. We analyze the communication social movements create (including rhetorical persuasion, art activism, bodily argumentation, protest music, media campaigns, public protest, and grassroots organizing), and the role of communication in the identity formation, circulation, and efficacy of social movements. We also consider the communication created by forces seeking to undermine social change, define the study of social movements from a communication perspective, identify major historical and contemporary movements, and apply theories of communication and social change to “real world” activism. Students are required to research and design their own social movement campaign.

COMM 4280 (formerly 428)

Conventions, Debates, and Campaigns

Offered every four years to coincide with the U.S. presidential election cycle, this course focuses broadly on the Democratic and Republican national conventions and the post-conventions campaign lasting until election day. Seminar members will attend either one or both conventions in order to make a close study of the convention process as well as the role of the convention in launching the two major party nominees. Students will explore how political appeals are fashioned and presented; how campaign themes develop; how efforts are split between persuading the electorate versus mobilizing the party faithful; the role of political parties, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and political action committees (PACs); how the campaigns forecast governance and serve American democracy. Students will produce comprehensive group reports on the conventions, debates, or major aspects of the unfolding campaigns.

COMM 4310 (formerly 431)

Is Public Opinion the Voice of the People?

Democracy relies on the mechanism in which the public communicates with policy makers. This course examines the extent to which public opinion effectively represents this mechanism. We begin with historical conceptions of public opinion tracing back to ancient Athens and 18th century enlightenment thinking. We then consider the extent to which public opinion can be captured by modern day polling, or whether it only emerges after considered deliberation and discussion. We then discuss the ways in which elite rhetoric and the media move public opinion, including through the use of public opinion polls. Finally, we ask whether policymakers are actually sensitive to the voice of the people or only the voice of some of the people.

COMM 4410 (formerly 441)

The Impact of the Internet, Social Media, and Information Technology on Democracy

At the turn of the 21st century, many claimed that the internet would make the world a more democratic place. Have these prophecies borne out? We examine the effects the internet has had on democracy, looking at research that examines whether, for instance, the internet has increased or decreased inequality, polarization, and political participation. In addition to reading and discussing empirical literature, we will also test many of the theories in this course through hands-on workshops in data analysis.

COMM 4897 (formerly 495)

ComPS Capstone Thesis

  • Spring 2022

Second semester of two semester thesis course. Successful completion of COMM 4797 is required for enrollment. The capstone thesis is a requirement for all Communication and Public Service Program participants. Students complete the primary research project started during COMM 4797. For students graduating with a 3.5 cumulative GPA after completing COMM 4897 with a grade of 3.7 or higher, the capstone thesis may be designated as a senior honors thesis in communication and public service.