Undergraduate Course Descriptions

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COMM 203

Media, Culture & Society in Contemporary China

(Fulfills Cross Cultural Analysis Requirement) This course studies contemporary China in the context of globalization. Starting with an analysis of the origins of economic reform and the struggles for political change in the 1970s and 1980s, the course moves on to cover critical issues in the twenty-first century, including migration and work, middle class consumerism, youth, religion, media and communication, environmental degradation, new forms of inequality, civil society and popular protest. Taking a sociological approach, this course introduces methods and theories for analyzing institutions, inequality, and social change.

COMM 230

Advertising & Society

  • Fall 2021

This course explores the historical and contemporary role of the advertising industry in the U.S. media system. The course will cover the social history of advertising; the structure of today’s advertising industry; the workings of advertising in digital media; and critical analyses of advertising’s role in society. In addition to academic writings, the class will read industry reports to understand contemporary strategies and processes.

COMM 244

Civil Dialogue Seminar: Civic Engagement In A Divided Nation

  • Fall 2021

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 249

Film Festival History and Practice

Film festivals as we know them emerged as nationalist spectacles and have since become important sites of cultural exchange at global and regional levels. Constantly shifting due to geopolitics and technology, festivals are crucial components in the larger film industry and help to shape film culture, greatly impacting the trajectories of both the life of a film and its makers. Festivals offer a vehicle with which to explore the intersection of art, communications, economics, and politics. Festivals have previously constituted an alternative distribution mechanism for independent and so-called ‘international’ films that may never get a theatrical release and thus offer opportunities for regional audiences to find them. They have also been especially important for nonfiction films. In this course, we will examine the histories of the larger international festivals in North America and Western Europe (i.e. Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Sundance) and also look into smaller festivals that have formed around thematic, regional or cultural parameters. Additional topics include: independent film distribution and exhibition, criticism, funding, film programming theory and practice, differences in regional and niche festivals, tourism, marketing, and social media. Particular attention will be paid to for-profit versus not-for-profit models and explore the relationship of festivals to museums, universities and non-profit arts structures widely. The course will consist of readings, screenings, and guest presentations from festival programmers.

COMM 253

Divine Mediation: Media and the Shaping of Religious Identity and Practice

(Fulfills Cross-Cultural Analysis Foundational Approaches Requirement) This course surveys how religious groups interact with media, and how media texts and institutions have played a role in defining religions. The intersections between media and religion are numerous, from the mediated growth of national identities, the rise of online religious extremism, the ingroup/outgroup dynamics within and among religious groups, and the ways in which media is used to legitimize/delegitimize theological positions. We examine how media institutions have played a role in propping up religious norms (both explicitly and implicitly) and the shaping of religious identities. This course looks at media as both enforcer and disruptor, as well as the ways in which religions have been challenged by those with media literacy and access. The evolution of religious practice and social norms can also be linked with technological innovations such as the mass distribution of Bibles in the 15th and 16th century thanks to the printing press, the rise of radio and television messiahs in the 20th century, and the individualization of religious practices through new apps.

COMM 263

Modern Social Movements

  • Fall 2021

This course examines the main sociological theories and concepts in the analysis of revolutions, popular protest, and social movements. Special attention will be given to three theoretical traditions: resource mobilization, political process, and cultural analysis. We will study narratives, symbols, performances, and old and new media forms in the construction of identities and solidarities and the mobilization of publics. Historical and contemporary cases from the U.S. and around the world will be examined. Students will work in small teams on a term project — an analysis of a social movement or protest event of their choice.

COMM 282

Sick and Satired: The Insanity of Humor and How it Keeps Us Sane

  • Fall 2020
  • Fall 2021

This course will examine how and why humor, as both an instigator and peacemaker, might be considered one of the most influential and profoundly useful forms of communication devised by human beings. The unique ability of jokes and satire to transcend familiar literary and journalistic forms for the purpose of deepening (or cheapening) socio-philosophical arguments and to inspire (or discourage) debate and participation in public conversations about innumerable political and social issues will be explored. The fearless analytical nature of both high and lowbrow comedy will be examined, as well as its deflective qualities. The course will enable students to consider, through analysis of both contemporary and historical examples, the political and cultural satirist’s unique role in society as a witness, a predictor and, in some circumstances, an instigator of public and private debate. We will examine the role of satire in revealing and mediating differences between disparate social groups based not solely on language differences, but also on political affiliation, cultural identity, ethnicity, gender, religious fellowship, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic caste.

COMM 286

Masculinity and the Media

  • Spring 2021

This course examines the construction of masculinity in American and global media, highlighting how masculinity developed in parallel to social, cultural, economic, and political norms. Using case studies and multiple theoretical approaches, we will seek to understand how constructions of masculinity across the world have served to uphold – or challenge – the status quo. Analysis of individual texts across time periods and different cultural contexts will also help us better come to terms with the idea of masculinity – and its proliferation across media platforms.

COMM 290

Visual Culture and Communication

Visual images permeate every aspect of daily life, through social media, advertising, music videos, TV shows, film, art, fashion, video games, and sports. But we are often so accustomed to the constant flow of images that we do not critically examine them. What happens when we peel apart at the many-layered meanings of visual images? How do images communicate important parts of culture, politics, or the construction of social value? How do individuals or social movements push back on dominant norms and construct their own forms of visual meaning and communication? This course focuses how meaning is embedded in images, through theoretical readings paired with contemporary examples. Students will learn how to read and analyze a variety of visual forms, including from popular culture, politics, art, and museums.

COMM 290

Special Topics // Happy, Sappy, Creepy: Social Media and Feeling

  • Summer 2021

Why does Zoom make you sad? Why does it feel good to troll online? Has digital media desensitized us, or are we more sensitized than ever? In the context of protests against systemic injustice across the world, a global pandemic, and rising inequalities, our relationship with digital media is more complicated than ever. This course discusses call-outs, trolling, leaks, scandals, and activism online through the lens of the emotional, thinking about the pleasure, fear, outrage, disgust, shame, and joy that come with these everyday practices. We'll also examine the ways that our emotions are monetized, shaping and reshaping the platforms we interact with. By developing a critical eye to the platforms we use to protest, socialize, pay bills, and scroll through on a Sunday night, we'll also learn about the way that emotion powers university life, the corporate world, and political movements. Throughout the course, we will read articles and engage with media, including podcasts, videos, and other mediums. This course will help students who want to learn about both the theoretical and practical components of social media, whether you are interested in a career in industry, activism, or academia.

COMM 290-302

Special Topics // America on Record: Music, Culture, and Identity

  • Fall 2021

This course asks students to interrogate the idea of America and American identity through the comparative study of popular music. We will use music as a method for exploring issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in the constitution of American culture and in the making and unmaking of the American self. This is neither a linear and comprehensive history of American music, nor is it a musicology course with attention to musical formalism and technique. Rather, it emphasizes music as intercultural communication, a living cultural space where ethnic, racial, national, gender, and sexual identities are both formed and de-formed. While focusing on major musical movements throughout the twentieth — and into the twenty-first — century (minstrelsy, blues, jazz, corridos, salsa, rock, punk, hip-hop, pop, etc.), we will root our thinking through several key critical rubrics: performance, community, activism/protest, industry, memory, affect, power, and technology. This course is guided by the following key questions: What is music’s role in the construction of “America” as a geopolitical idea, as well as the notion of transnational, inter-American identities? We will also pay particular attention to the role of the music industry itself. How has the music industry changed from the days of vaudeville to today? Central themes considered all semester long will include immigration, assimilation, citizenship, and patriotism. Together, we will learn to listen critically to the music that shapes the experiences of who we think we are, as well as impacts our engagement with and socio-cultural understandings of particular historical and political moments.

COMM 292

WARNING! Graphic Content — Political Cartoons, Comix and the Uncensored Artistic Mind

  • 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 299

We are the 99%: Media and Memory of the Occupy Movement

  • Fall 2021

2011 was a watershed year for social movements, from the Arab Spring to Los Indignados, to Occupy Wall Street. This seminar focuses on the Occupy movement, placing it in a global climate of activism, and focusing on the movement’s use of media and technology. In the midst of an activist movement, it’s impossible to know what practices, technologies and ideas have staying power and which ones will fade away. The ten-year anniversary of these activist uprisings provides an opportunity to reflect and ask: what are the legacies of these movements for today’s activist efforts? How did the Occupy movement reshape digital activist practices? Where did the movement fail and what were its successes? In this discussion-based seminar, students will learn fundamentals of social movements theory, analyze the particular efforts and ideas of the Occupy movement, and develop a richer understanding of activist media.

COMM 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 322

History and Theory of Freedom of Expression

Can legal penalties be assessed against Donald Trump for suggesting his followers might beat up journalists at rallies? Is shouting “Heil Hitler! Heil Trump!” at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof the same as crying fire falsely in a crowded theater? Should racist speech be banned from Penn’s campus? If we were to fashion laws about speech all over again for our media-saturated, fake news world, would they be different from the ones we have? Does the First Amendment—invented for a print world in which most citizens weren’t literate unlike the ultra-connected world we have today—protect democracy or endanger it? This seminar examines the philosophical foundation of the First Amendment, its interpretation by the Supreme Court over time, and the struggles over its application to current controversies. We also examine the challenges of civil society censorship that gets people banned from social media or fired from their jobs for controversial speech, such as the NFL’s threats to fire players for taking a knee. All societies make laws to limit speech. What are these limits in the United States, and are they the ones we want?

COMM 328

Drawing the Blue Line: Police and Power in American Popular Culture

  • Fall 2021

The police are one of the most heavily imagined institutions in American popular culture. From Cagney and Lacey to Colors, Law & Order, The Wire and The Watchmen, evolving depictions of law enforcement help us to understand larger socio-cultural shifts that have occurred from the post-1968 riots to the dawn of the Black Lives Matter movement in the mid-2010s. Using case study and textual analysis approaches, students will examine how specific police procedurals, movies, and other cultural texts showcase police authority in relation to certain communities, and consider how these texts reflect, uphold and/or challenge prevailing views on law and order and criminal justice. Our explorations of how media and cultural industries have framed policing will pay particular attention to questions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and geography.

COMM 339

Critical Perspectives in Journalism

  • 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 354

Power and Design in Global Communication

  • Fall 2020

In this course, students will critically explore global communication platforms and internet infrastructures with attention to their social and political implications. The goal is to reflect on how the design of communication technologies embeds power relations, and how these impact specific social groups and shape the relations between the global South and the global North. The course will examine topics such as biased algorithms, digital labor, censorship, surveillance, infrastructure standards and protocols, and their public interest dimensions. Cases to be analyzed include gendered and racially biased artificial intelligence tools, the outsourcing of content moderation in social media that links the United States to the Philippines, connectivity shutdowns from the United Kingdom to India, as well the politics of the domain name system affecting LGBTQ+ groups and indigenous communities in the Amazon region. Students will select case studies to research throughout the semester and will examine the relations between technological design, communication, globalization, and transnationalism to imagine new possibilities for the future of global communication.

COMM 355

Media, Memory and Cultural Identity

This global communication seminar examines the relationship between media, memory, and cultural identity. We will explore how globalization induces dynamic changes in the ways people imagine their past as they respond to a new politics of transnational identity formation. The media serves as a pivotal force in this process by reshaping the relationship between memory and identity at the local, national, and global scales. Via an examination of various case studies of contemporary media practices in Asia, Europe and the US, students will learn to think comparatively about the mediation of memory. Focusing primarily on visual and digital cultures, the course will enable students to critically engage with how different media platforms and genres shape the construction of individual and collective memories. Students will also explore semiotics and oral history as important methods for reading and researching cultural memories.

COMM 359

Journalism in an Age of Information Disorder

  • Fall 2020
  • Fall 2021

As audiences navigate the polluted information environment, they increasingly look to journalists to help them understand what is true or false. As a result, newsrooms now publish regular debunks, journalists verify eyewitness footage posted to Twitter in real-time, and a new ‘disinfo’ beat has emerged with reporters investigating conspiracy theories being peddled on 4Chan, Discord or Reddit. At the same time, some members of the public see journalists as being part of the problem itself and Trump has famously labeled them as the ‘enemy of the people’. This course will examine the major shifts that have happened in the information ecosystem since 2005 and will explore how they have impacted journalism. Each week, we will consider a current challenge US newsrooms are facing, for example: the rise of social networks and the resulting collapse of the local newspaper industry, the media manipulation campaigns aimed at hoaxing and tricking newsrooms into amplifying false or divisive content, and the new pressures on ‘objectivity’ as journalists report on stories related to the current political and social climate. This course will focus on the practical strategies journalists and newsrooms will be adopting in the run-up to the Presidential election including hearing from reporters who now work on this new ‘disinfo beat’.

COMM 361

Dreaming Out the Future: Technology, Ideology and Speculative Media from the Global South

  • Spring 2021

In this course, utilizing media drawn primarily from postcolonial Africa and Asia, we will examine how science and technology are (and have historically been) imagined as essential to the work of building the future, especially in the Global South. How do a diverse range of actors—from artists to activists, private corporations to government agencies—depict technological progress as vital to the future yet to come? We will work through a broad range of popular texts and primary sources, ranging from sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age to the blockbuster Chinese film The Wandering Earth, from the Australian TV show Cleverman to Indonesian president Sukarno’s opening speech to the Bandung Conference. Working through these diverse texts and media, we will unpack and challenge how science and technology have continually been imagined as necessary for building the future to come. We will also examine alternative ways of dreaming the future, as found in Indigenous speculative fiction and the creative movement of Afrofuturism. Students will learn how to closely and critically analyze a variety of written and multimedia texts from the “Global South”, both in translation and in English. They will practice their skills of critical analysis and response through both writing and creative multimedia production. By the end of the course, students will be able to examine, critique and interrogate the various imaginings of technology’s importance and functionality that are at work within diverse genres of corporate, activist and popular media. This class integrates materials and theories from humanistic media studies and science and technology studies (STS) and will serve as a brief introduction to both fields.

COMM 368

Kinesthetic Anthropology

  • Spring 2021

This class, team-taught by CEE Visiting Fellow Reggie Wilson and Deborah Thomas, investigates various forms of contemporary performance in relationship to Africanist forms and functions of dance, movement and action. We will concern ourselves with how the body knows, and with how we learn to identify the structures of movement that provide context, meaning and usefulness to various Africanist communities across time and space. Grounding ourselves within a history of ethnographic analyses of the body in motion, and within Africana theorizing about the affective power of the body, we will consider what people are doing when they are dancing. In other words, we will train ourselves to recognize the cultural values, social purposes, and choreographic innovations embedded in bodily action and motion. While we will attend to these phenomena in a range of locations throughout the African diaspora, we will also highlight aspects of the Shaker and Black Shout traditions in Philadelphia. The course will be divided between discussions centered on close reading of primary and secondary material (both text and video) and creative writing/movement exploration (no previous movement experience necessary).

COMM 372

Journalism in/of Conflict

  • Spring 2021

When moral and material forces structure reporting and the actions of journalists as they navigate conflict, complex, dangerous and often untenable processes of decision-making can ensue. In this course, students will be introduced to various theoretical approaches for thinking about the journalism of armed conflict and humanitarian disaster. We will discuss what gives conflict journalism its particular moral character, what duties (if any) journalists have towards the conflicts they cover, and what structures the practices of journalists covering the suffering of others. Specific topics include theories of witnessing and their obligations for journalists, debates on ‘peace’ and ‘attached’ journalism, the humanitarian imaginary, the micro-sociology of conflict space, theories of risk and journalism, and the role of affect and emotions in the practice of journalism under pressure. This course is intended to give students a broad introduction to the theoretical issues and questions that arise when journalism meets conflict and suffering.

COMM 373

Black Geographies: Race and Visual Culture

(Fulfills Cultural Diversity in the US Requirement) What is the relationship between the Flint water crisis, the hyper-policing of racialized people, and the increased surveillance of neighborhoods deemed “poverty-stricken” or “at risk?” How do regimes of security, surveillance, policing, and forms of violence depend upon the concept of “risk” as central to their operation? How is risk informed by systemic racism and forms of anti-Blackness? How does visual culture (e.g., media coverage, documentary photographs, etc.) inform how we come to see and define certain people, communities, and ways of life as “risky?” How have those living in racialized geographies of “risk” found ways to live in, make do, and challenge the faulty narratives of risk? This interdisciplinary course will examine critical debates and key moments—historical (e.g., MOVE bombing in Philadelphia) and contemporary (e.g., Ferguson riots)—that have informed the concept of risk. Over the course of the semester, we will read scholarly texts and engage with objects such as archival documents, photographs, conceptual art, performance art and installations, journalistic texts, and films. This communications course will be approached from a cultural studies perspective, with particular attention to race, gender, and sexuality.

COMM 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 387

Comparative Journalism

Is journalism the same all over the world? Do press systems and practices differ in fundamental ways that affect how we evaluate them politically, morally, aesthetically, epistemologically and economically? Where does U.S. journalism fit among the models? This new undergraduate seminar will introduce students to concrete differences in journalism around the world, but it won't only be an empirical look at how various various press systems operate. We will also examine and argue about which journalistic practices and systems work best for which purposes, and explore the distinctive journalistic and philosophical assumptions and histories that undergird diverse practices and systems. Asian, European, African and Mideast journalism will all be attended to.

COMM 388

Ritual Communication

  • Fall 2021

This course explores the significance of rituals as communicative events in contemporary American culture. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which rituals contribute to the making and re-making of social groups, be they ethnic, religious, familial, or institutional. And we will also attend to the obverse: the ways in which rituals create and perpetuate boundaries between "us" and "them" and between “appropriate" and "deviant" social behavior. Issues of race, class, gender, nationality, religion, age and sexuality will be central to our exploration of how rituals function. Over the course of the semester, we will analyze individual rites of passage -- from quinceañera to funerals -- as well as rituals that mark transitions on a far larger scale such as presidential inaugurations. We will explore rituals that unfold at the local level as well as those that most of us experience only in mediated forms. Students will get hand’s on experience conducting original ethnographic fieldwork and will learn how to develop compelling research proposals.

COMM 389

Black Visual Culture and Its Archives

  • Spring 2021

This undergraduate seminar examines the intersections of visual culture and race in the United States. It aims to provide a historical, cultural, and visual foundation for understanding the representation of and by Black people from the 19th to the 21st centuries, including texts such as, but not limited to, photography, film, television, conceptual art, and performance. Students will be introduced to critical concepts in the field of visual studies, black studies, communication, cultural studies, and rhetorical studies. The course will pay special attention to concepts such as Blackness, visuality, visibility and invisibility, surveillance, photographic theory, the gaze, and spectatorship. We will consider questions such as: What is “black visual culture”? What are its archives? How is Blackness produced, represented, and negotiated through visual modes?  In what ways does Blackness and Black people challenge, refract, and rewrite the various visual modes that have sought to represent it? The course will explore various theoretical and methodological approaches to answering the aforementioned questions and enable students develop their own questions for understanding the complex ways in which race and the visual have been, and continue to be, entangled.

COMM 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 446

Media Industries and Nationalism

  • Fall 2020

Media institutions have long played a central role in constructing national identity, particularly in the era of nation-states. As globalization increases, media industries have also helped countries project their national identities – and nationalism – for both domestic and international audiences. With contemporary nationalist movements in the spotlight, this course examines how media institutions and cultural industries help to shape nationalism while framing in-group/out-group dynamics for audiences. This course examines case studies in mediated nationalism, paying particularly close attention to – but not limited to - countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Hungary, Israel, India, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. Using Benedict Anderson’s idea of imagined communities as a theoretical basis, this course seeks to investigate how media industries affirm – and occasionally challenge – nationalistic sentiment, and how much of a role state intervention has played in the production of media texts. This course provides students with an understanding of the deep connection between media institutions and state-sponsored/populist-nationalist movements, as well as the dynamics that shape nationalism in both wartime and peacetime eras.

COMM 468

Annenberg Media Lab 2020: It’s Not Just TV — The HBO Project

(Permission Only. Preference given to Comm Majors and CAMRA undergrad fellows) “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” This is one of the marketing slogans Home Box Office started using in the 1990s to articulate its difference from standard network television. Using videotaped interviews already conducted with many of the executives who helped launch HBO in the 1970s, this hands-on course will provide students with a unique opportunity to engage with the methodological and theoretical implications of crafting arguments/stories in images and sound. Students should be prepared to put theory into practice by working on smaller media products linked to these archival materials. Students will study these interviews with HBO execs, watch fictional and non-fictional films/videos of various genres, discuss relevant media/social theory, and acquire training in (and exposure to) the basics of digital media-making. At the end of the course, students should have acquired a more sophisticated aesthetic and analytical approach to media analysis, to media production, and to the inescapable interconnections between the two.