Undergraduate Course Descriptions
Visit Penn's course registration page for information about advance registration and course selection, and a link to choose your courses on Penn InTouch.
Find a Course
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.
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.
Ethnography and Media for Social Justice
How do qualitative social scientists study urban communities? What kinds of powerful tales can be told about urban lifestyles and social issues in places like Philadelphia? This course will allow students to study various ethnographic treatments of urban communities in the United States, using films, articles, TV serials, and books as guides for the framing of their own independent research on the streets of Philadelphia. Students will also form production teams of two or three people, and these production teams will be responsible for (i) identifying and researching an important urban issue in contemporary Philadelphia and (ii) turning that research into a 15-30 minute video documentary or podcast. Mixing video/audio journalism with ethnographic methods will enhance their skills at archival and social research, from participant observation and interviewing techniques to sound editing and production. This course is intended to be a rigorous and exciting opportunity for students to tell empirically grounded stories using the voices of their participants and the sounds of the city.
Digital Dissidence: Networked Movements in the Age of the Internet
- Fall 2020
This course examines digital dissidence, which takes a wide variety of forms in today's online mediascape. Key issues we will explore include: What is the infrastructure of the global Net and who made it? What is the logic of networked action online and how effective is it? Have the supposedly democratic rules of the internet resulted in positive social transformations? What impact does ever-increasing internet surveillance have on digital dissidence? What can ensure the safety and freedom of online resistance? The sociological concepts and theories covered in this course will help students understand and assess the threats that networked movements face in the political context of contemporary global uprisings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peace Communication: The Use and Abuse of Communications in Intergroup Conflict
- Fall 2020
Why are conflicts between groups of humans so tragically predictable? What drives us to exclude, demean and fight with members of other groups? And what can we do about it? In this class, we will examine the biological roots of intergroup conflict between religious, ethnic and political groups, and take a critical view of the ways in which psychology and communication have been employed to help foment or transcend conflict. In the first part of the course, we will examine the theoretical work from intergroup psychology. In the second part of the course, we will examine the specific biases that drive conflict (e.g., stereotypes, emotions, prejudice, dehumanization) and how they are measured using both explicit self-report and implicit measures (e.g., physiology, neuroimaging); in the third part, we will explore the interventions that have been demonstrated to work (and fail) to decrease intergroup conflict. No prior experience in psychology or neuroscience is required. The course is lecture-based, but will include class discussions and in-class activities.
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?
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.
The Hidden World of Privacy Policies
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’.
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.
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.
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.
Journalism & Public Service
- Fall 2021
- Fall 2020
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.
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.
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.
- Fall 2020
- Fall 2021
Digital information and communication technologies are intertwined with our everyday lives, from banking, to working, and dating. They’re also increasingly crucial parts of our most powerful institutions, from policing, to the welfare state, and education. This course examines the ways that these technologies combine with traditional axes of inequality like race, gender, and class in ways that may deepen social inequality. We’ll consider major approaches to understanding digital inequalities and apply them to case studies of both problems and solutions. Students will learn to critically analyze policies and programs from a variety of perspectives, and to evaluate the promise of digital technologies against their potential perils.
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.