Undergraduate Course Descriptions

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COMM 2010

Power and Misconduct in Popular Music: An Archival Study

  • Fall 2022

This course asks students to interrogate power and identity in America’s popular music industries through a close examination of sexism and sexual misconduct. Designed as a research practicum that teaches interdisciplinary methods of archival research, this course explores the challenges individuals face within the cultural and professional landscapes of popular music. We will spend the first half of the semester exploring theories and practices of archives and archiving, developing critical analytical approaches to archival research in media and popular music. In the second half of the semester, students will apply this methodological and theoretical foundation to a focused examination of select case studies. Students will engage with a range of primary sources and archival texts, including memoirs, artist biographies, music histories, documentaries, and traditional and social media to consider how dynamics of power intersect in popular music. This course will provide students with the opportunity to contribute important insight and archival research to a new digital archive on sexual misconduct in America’s popular music industries. Students will gain hands-on experience conducting in-depth media analyses and archival research, which will culminate in the development of a comprehensive research portfolio.

COMM 2320

Gender and Media

  • Fall 2022

This course examines various images and performances of gender in media focusing on the late 20th century to the present. Using theories from cultural and media studies, film and gender studies, and communication studies, we will explore different processes and practices of gender, specifically in terms of media representations of femininity, masculinity, and other genders. The purpose of the course is to gain insight into the ways in which gender, and its intersections with race, ethnicity, and class, is enacted, represented, and has an impact on cultural formations and communication. We will explore the socio-cultural mechanisms that shape our individual and collective notions of identity and essentially teach us what it means to be gendered masculine or feminine or align with other identifications. The media plays a major role in "constructing" gender, and popular views of what “appropriate” gendering is, in turn, shape how we communicate with each other. In examining cultural myths about gender as well as ongoing debates on gender construction, we will consider how gender is tied in with notions of power, identity, voice, and other defining identity categories (race, socio-economic status, sexuality, etc.) Throughout the course, we will examine a variety of media forms, from film to television to streaming platforms, as well as social media such as Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

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 2630 (formerly 263)

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 2640 (formerly 203)

Media, Culture, & Society in Contemporary China

  • Spring 2022

This course covers Chinese media, culture, and society from the 1970s to the present. It examines the causes and consequences of social and institutional transformation, with an emphasis on civic engagement, cultural change, and the impact of digital media. In analyzing these developments, the course pays special attention to historical contexts and draws on concepts and theories from sociology, communication, and related fields. The course helps students develop nuanced and sophisticated approaches to the understanding of contemporary Chinese media, culture, and, society and cross-cultural phenomena more broadly.

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 2820 (formerly 282)

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

  • Fall 2022
  • 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 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 290-302)

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 3280 (formerly 328)

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

  • Fall 2022
  • 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 and police abolition in the early 2020s. 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 power, race, gender, sexuality, class, and geography. These explorations will also include learning about and learning to dialogue, given the diverse – and often contentious – views about policing in America. Students will have an opportunity to interact with speakers representing different positions that relate to mediated perceptions -- as well as lived experiences of -- policing. Class assignments and activities will enhance students' abilities to productively discuss complex issues that are frequently sanitized or homogenized within U.S. popular culture. 

COMM 3300 (formerly 330)

The Hidden World of Privacy Policies

The US Federal Trade Commission considers privacy policies essential for internet sites and apps. Lawyers for firms with internet sites and/or apps spend much time writing privacy policies. Yet surveys show that most Americans don't read the policies, and in fact cannot understand them because of their legal jargon. Moreover, surveys indicate, most Americans don't even correctly understand what the label privacy policy means. The aim of this course will be to examine this crucial but misunderstood aspect of modern life. You will learn how to read privacy policies, how to understand their strategic business purposes within the internet industry, and how to think about the implications for society when the key rules of surveillance and privacy are hidden from all but a relative few. You will also work with others in the class to create and carry out a survey of college students' understanding of privacy policies. There will be one exam and a paper related to the survey.

COMM 3360

Feminism and the Internet

  • Fall 2022

From the earliest message boards and email chains, the internet has given people a way to connect, not just digitally but sexually. Porn, online dating, sex education: digital technology has made it easier for people to find each other and explore sexuality, but these same tools have also been used in relationships that are exploitative and criminal. In this course, we look at the different connections between sex, gender, queerness and the internet: changing policies regulating sex (like FOSTA and SESTA), the platforms that have created controversies around sex (for example, craigslist, tumblr and Grindr) and shifting norms around how sex and sexuality manifest online. This is an interdisciplinary course that brings together internet studies, queer theory, and cultural studies in order to understand the social and historical dimensions of sex, sexuality and digital technologies.

COMM 3370

Public Health Communication in the Digital Age

  • Fall 2022

This course is designed to explore the role of public health communication in the digital age to influence health behavior change in several areas: infectious disease pandemics, tobacco and substance use, mental health, cancer, nutrition and physical activity and others. Throughout the course, we will discuss a number of important considerations when designing and implementing public health communication interventions. Students will be introduced to theories of health behavior change, models of persuasive communication, practical issues in the design of effective health communication programs, countering misinformation, community engagement, audience segmentation, cultural tailoring to specific audiences, evaluation approaches, ethics, and communication inequalities. We will also explore the use of digital technologies and social media platforms, entertainment education, popular media, and social marketing in delivery of public health communication interventions.

COMM 3400 (formerly 311)

Peace Communication: The Use and Abuse of Communications in Intergroup Conflict

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.

COMM 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 3590 (formerly 359)

Journalism in an Age of Information Disorder

  • 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 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 3661

Filming the Future of Philadelphia

  • Fall 2022

This workshop is a rare opportunity to learn to use film to engage Philadelphia and its future from personal, political, social, and historical perspectives. Over one semester, we will simultaneously think, learn, and imagine Philadelphia through music, dance, anthropology, art, theater, architecture, literature, history, night life, day life, school life, social life, and life after school. We will read, we will write, and we will learn how to make films with an anthropologist. We will also approach Philadelphia from the perspectives of race, gender, sexuality, wealth, democracy, urban life, suburban life, job prospects, creative projects, industrial boom, post-industrial decline, activism, police violence, and gentrification. In thinking about the future, we will think about the extent to which Philadelphia is representative of American futures more broadly, and to what extent it is an exceptional city. We will also examine Philadelphia's place in the world. This project will be a collaboration between activists and artists from Philadelphia, and students from Penn. It will end in public screenings on campus and in the city.

COMM 3730 (formerly 373)

Black Geographies: Race and Visual Culture

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. Fulfills Cultural Diversity in the US requirement.

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 3890 (formerly 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 3991 (formerly 390-301)

Special Topics // Black: Joy, Aesthetics, and Critical Media Making

  • Spring 2022

How can the camera and other media tools be used to resist and combat dominant narratives about groups of people whose identities are often misrepresented in mainstream media? What do intentional portrayals of self-defined black joy communicate about the role of power and resistance in media and communication? This course will allow students to study concepts from Black studies, film studies, communication, and performance to learn practical approaches to understanding joy as a form of resistance. Course materials will examine how Black aesthetics (home-making practices and other forms of every day cultural production) play a role in today’s antiracism movement. Using films, articles, tv series, and podcast style interviews for framing independent media pieces, this course pairs ethnographic methods with media making for students to develop skills to combat the overabundance of trauma narratives about Black life and more broadly the lack of nuanced representations of identity and culture in America. Course activities and assignments will help bring into focus creators and knowledge makers who are often overlooked and mis-represented in mainstream media and higher education. Students will be asked to build on new styles of knowledge making and storytelling to generate more visibility onto media-making practices that are imaginative and exist outside of traditional standards for producing knowledge. Students in this class will be encouraged to attend events and watch shows or performances as part of course participation.  

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 4320 (formerly 432)

Digital Inequalities

  • 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.

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.