Click for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Forecast


Print This Issue
Front Page
All About Teaching
Subscribe to E-Alamanc!


Talk About Teaching and Learning

Teaching Communication

Michael X. Delli Carpini

Let me start with a confession—my Ph.D. and M.A. are in political science, and my B.A. is in political science and English literature. I never took an undergraduate or graduate course taught through a communication department or school. My involvement in communication as a field developed out of my research and teaching about citizen engagement in the United States. It quickly became clear to me that it was impossible to understand how and why citizens participated in politics without also understanding the role of communication—between public officials and citizens and among citizens themselves—as well as the role of the media in these exchanges.

I mention this personal history for four reasons of relevance to the issue of teaching communication. First, the study of communication is important—even integral—to other disciplines, not only in the social sciences, but also in the humanities and even the Nadia sciences. Second, the field of communication is interdisciplinary by its very nature and origins, regularly drawing on the theories, methods and findings of other areas of academic inquiry. Third, this interdisciplinary heritage means that there is no single way to think about, study or teach communication. And fourth, despite this mixed pedigree and continued theoretical and methodological diversity, the field has developed its own identity and offers approaches to understanding interpersonal and mass-mediated communication that are unique.

The course offerings of the undergraduate communication major at Penn reflect this mix of indebtedness to other fields and the uniqueness of our own. Many are obviously distinct to a communication program, dealing directly with issues of journalism, new media and information technology, and the like. In addition, given the nature of our field, we make a special effort to integrate technology into our teaching when appropriate, both as examples of the communication processes being discussed (i.e., the use of illustrative film and video clips, DVDs, audio tapes, photographs, web sites, etc.) and as a means of facilitating classroom learning and interaction (e.g., course list serves and web sites). We also provide opportunities for students to integrate classroom learning with NAND EMI experience through several media production and design classes. And we are upgrading our video conferencing capability to expand our ability to "bring in" guest lecturers and, perhaps in the future, to offer courses that bring together students and faculty from different universities.  

In addition to these communication-specific courses and approaches, however, many of our courses address issues that will be familiar to other schools and departments across the University: campaigns and elections, public opinion, popular culture, business marketing, public health, globalization, art and film, privacy, children's development, the presidency, human cognition, public architecture, war and peace, and so on. What distinguishes these courses from those offered elsewhere, however, is the central focus on communication. How does the mass media shape (for good or ill) public opinion? Can television serve an educational function for children? How does the design of a park or building facilitate or inhibit public discourse? Do public service ads reduce harmful behavior among targeted members of "at risk" populations? What is the role of images in news coverage of political and social events? Can the internet replicate the individual and collective benefits of face-to-face deliberation? Under what circumstances does popular culture help to break down racial, ethnic, national, and gender stereotypes? Under what circumstances does it exacerbate these stereotypes?

It is this focus on the institutions, processes, content, genres and/or impact of communication, rather than more exclusively on the substantive topic being explored, that binds our field together. And it is this focus that is central to our teaching. Of course our faculty must be knowledgeable about their particular substantive area and impart that knowledge to their students. Indeed, like me a number of the Annenberg faculty were originally trained in other fields within the humanities, social sciences or hard sciences. Students in communication courses will learn a great deal about attitude formation and change, the biology of addiction, the policy-making process, the development of the brain, the dynamics of political campaigns, architectural design, the economics of advertising, and such.

The challenge—and the pleasure—of teaching about these and other individual and societal processes from a communication perspective is demonstrating the ways in which the exchange of information plays a fundamental role within each of them. The form of communication may vary from the written word, to images, to sound. The medium of communication may vary from newspapers, to novels, to film, to television, to CDs, to the internet. The genre may vary from news to drama to comedy. The scope of communication may vary from interpersonal conversations to impersonal mass mediated messages. But this exchange of information influences the ways in which human beings think, feel, act, and interact, whether in the context of deciding who to vote for, what to buy, or who is a friend and who is an enemy.

Within this common ground that defines communication as a field there remains a healthy diversity of methodological and theoretical approaches, again reflecting our diverse roots in the humanities, social sciences and hard sciences. For example, communication methods include everything from case studies, archival research and textual and image analysis; to statistical analyses, controlled experiments and mathematical models; to even physiological measures such as changes in heart rate or magnetic resonance images of the brain.

Although this methodological and substantive diversity is one of our field's great strengths, it brings with it certain centrifugal forces that can challenge our coherence. While the temptation is to divide ourselves into methodological and substantive camps, we have largely avoided this at Annenberg by designing our undergraduate curriculum in a way that keeps what is common to the field central. Our introductory courses provide students with a foundational understanding of the core theories, institutions, processes, and methods of communication. Once grounded in these core principles of our field, intermediate and advanced courses allow students to apply them in the context of more specific substantive topics (for example, health, politics, globalization, advocacy, or popular culture), more specific mediums (for example print, film, television, the internet, photographs, or graphic arts), more specific genres (for example, news, advertising or entertainment) and/or more specific components of the communication process (for example, institutions and policy, media content, or communication effects).

Within this broad structure, undergraduates are able to concentrate in particular areas, though we encourage our majors, in true liberal arts fashion, to take courses that expose them to a range of theoretical, methodological and substantive topics. Throughout their undergraduate education, we also try to assure that our students are given opportunities to engage in primary research. One of the best examples of this is David Eisenhower's course, Communication and the Presidency, in which students travel to presidential libraries to undertake original archival research on a topic of their choosing. We also provide opportunities for students to enhance their classroom learning through a variety of media and communication related internship opportunities.

 The latest addition to our major is a concentration entitled Communication and Public Service, or COMPS. COMPS, which was made possible by a generous endowment from the Annenberg Foundation, combines classes and research opportunities with hands-on experience in the public arena. Classes, seminars, internships, field experiences, and individual research projects provide students with opportunities to meet and learn from current and former officeholders, journalists, public servants and grassroots activists. The goal of COMPS is to help build the next generation of leaders by providing students with the fundamental knowledge and experience necessary for careers in public service and public advocacy.

To learn more about our undergraduate course offerings, curriculum and major, as well as about our faculty and their research, visit our website at

Dr. Michael X. Delli Carpini is the Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See for the previous essays.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 27, March 30, 2004