CoursesFailure to Communicate
PSYC 3409-001

Failure to Communicate

Mondays, 7:00 pm-9:59 pm

The phrase “failure to communicate” became iconic in American English from the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke,” in which Paul Newman played a convict who refuses to listen or follow orders. The film raised questions about the multiple ways we understand “failure to communicate” and its consequences. Is it sometimes a decision to resist a presumption, a premise, an interpretation, an argument, a directive from authority? Is it at other times simply a mechanical failure? This course examines “failure to communicate” in multiple cultural areas, among them literature, romance, politics, show business, law, science, war, psychology, philosophy, business, religion, humor and education.

In addition to our manageable reading in nonfiction, journalism and scholarship, we watch 24 movies (no cost to you) and bring literary, philosophical, psychological and historical perspectives to these issues. We’ll be grappling with literary fiction (e.g., works by Herman Melville and Toni Morrison) and theater (e.g., “A Chorus Line”) as well as film (e.g., “Cyrano,” “I Am Sam,” “A Quiet Passion” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”).

We’ll also experiment, trying some role-playing communication exercises with students: e.g., a couple breaking up, a U.S. general talking to a Russian general, a novelist trying to explain to an editor why some material shouldn’t be cut, a back-and-forth between a stopped driver and a police officer. Finally, we’ll ask whether failure to communicate is always a bad thing, as well as how to avoid its worst consequences.

I took Failure to Communicate to fill a psych requirement and for a pre-med English class and it surpassed my expectations. ~ Amelia Demopoulo, C’23

Requirements: a 6-page midterm paper, a 15-page final paper, 10 short (up to two paragraphs) ungraded critical comments on assigned reading or viewing over the term, and active participation in class discussion. This course counts as a “Cognitive Elective” for Psychology majors toward credit in the Psychology major. It also counts for credit toward requirements in the Philosophy and Communication majors.

Please contact Professor Carlin Romano if you have any questions at

This was one of the most enjoyable courses I’ve taken at Penn. The movies were great and being able to discuss and analyze issues of communication was always a fun and rewarding process. ~William Locke, C’23

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