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As part of Penn's next academic year theme, the "Year of the Media," incoming freshmen will be instructed to watch the film 'Citizen Kane' for the Penn Reading Project.

Credit: Vanessa Weir

Next year’s freshmen are in for a treat: Their academic year has been announced to be the Year of Media, and unlike the many previous freshmen classes who were assigned to read novels, they will be instructed to watch and reflect on the classic film “Citizen Kane.”

Though the Penn Reading Project will be in its 26th year and the majority of past projects have been centered on novels, next year’s theme will stand out in PRP archives as the first one to focus on a film.

“One reason why we chose this, both the theme and ‘Citizen Kane,’ has to do with election politics,” New Student Orientation and Academic Initiatives Director David Fox said. “It has a fairly significant part of media, so this would be related to the presidential election, which will be interesting to freshmen who arrive.”

The main question to focus on is, according to an Almanac press release “Can we ever really interpret and understand a person’s life?”

One of the ways in which the film director, Orson Welles, approaches this line of thought is to switch the narrative between different observers, a technique that would not only distinguish “Citizen Kane” as one of the greatest American films ever made, but also profoundly impact later movies. Fox said he hopes to also coordinate with faculty on the Cinema Studies Program so that filmmakers can potentially give talks on Welles’ work.

“I think the most important thing in any given year is [for students] to think about the theme in conjunction with their lives here at Penn and to see just how many resources we have and how broadly we think about any academic idea,” Fox said.

“Citizen Kane” is a fictionalized biography of a character modeled closely on real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The Almanac press release describes the film as an exploration of power and media that poses questions on the importance of the news, how the news can be manipulated and how power shapes leaders in both positive and negative ways.

“In some ways, this is an ongoing theme that every year becomes more important,” Fox said. “Social media certainly becomes a part of it, and it was especially nice that next year coincides with the election while media becomes increasingly important with every election in terms of documenting its raising attention.”

While the majority of Penn Reading Projects have required students to read literature for themes such as the Year of Evolution, Year of Discovery and Year of Proof, other unique projects have included Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen” and Thomas Eakins’ painting “The Gross Clinic.”

Fox added that given the influence and ubiquity of media today, next year’s academic theme is sure to bring up thoughtful and interesting discussion.

“This will be one of the interesting themes where students are ahead of us in certain ways, in terms of how to think about the media,” Fox said. “When it comes to social media, I think many faculty would tell you that they know far less about it than students do, so it’ll be an interesting opportunity for us to exchange ideas about this.”

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