Meet the Professor Inspiring Students to See Horror Films

Do you need a push to see a horror movie this October? Dr. William Whittington, a professor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, might inspire you to embrace the spirit of the season and take a trip to the movies.

Dr. Whittington recently taught a seminar called “Horror and the Disruption of Modern Media and Society” to a group of Ph.D. students as part of the Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Micro Seminar Series. Dr. Whittington outlined the history of the horror genre, explaining how it emerged and developed over time. He focused part of his lecture on explaining why horror movies are relevant today.


Dr. Whittington leads a seminar during the Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Micro Seminar Series. Photo by Steve Cohn.

Just as we apply other film genres to our lives, we can do the same with horror films. “Horror films are particularly attuned to the moment… they represent the anxieties of the moment,” said Dr. Whittington. We can look to many current horror films and TV series to see some of the issues our society is grappling with. For example, we can watch the television series “Westworld” and see the representation of one of our current fears—the fear of technology taking over. Similarly, “Get Out” draws attention to current racial tension and the anxiety over our social climate. Dr. Whittington explained that the horror genre allows us to contain certain issues, think about them, and then apply our analysis to the real world.

“Go to see horror because, weirdly, there is hope. Despite the mayhem, there might be a final survivor or a final solution,” says Dr. Whittington.

Dr. Whittington is currently working on his second book about sound design in horror cinema. It follows his first book, “Sound Design and Science Fiction,” which focuses on science fiction cinema. Dr. Whittington says he used to love horror movies as a teen, but has grown less found of them. Right now, he is particularly interested in the artistry of horror films and their relationship to artistic traditions like surrealism and expressionism.

Dr. Whittington’s lecture was part of the USC Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Program’s ninth annual Micro Seminar Series. The micro seminars are designed to bring together USC Annenberg Graduate Fellows from three different schools; the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the School of Cinematic Arts, and the Viterbi School of Engineering. Faculty can propose topics for the micro seminar that are relevant to students in all three schools. The event typically draws more than 100 Annenberg Fellows who have an opportunity to interact with students and faculty from outside of their programs and get to know each other.


Students listen to a lecture during the Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Micro Seminar Series. Photo by Steve Cohn.

Dr. Whittington has participated in almost all of the micro seminars since the series began in 2009. He says the seminars allow people with different perspectives and research focuses to come together, discuss topics and develop new insights.


Students and faculty gather at a reception during the Annenberg Graduate Fellowship Micro Seminar Series. Photo by Steve Cohn.

Now back to Halloween. You can learn something from horror movies, so why not dive right in? Dr. Whittington has some recommendations. If you want intellectually stimulating and scary movies, try watching international horror films. Dr. Whittington’s top three choices in the category are “Pontypool” (from Canada), “The Orphanage” (from Spain), and “Ju-on: The Grudge” (from Japan). If you’re looking for horror films with some comic relief, he recommends “The Final Girls,” “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” and “Dead Snow.”

USC PhD Profile: Jacqueline Sheean

Understanding the Madness Within

On All Hallows’ Eve, people delight in the ghouls and goblins that go bump in the night. We squeal and giggle over the prospect of external terrors that our minds remind us are only fantasies – we are safe. But what happens when the mind itself turns on us and the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Could the potential of madness fester right beneath our skin waiting to consume us hungrily and leave only a shell, a skeleton, of who we once were? Or might the madness set us free from from the constraint of shackled rationality?

The question of madness as monster or madness as liberator is at the center of Jacqueline Sheean’s comparative literature doctoral research. And luckily for USC students, Jacqueline is bringing her research to the classroom as one of this year’s Provost Mentored Teaching Fellows.  In an interview with the USC Graduate School, Jacqueline discusses her 2017 spring semester course that poses the question, “What is the relationship between madness and genius?”

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is an etching by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is an etching by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya.

Why is madness such a prolific topic in literature and other media?

Madness is scary. It is hard to clarify. Reading about and observing people falling into madness reminds us how little we actually know the workings of the mind. People are always afraid of the unknown, especially when it could be us.

How did you decide to study this topic and what are you looking for in your research?

I had read and explored a great deal of literature on cultural constructs and coping with insanity across several cultures, but saw a gap in the research in, specifically, Hispanic literature. Miguel de Cervantes’, “Don Quixote” is heralded as the quintessential spiral into insanity as Quixote pursues his windmill foes. But I saw Don Quixote’s madness not just as a meaningless folly. His madness made him bypass reason to create vision – a vision of chivalry and righting the wrongs of the world. There is so much tension in literature to cast madmen out of society for their afflictions versus seeing them for their creative output. And this is also true to real life – consider the genius of Mozart amidst reportings of his wild and erratic behavior.

So, what should students expect from taking your class?

The course is a comparative literature course called Madness and Vision in Literature, Art, and Film through Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. We will be exploring philosophical and cultural constructs dating back to Plato and Aristotle. We will discuss the psychoanalytic texts of Freud in his medical and psychological attempts to explain the brain and mind. And then we will examine writings from Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, surrealist poetry, and, of course, parts of Don Quixote, as we work to understand the seemingly irrational behavior of madmen, as we work to deconstruct the reason/unreason binary.

Any last thoughts?

Aristotle said that “No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” Ultimately, we all have the ability to slip into “madness”, as in erratic behavior, even if temporarily. So much of how we understand mental illness and the mind is cultural and personal perception. There is such a fine line between valuing the genius of seemingly “strange” behavior and devaluing people that are different from us. It is a matter of time, moment, and circumstance for all of us.

Madness and Vision in Literature, Art, and Film is listed as COLT: 381 Psychoanalysis and the Arts. The class will held be Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 11:00 – 11:50 AM during the spring 2017 semester. Course location TBD.

 Provost Mentored Teaching Fellow, Jacqueline Sheean

About Jacqueline Sheean

Jacqueline received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and Spanish at the University of Oregon. Currently, Jacqueline is on track to present her dissertation in 2018.


Fellowship Boot Camp Profile: Kelly Zvobgo

zvobgo, kelly

Kelly Zvobgo, PhD, Political Science and International Relations

Fellowship Boot Camp 2016 runs August 2 – August 12. Boot Camp is an opportunity for students to maximize the impact of their fellowship application. The following is a brief profile of a Boot Camp participant, Kelly Zvobgo.

PhD, Political Science and International Relations

Research objective: I’m interested in human rights, specifically human rights instruments. So these can be treaties, international courts, or truth commissions. Truth commissions [are] historical investigations into authoritarianism, into political violence, into repression. I’m interested even more specifically in how these commissions engage the participation of perpetrators. Traditionally, truth commissions focus on victims or survivors of a conflict. They discuss what happened to them. This is all chronicled to be part of the national history so that there can’t be denial of the conflict, which often intensifies the trauma of the survivors of the conflict. The literature focuses on victims, which I think is very important. This is the first real venue into focusing on victim narratives. Often in discussions of courts, victims are only brought in to substantiate either the prosecutor or the defender’s case and [the victims] don’t get to tell their story in its totality and in its own right. It’s only ever for someone else’s agenda. So truth commissions provide a venue for survivors to share their story. However, if we aspire to a comprehensive historical narrative, the voices and stories of perpetrators are also necessary. One: for a historical record, so there can’t be denial or deviance from this. Two: so that victims gain answers in terms of where their loved ones may be buried or further information on where they were detained; just further information for them to be able to experience closure and move forward from the conflict or the authoritarian regime. And third: to ideally, and in the best of cases, for perpetrators to demonstrate remorse or contrition, in a way that can really help all parties involved in the commission reconcile and imagine a shared role or a shared stake in the project of the new nation.

Boot Camp tip: The Boot Camp has really been clarifying a lot of ambiguous parts of the application process… The most useful information that’s been discussed so far is positioning our narratives, and ourselves, in our research. It was really helpful when it was explained that the “broader impact” can be you, and what you are going to do with the research in terms of advancing knowledge.  Research projects can be interesting…and individuals and their own statements can be interesting, but it’s really integrating the two to create a holistic image that will make for a very compelling application.

Six word story: Death, grief; no closure, no peace.

Why: When regimes engage in repressive politics and political violence, death is probably the most salient of the authoritarian or conflict events that people can experience. Death is always followed by grief in terms of: grief for the individual, grief for the family, grief for the community and for the nation. Without truth, without a comprehensive historical narrative, there is no closure. And without closure there really can be no peace. If people feel like they’re not heard, like their stories are unacknowledged or denied, they don’t really get the chance to move on. Those wounds fester and remain, making situations very unstable. So while there might not be outright war and guns fired for a certain period, there still isn’t peace. We say in political science that the cessation of violence is not necessarily peace. We qualify it, calling it a negative peace. A positive peace is one in which there is justice and accountability and restoration and transformation of communities. I just say no peace because I don’t think negative peace suffices.

Q&A with USC PhD student Leslie Berntsen

Leslie poses with her students

Leslie poses with her students

Leslie Berntsen, a USC PhD candidate specializing in brain and cognitive science in the Department of Psychology, won the 2016 Wilbert J. McKeachie Teaching Excellence Award! She’s about to start her fourth year teaching a class called Psychological Science & Society to high school students enrolled in USC Summer Programs. She’s also serving her second year as the Chair of the CET Teaching Assistant Fellows (a group of graduate students who facilitate trainings and organize programs to help TAs become the best teachers they can be). Last summer, Leslie and a couple of friends helped develop the university’s first peer outreach program dedicated to sexual and gender-based violence and, this past year, she joined the Campus Climate Coalition and served on the Provost’s Diversity Task Force Advisory Board.


Please talk to us a little bit about the 2016 Wilbert J. McKeachie Teaching Excellence Award?

This is awarded by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (Division 2 of the American Psychological Association) to a single graduate student every year. I certainly don’t teach for the recognition, but I have to say that it does mean a lot to receive this award. I’ve always taught for a very particular reason, and that’s so my students can use what they’ve learned about the social and brain sciences to go out and make the world a better place. Over the years, this approach has been met with varying levels of enthusiasm, so it gives me so much hope to know that other people can see value in what I’m doing.

Did you hold any Fellowships while you were at USC, if so, how did that help you succeed in your studies and in your career?

I was awarded a Provost’s Mentored Teaching Fellowship (PMTF) this past year, which was a great opportunity to design and teach my own undergraduate course named The Frontal Lobe: From Function to Philosophy. I know that the PMTF program has been a long time in the making and I’m so glad it finally got off the ground this year. Writing a syllabus from scratch and seeing the class all the way through to the last day of the semester has been an invaluable and enlightening experience and I just wish more people could get an opportunity like that before teaching for the first time.

What kind of advice would you give PhD students at USC so that they can be successful in their educational endeavors?

Find something about the PhD experience that you love, something that literally gets you out of bed in the morning, and just pour your heart and soul into it. That’s obviously going to mean different things for different people, but, at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live your life, so you might as well do something that makes you genuinely happy. Plus, it’s a lot easier to keep yourself motivated during those less enjoyable moments knowing that you have something else to look forward to.

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Put yourself out there and take as many risks as you can: submit a conference abstract for a talk instead of a poster, nominate yourself for that national award, apply for that fellowship or job you don’t think you’re qualified for, and so on. You’re bound to hear a disappointing “no” (or several) along the way, but you’ll never hear a “yes” unless you actually try. So, whenever a potential opportunity or something comes up, let other people be the ones to tell you “no” instead of doing it to yourself.” – Leslie Berntsen


USC PhD Profile: Fei Fang

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Fei Fang, a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science in the Viterbi School of Engineering, successfully defended her thesis this month and is about to accept a tenure-track Faculty position at Carnegie Mellon University! We caught up with Fei to congratulate her and do a short Q&A.

Did you hold any Fellowships while you were at USC, if so, how did that help you succeed in your studies and in your career?

Yes, I was a recipient of the WiSE Merit Fellowship in 2014. The Merit Fellowship is offered to PhD students at USC who demonstrate exceptional work in their field. Receiving the Fellowship was a great encouragement to me! I was in my third year, and I had finished two projects where I was a main contributor. My new project had just started and I was struggling to find the right direction and to make progress. Getting the Fellowship made me believe in the potential of my research and the new project resulted in a paper which won the Outstanding Paper Award at IJCAI’15 in Computational Sustainability!

What kind of support did you receive from USC?

I would like to give special thanks my committee members who gave me a lot of support and guidance, especially about my career path. After my qualifying exam, I talked to my committee members to get suggestions from them. They generously shared their experience with me about why they chose to stay in academia and how to build a research group. They provided me vision, which was super helpful to me.

What kind of advice would you give PhD students at USC so that they can be successful in their educational endeavors?

It is important to have a deep understanding of your own research topic but at the same time have broad knowledge of the general area of your research. Doing research is not like finishing homework or completing course projects, so be prepared to get stuck and keep trying different options. If you feel frustrated, take a deep breath under the sunshine and talk to your labmates and friends! You may get inspired! Keep doing good work, great opportunities are waiting for you!

About Fei Fang

Fei’s hometown is Changzhou, a city close to Shanghai, China. She received her undergraduate degree from Tsinghua University in July 2011 and then joined the CS Department at USC as a PhD student in August 2011. Fei would like to thank her advisor Milind Tambe and her dissertation committee members Shaddin Dughmi, Leana Golubchik, Jelena Mirkovic and Suvrajeet Sen for their support during her time at USC.

Meet Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships: Leah Aldridge

Leah Aldridge, Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships

Leah Aldridge, Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships

In addition to being the Graduate Student Advocate for Fellowships, Leah is a USC School of Cinematic Arts PhD candidate. The focus of her research examines the international circulation of black cinematic images. Specifically she investigates the historical and industrial determinants that trigger Hollywood black film production cycles and analyzes their consumption abroad.
Leah’s Role at the Graduate School
My responsibility is to work with USC graduate students as they prepare application for external monies. There are graduate students all over the country competing for much of the same funding and we want our USC students to move to the front of that line and be successful. We hold information sessions where you can learn more about what’s available to you and how to access external resources. I love what I do as a Graduate Student Advocate because I’ve seen how just a little bit of information can make a big difference to a graduate student trying to figure it all out. I enjoy being of service and providing education to people and that’s why I’m here with the Graduate School.” –Leah Aldridge
Leah’s Advice for PhD students

First off educate yourselves on the different funding opportunities; your department’s stipends for Teaching or Research Assistants are terrific but you should be aware of other opportunities to fund your education and research. Also be creative in your search for fellowship funding: the funding you pursue might not be limited to the focus of your research, it could be to support you as a member of an historically under-represented group. Or it could come from a country abroad that wants to promote and create awareness of their research value. There are so many different types of funding available and I strongly suggest that you don’t limit yourself in your search. You might not get one big grant but you might be able to construct a funding fellowship plan made up of many different items. Some good resources are GRAPES UCLA, H-NET Humanities and Social Sciences Online. And, be sure to connect with other PhD students; your peers are the best source of information. There’s a big chance that other graduate students have had similar experiences and you can learn from them. Of course you must do your own digging around, but graduate student chatter is a wonderful source of information!” –Leah Aldridge

You can contact Leah for any questions related to Fellowships and the USC Graduate School at

USC PhD Student Profile: Darshana Mini

Darshana Mini, first year PhD student at USC

Darshana Mini is a first year PhD student with the Cinema and Media Studies Division at the School of Cinematic Arts. She is an Annenberg Fellow and a recipient of the National level Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship (DPDF) awarded by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). Darshana is involved on campus as the Graduate Programme Assistant at the Center for Women and Men and part of VOICE (Violence Outreach Intervention and Community Empowerment), a peer outreach program that works to support survivors of trauma and prevent sexual and gender-based violence. She is also part of the Clinical/Advocacy subcommittee of the USC Sexual Assault Task Force.

Darshana’s Research

Darshana’s research looks at Indian cinema’s relationship to sexuality, import policy and censorship by tracking the emergence of the South Indian state of Kerala as a hub of soft-core pornography. Her PhD dissertation examines how the genre of soft-porn cinema emerged as a subversive form in the late 1990s by contravening government prohibitions on the circulation of sexual content.

USC Graduate School and the Fellowship Application Process

It is essential to take steps towards professionalization very early on. The USC Graduate School also has great resources run by their Academic Professional Department and Fellowship Department

– Darshana Mini

In her first semester as a PhD student, Darshana was curious about the Fellowship application process. Through colleagues in her department, she found out about DPDF –  one of the few external fellowships available to early-career PhD students and one that is specifically geared at aiding the proposal development process. In Spring 2015, she attended the VSGC Grant Writing Workshop held by USC’s Visual Studies Research Institute (VSRI) where she brainstormed her proposal with a panel of mentors. The advice from seasoned academics at the workshop helped her fine-tune her proposal and make it palatable to a wider audience. Extensive discussions with her supervisor, Professor Priya Jaikumar and her committee member, Professor Ellen Seiter, were crucial to the success of her application.

Darshana’s Advice to PhD Students

Given the extremely competitive job market in academia, attending conferences, publishing in journals and applying for Fellowships are crucial for well-rounded academic development. One needs to apply for these opportunities widely. As PhD students we lose nothing if we apply, but we deprive ourselves of so many opportunities if we don’t apply.

– Darshana Mini

USC Celebrates PhD Applicants for Major National Awards!

Dr Meredith Drake Reitan (far right) speaking to guests at the USC Graduate School’s event for Fellowship applicants

The USC Graduate School highly encourages its PhD students to apply for Fellowships, which is why on February 9, 2016, we took an afternoon to celebrate all those who worked hard to put forth applications.

We want to reiterate that this is a celebration not about having received but about having applied for an award. We want to acknowledge the risk you have taken by putting yourself out there. Regardless of the outcome, we are happy to support you in this endeavor.”

Meredith Drake Reitan, PhD, Associate Dean for Graduate Fellowships 

USC had approximately 150 PhD students apply for major national awards this year! We were especially delighted to see that at least 50 students applied for the NSF Fellowships and 11 students applied for the Ford Foundation’s Pre-Doctoral or Dissertation funding. Furthermore, of the 46 students who completed this year’s Fellowship Boot Camp, close to 80% submitted a proposal!

Whether it be the the NSF GRFP, NIH NRSA F31, SSRC DPDF, AAUW, DOD NDSEG or any other Fellowship, these acronyms represent a wonderful alphabet soup of opportunities! The Graduate School is here to encourage PhD students and provide the resources they need to put forth competitive Fellowship applications.

USC PhD Student Profile: Chris Warren

Chris Warren speaking at the 2016 USC Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute Symposium

Chris Warren speaking at the 2016 USC Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute Symposium

Chris is a PhD student with the Keck Department of Preventive Medicine in his third year of the Health Behavior Research Program. He is a USC Provost’s Predoctoral Fellow and recent recipient of a NRSA F31 award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Chris’ Research

Chris’ background is in cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology. As a doctoral student he has explored the neurocognitive factors that influence a child’s ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors relating to health. He focuses specifically on executive function. Executive function forms a key part of the mechanism that allows an individual to say “no” to unhealthy options in service of a long-term goal. An example would be the ability to forgo having a calorie-laden dessert in an effort to achieve a weight-loss goal. He is particularly interested in knowing to what degree near-roadway pollution may affect the development of executive function in children. Near-roadway air pollution is loosely defined as the pollution from vehicle traffic including tailpipe emissions, partially combusted fuel, and debris from tires and brakes. The NIH, which funds most biomedical research, was particularly interested in Chris’ research because most of the current attention in the field is directed towards regional air pollution (smog, power plants, etc.) and the effects of exposure to pollutants early in life. Focusing on the effects of near-roadway air pollution on behavioral outcomes during adolescence is what sets Chris’ research apart from the rest.

USC Graduate School & the Fellowship Application Process

USC Graduate School Academic Professional Development

USC Graduate School Academic Professional Development

Two summers ago, Chris participated in the USC Graduate School’s Academic Professional Development program, which ran for ten weeks. In this doctoral summer institute, students from across the university gathered once a week to attend workshops on grant writing and manuscript writing.

Forcing yourself to explain your research to someone who isn’t well-versed in it is valuable because you’re communicating and translating the research to concepts that everyone can understand. That was the value of the summer institute – there were people from all around USC and it’s great to have any opportunity to bring people from various disciplines together and learn from one another – Chris Warren

Chris also credits the Provost Fellowship as instrumental to his capability of putting forth a competitive application for the NIH F31 Fellowship. Due to the fact that he wasn’t a TA, it freed up an additional 15-20 hours per week where he could pursue his own research ideas.

Chris’ Advice to PhD Students

As a graduate student, you need to take advantage of the fact that you’re in this incredible community of scholars and put yourself out there, otherwise your focus may narrow too much  – Chris Warren

“For instance, within the Health Behavior Research Division there’s little focus on air pollution; they’re looking more at other determinants of health. But within the broader department of Preventive Medicine there are many people who are interested in that topic and the health effects of environmental exposures more broadly. Seeking people outside of my division is what led me to make these links in my own research. Had I not put myself out there and attended talks on topics different from my own, and taken additional classes taught by professors from other disciplines, I wouldn’t have made these connections. There’s a tendency to want to focus on one area and be the expert, which is important, but as a graduate student you need a variety of perspectives,” said Chris.

USC PhD Student Chris Warren

USC PhD Student Chris Warren

Graduate School Fellowships for Advanced PhD Students 2016-2017

Kate Tegmeyer, Fellowship Assistant at the USC Graduate School, held two info sessions this week detailing our Fellowships for Advanced PhD Students.

These included: Endowed PhD Fellowships, Dissertation Completion Fellowships, Research Enhancement Fellowships, and Provost’s Mentored Teaching Fellowship.

In case you missed it, below is the handout from her presentation with all the information you need! You can also reach Kate at if you have any questions.

Advanced Fellowship Info Session Handout 2016


Info Session Info Session