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Teaching with Multimedia: Cinema and Television as a Resource for Teaching Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lois Warner
October 26, 2017


There are public administrators all over the US doing meaningful work at every level of government and in all of its departments, providing superb models as sources of inspiration for those already in the field and, indeed, for new members. Capturing their professional experiences and skills on film would afford valuable material for use in public administration education processes, enhancing introductory courses and other courses on a wide range of public administration topics, for example, leadership, public relations, human resource administration and managing public organizations. The cost of documenting public administrators working in their natural environments, and the intrusion it would entail, make such an exercise prohibitive.

The motion picture industry in the U.S., however, third in the world in its annual production of movies, released 650 to 750 in the period from 2013 to 2017. The public sector is often featured in U.S. award-winning movies and television series that are in many ways appropriate as teaching resources and readily available in the public domain (US Copyright Laws). Growing numbers of online publications and databases on this subject serve to classify an abundant supply of material from the film industry that effectively portrays public administrators in government and nonprofit work environments. These offer vicarious experiences of what working in public organizations is like and enable students to observe and note examples of public service professionalism.

Movies and Television as a Public Administration Teaching Tool

Movies are primarily designed for entertainment, but their use in the classroom is not new. At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in 1991, Marc Holzer argues in his presentation titled “Visual Perspectives on Bureaucracy” that movies are a powerful vehicle for commentary on bureaucracy. He refers to Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie “Modern Times” as an early example of film images of bureaucratic, mechanistic organization and lists 150 additional movies on topics related to public administration. Holzer also states that television provides another vehicle for commentary on public bureaucracy through many sitcoms about schools and law enforcement.

Michael W. Popejoy in a Public Voices (2009) article titled “Teaching Special Topics in Public Administration Using Select Episodes of NBC’s West Wing to Support and Supplement Class Lecture and Textbook Readings” likewise attests to the value of the film medium as a teaching tool for public administration. He argues that movies and television illustrate and inform aspects of public administration topics from current and historical perspectives. He states that education and entertainment can coincide comfortably in the classroom, but mentions the importance of carefully selecting materials for their accuracy, relevance and impact. He further emphasizes the important role of the instructor in guiding students with an introductory lecture, occasional comments during viewing and at particularly critical points, and finally to guide discussion when viewing concludes. Public Voices is the Journal of the ASPA Section on Historical, Artistic and reflective Expression (SHARE) and includes several articles by leading public administration scholars on this topic.

In Joseph E. Champoux’s article in the Journal of Management Education titled “Animated Film as a Teaching Resource,” the author outlines many methods for teaching with film. In each case, he identifies the films most suited for particular types of instruction, whether to illustrate strategic planning, workplace leadership or problem solving, among others. Champoux, like Popejoy, emphasizes the role of the instructor. He points out the need to guide students from ideas in fictitious contexts to their relevance in the real world. He recommends providing students with conceptual and theoretical frameworks as the lens through which to interpret and analyze scenes from in the film. Eric K. Austin in an article in Administrative Theory and Praxis titled “Cinema and Public Administration Theory in the Classroom” posits that exploring theory through film can build theory competency in ways that not only directly represent concepts of theory on screen, but also create a space for engaging students to the point where their action becomes informed by theory.


Assessing the effectiveness of film for learning about public administration is even more important than assessing traditional course delivery methods because it is still somewhat unorthodox as a teaching tool. From personal experiences with using film for teaching courses in administrative ethics, most of the students surveyed over the three most recent semesters, 98 percent report, in an open-ended question about the advantages/disadvantages of movies as a learning resource that the movies increase their interest in the course topic, provide relatable life-like portrayals of the field and overall, provide enjoyable learning experiences. Some, however, (2 percent), report difficulty in connecting fictitious situations and characters with the learning processes. This can be remedied by placing more emphasis on presenting movies as case studies for analysis, using methods recommended by Champoux, already described.

Finally, several studies show that film as a form of multimedia is one of the best educational technologies because it addresses multiple senses simultaneously, positively impacting cognitive achievement, academic achievement, comprehension and application. Some of the scholarship on this is already covered in earlier articles for this column on Teaching with Multimedia.

Author: Lois Warner is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the School for Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She is also the Teaching Resources Coordinator and Assistant Director of the Virtual Museum of Public Service (vmps.us), and serves as a Member at Large on ASPA-SPAE’s Executive Board and as ASPA-SHARE’s Chair-Elect. [email protected]

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