Lucky creative writing students in a University of Pennsylvania seminar will be able to earn academic credit for wasting time on the Internet next spring. The class, appropriately titled “Wasting Time on the Internet,” will require its students to spend the three-hour weekly sessions dividing their attention between the world of the Internet and the classroom.
The instructor, Kenneth Goldsmith, tells The Washington Post that he will strictly enforce “a state of distraction” among the students — exactly the sort of thing he and virtually every other professor on Earth spends time trying to eliminate from their classes.
The purpose, Goldsmith says, is to have the students write something good at the end of the course, as a result of all that forced distraction. Goldsmith says he hopes the distraction will place his students “into a digital or electronic twilight,” similar to the state of consciousness between dreaming and waking that was so prized by the Surrealists.
“We do it, but we’re not really thinking about what we are doing,” Goldsmith says of digital distraction. Forcing students to think about all that “wasted” time might change assumptions about the worth of cycling through endless Reddit posts. “I’m so tired of reading, every time you pick up a paper, on how bad the Web is,” he says.
The conventional wisdom is that all that Internet time is making us as a society stupider. “I don’t think that’s true,” Goldsmith says. “I think the Internet is making us smarter.”
Based on his previous work, this sort of experiment is something Goldsmith does well. The English professor is also the author of 10 books of poetry; in 2013, he became the Museum of Modern Art’s first poet laureate.
His wide range of influences have produced some interesting ideas. Like that time he tried to print out the entire Internet as a tribute to the late Internet prodigy and activist Aaron Swartz.
Discussing that project with The Post’s Dan Zak last year, Goldsmith said: “I’m not doing this so that everybody can go and steal all the material on the Internet. I actually want to use his gesture as a jumping-off point to begin to ponder much larger questions.”
Goldsmith’s new course has shades of the Bruce Bogtrotter punishment from Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” wherein a school forces the student who stole a slice of cake to eat the entire, enormous cake by himself, in one sitting.
Goldsmith seems to be hoping that forcing students to actively engage in what is usually seen as a bad classroom habit will make them “not want to do that” in other settings. And like Bogtrotter, who manages to finish the whole cake with the encouragement and adoration of his classmates, Goldsmith’s highest hope for the class is that students will walk away better from the experience, “having theorized what they haven’t already theorized.”
Of course, not everyone will agree that encouraging young, impressionable minds to divide their attention among a phone, a laptop and a professor is worth the Ivy League tuition. For his part, Goldsmith says he has yet to hear substantial negative criticism of his new course idea, noting that undergraduate education often makes space for ideas and experiments one wouldn’t otherwise get to try.
“Creative writing and art is the place where you get to try out…things that might seem a little bit outrageous,” he says. “Isn’t that what an undergraduate education is, really? It sounds like a perfect undergraduate class to me.”
That response won’t fly for everyone, but it’s important to note that creativity has a long and strong relationship with activities that might otherwise be considered idle or wasteful. If you want to be particularly Puritan about it: Thoreau wasted time at a pond. Hemmingway wasted time going to bull fights. And a particular sort of a loafer, the flâneur, has long been a valued and important figure in art-making.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” Goldsmith says when asked what he hopes his class will produce for his students. But he’s been teaching a similarly provocative course at Penn, called “Uncreative Writing,” for a decade. Students in that class are forbidden from producing anything original and must rely on copying and stealing — plagiarism! — to complete assignments.
Goldsmith considers “Uncreative Writing” to be one of his most successful courses, precisely because it opens up new creative outlets by forcing students to do the opposite of what they’re normally told. “Once you take away the forbidden fruit…then they shift their orientation and view it as a creative exercise.”
Here is the full course description of “Wasting Time on the Internet,” as it appears on the Web. (And yes, it’s one massive paragraph.)
Live without dead time. — Situationist graffiti, Paris, May 1968 We spend our lives in front of screens, mostly wasting time: checking social media, watching cat videos, chatting, and shopping. What if these activities — clicking, SMSing, status-updating, and random surfing — were used as raw material for creating compelling and emotional works of literature? Could we reconstruct our autobiography using only Facebook? Could we write a great novella by plundering our Twitter feed? Could we reframe the internet as the greatest poem ever written? Using our laptops and a wifi connection as our only materials, this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature. Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs. To bolster our practice, we’ll explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting through critical texts about affect theory, ASMR, situationism and everyday life by thinkers such as Guy Debord, Mary Kelly Erving Goffman, Betty Friedan, Raymond Williams, John Cage, Georges Perec, Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefevbre, Trin Minh-ha, Stuart Hall, Sianne Ngai, Siegfried Kracauer and others. Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.