An undergraduate creative writing course became a news story recently after the Vice site Motherboard revealed that the University of Pennsylvania was offering a spring semester class called "Wasting time on the Internet." Things got meta when thousands of people wasted time at work sharing links to the course description and related stories on social media.
The professor teaching the course is the acclaimed American poet Kenneth Goldsmith. He tells Business Insider that he of course meant for the title of his weekly experimental class to be provocative, but he figured it would only grab attention within a limited sphere. In the three-hour class, students will distract themselves across as many screens as they like without communicating verbally before writing a creative piece on their experience.
Goldsmith explains that he was frustrated by thinkpieces about the internet making us dumber, along with things like the "anti-screen" movement. "I'm thinking, 'No, the internet is actually making us smarter. We're reading and writing more than we have in a generation, and yet somehow it's not being proposed or being seen as being properly literary," he says.
He says that his students will be spending the rest of their lives in front of computer and smartphone screens, and so he wants to teach his students that they don't need to be ashamed of their habits.
"I think that we are a very guilt-ridden culture about the time that we're spending on the internet. I'm trying to get rid of those notions," he says.
Goldsmith is not going to impose any restrictions on his students, either. He explains:
If they want to watch three hours of porn and write a great piece of erotica inspired by it, I'm all for it. If they want to troll right wing sites and grab dialogue for a spy story that's nefarious and hate-filled, then they can do that as well. I mean — what they want to do. I feel that just by their engagement on the internet they'll be expressing themselves. Who they are, their likes, their interests, their politics. One thing they could do is they could check their browser history and present it as a memoir to me, which I think would be indicative of who they are. As indicative as a conventional memoir.
Despite what the above may suggest, he's approaching this class from a highbrow perspective. There will be supplemental readings from the likes of André Breton, the founder of Surrealism.
"Breton proposes that the best state of the entire culture would be sleep walking and a dream state. And then I really sort of think we're in that state right now, induced by our electronics and our distractions. So the idea is to tap into a new electronic collective unconscious and see what kind of new automatic writing emerges out of that," Goldsmith says.
Goldsmith says there were critics saying, "Why would I spend $50,000 for my kid to waste time on the internet?," but the class has been very popular at UPenn among both students and faculty. Goldsmith tells us that hundreds of students applied to the class, but he limited it to just 15 students. He also says the English Department has been supportive and the school enjoys the publicity.
To Goldsmith, he will be exposing his students to the artistic tradition of letting your mind wander in the pursuit of creative inspiration. If he's successful, they'll stop seeing their social media-posting, listicle-reading, YouTube-watching habits as dirty indulgences, and appreciate them as engaging aspects of the modern world.
"This is not television; this is not passive," he says. "We're actually actively seeking out content that we find stimulating. What could be better than that?"
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