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How to Earn an Ivy League Degree by Wasting Time on the Internet

waste-time-surfing-internetThis professor sure knows how to write a provocative title.

"Wasting Time on the Internet" is the name of the University of Pennsylvania's newest English course, which will be taught in Spring 2015 by Professor Kenneth Goldsmith. And, because people love talking about wasting time on the internet almost as much as they love actually wasting time on the internet, the resulting disbelief -- and, at times, mockery -- from the public is no surprise.

Jessica Roy of the Daily Intelligencer wrote, "students will spend three hours every Wednesday Gchatting, tweeting selfies, and commenting on Daily Intelligencer. Then, they have to somehow take all of that cr*p and turn it into a piece of 'compelling and emotional work of literature.' Ivy League degrees seem totally worth it."

On Twitter, people shared their thoughts, too:

I wasn't so convinced this would be an easy A. It's hard to believe that a school known for demanding curricula would let students troll reddit for three hours a week.

So I went straight to the source: I spoke with Goldsmith himself, who has been a professor of poetics and poetic practice at UPenn since 2004. He has 10 books of poetry, a book of essays, a fellow professorship award from Princeton University, an hour-long documentary about his work, and an invitation to read at The White House under his belt -- not the type to create a frivolous, pointless course of study.

The Course

The course is called "Wasting Time on the Internet," and it actually does require students to surf the web aimlessly for hours on end. "Students are required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting with chat rooms, bots, social media, and listservs," reads the course description from UPenn's website. But there is an end goal to this otherwise haphazard web surfing: By the end of the semester, students must create a work of literature out of the content they find online.

From what, Facebook News Feeds? Well, yes ... exactly.

"This class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature," reads the course description. In other words, students will use the "raw material" of text messages, status updates, and other random surfing "for creating compelling and emotional works of literature." Think: Facebook Timelines turned into memoirs -- that kind of thing. Along with creating literature, students will "explore the long history of the recuperation of boredom and time-wasting through texts about affect theory, situationism, and everyday life."

It appears this class is a mixture of abstract literature and philosophy that's meant, above all, to promote experimental thinking. Goldsmith assures me that it's a rigorous, intellectual course that had to go through a course proposal process in the creative writing program that required a theoretical foundation. This is reflected in the required reading list, which includes texts from theoretical thinkers like 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, and Siegfried Kracauer. You'll notice BuzzFeed isn't on the list -- the materials are indeed heavy and intellectual.

The Idea

So how did Goldsmith come up with this idea? "It came about with my frustration after having read article after article about how the internet is making us dumber," he told me. "I don't think that's true. We're reading and writing more than we ever have; we're sharing ideas and learning in ways that cannot be measured. It's just that we've never been taught to value these types of reading, writing, sharing, and learning. We will not learn in the old ways; our learning will be different."

His response reminded me of an interview from Time Magazine had with Nick Bilton, author of I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works. He has also staunchly believes the internet doesn't make us dumber, and that social networks aren't a waste of time at all. "If you use it in the right way, Twitter can actually be extremely beneficial to the way you navigate content on the web," Bilton told Time. He describes Twitter as his own, personal, "social newspaper" that he's the editor of, picking and choosing what he does and doesn't see while getting to interact with people and brands in a different way.

Likewise, Goldsmith hopes that his course will help his students reframe their daily online experiences from aimless and unengaged to creative and connected. "I would like them to think that every time they sit down in front of the computer, they have the potential to turn the internet into great literature," he told me. "The whole web is cut-and-pasteable and if we begin constructing our poems from what appears before us on our screens, we’ll never have writers’ block. It’s a very rich landscape."

This isn't the first time Goldsmith has taught an experimental course on creating literature by copying and pasting. He's been teaching Uncreative Writing at UPenn for the last decade, in which students are not only discouraged from originality and creativity, but "penalized" for it, he told me. "Instead, they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing," Goldsmith wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education about this course.

Of course, in the real world, you'd be reprimanded, sued, or fired for plagiarism. So what are these classes teaching our kids? How are they preparing students for the real world?

Questions like these are missing the point, though. These courses aren't meant to be practical advice for students going into business; they're meant to force students to think in new ways about our day-to-day practices online -- the content we're reading, how we're consuming it, whether it's a waste of time, all about internet privacy laws, and so on.

The Internet age requires new kinds of literacy, and universities would be foolish to look down their noses at reddit and Twitter or the nonlinear way people read the web, the same way they would be foolish not to offer courses on TV and pop culture.

When I asked Goldsmith what he thought about the comments that his new course would be "an easy A," he said, "What is an easy A is to think and act conventionally, in accordance with established standards. But when I require you to turn the world inside out, to upend everything you've been taught, it is the hardest thing to do."

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