Wasting Time on the Internet 101

Stupid cat videos? Pointless tweets? Copying others' work? That's all fair game in this University of Pennsylvania class.

Michael Mandiberg/Flickr

Next semester Kenneth Goldsmith wants his students to spend class time watching YouTube videos, liking Facebook posts—and, while they’re at it, plagiarizing at will. His latest course might sound like the slacker student’s utopia, but if all goes to the English professor’s plans its benefits could be monumental. “It’s [about] understanding that digital existence,” Goldsmith said. “You know, we’ve become so good at using tools, but we’ve rarely stepped back to consider how and why we’re using those tools.”

Goldsmith—who’s also a published author and poet—is planning to implement these methods in a class at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia this upcoming semester. He explained his ideas in a piece last month for The New Yorker: “Why I am Teaching A Course Called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” “Come January, fifteen creative-writing students and I will sit silently in a room with nothing more than our devices and a Wi-Fi connection, for three hours a week,” he wrote. At the end of the semester the students will be expected to produce a literary work based on their experiences. Goldsmith continued: “Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing.”

Aimless drifting and intuitive surfing don’t seem conducive to learning, so I asked Goldsmith to clarify his intentions. “They need to realize digital language. Everything that they take for granted online needs to be examined through a critical lens,” he said. “Even becoming conscious of the mechanical process of cutting and pasting is something they’ve never done; this begins the process of defamiliarization.”

Today's students are undoubtedly hooked to technology—and the ubiquity of digital devices doesn’t help. In fact, one survey found that 80 percent of college students admit that it’s a distraction in class. Some educators have banned digital devices from class, arguing that it’s more of hindrance than a benefit to learning. But Goldsmith says this approach is misguided. People today are reading and writing at a far greater rate than they did in the past, he says. And he’s onto something: Though public perception suggest that the Internet has created a generation of non-readers, research suggests otherwise. Twenty years ago society was mostly glued to the TV—a passive activity—and making phone calls. Now, tweeting and texting have emerged as dominant means of communication. There’s more reading now—even if it isn’t always classic literary prose.

This isn’t necessarily a new theory. A decade ago an extensive Stanford study revealed technology's positive effect on writing. English Professor Andrea Lunsford—shocked at the amount of writing students were doing outside of the classroom—dubbed it a “paradigm shift.” Her team discovered that her students were very savvy at “kairos”—the ability to recognize an audience and adjust the tenor of one’s message accordingly. Traditionally, kairos was a difficult skill to attain, but with the advent of social media it’s almost ingrained in younger generations.

Social media, too, has undergone massive changes. Facebook newsfeeds, once a simple venue for photo posts and status updates, have morphed into a curation of news. “We’re typing now, we’re reading, we are immersed in language—but in ways that people haven’t learned to value yet,” Goldsmith said. “What if we throw ourselves into that and force ourselves to use online methods as a way of reconciling our condition and begin to exploit this wonderful environment that we live in right now?”

Teaching an unconventional course isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Goldsmith.  In 2004 he began teaching “Uncreative Writing,” a course that encouraged students to plagiarize and even went as far as penalizing people if they submitted original thoughts. At the culmination of the semester, students had to purchase a term paper, and their final grades were based on how well they could defend it as their own work.

This approach was a proactive response to the omnipresence of plagiarism across college campuses—a problem so widespread, in fact, that a cottage industry of sorts has developed. One example of that trend is Turnitin.com, a site where teachers can upload student papers, and the site’s algorithms scour the web and verify its originality.

But that’s only skimming the surface of plagiarism. The plagiarism epidemic is far more insidious; hence, Goldsmith’s methods. Paper writing in college often devolves into a process of curating other people’s thoughts. And it's not simply the duplication of a specific text, word for word; instead it's the more crafty process of siphoning information from many different sources. Goldsmith has referred to this as “patchwriting”: “a way of weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a totally cohesive whole and a “trick that students use all the time.” In addition, Wikipedia’s increased validity has made it easier for students to feign “research.”

In Goldsmith’s book—also titled Uncreative Writing—he argues that writers today are more like programmers in that they often contextualize an already-existing piece of work, a process as important as a completely original attempt. In other words, “context” becomes the new “content.”

The book also delves into how literature has lagged behind other creative industries in its adaption to what would traditionally be considered plagiarism. Writing, he argues, is so tethered to outdated standards and a contempt for copying work and has failed to acclimate to a changing media landscape in the ways that other creative arts have been able to.

From the book:

Most writing proceeds as if the Internet had never happened. The literary world still gets regularly scandalized by age-old bouts of fraudulence, plagiarism and hoaxes in ways that would make, say the art, music, computing, or science worlds chuckle with disbelief.

Of course, Goldsmith’s views have caused a good deal of consternation within the writing community. Goldsmith recalls when, after giving a lecture at Princeton University, a well-known poet accused him of “nihilism and robbing poetry of its joy.” Wagging his finger, the elderly poet said, according to Goldsmith: “If it’s just a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire internet into a Microsoft Word document where does it end? If everything can be transcribed and then presented as literature then what makes one work better than another?”

The criticism didn’t faze Goldsmith, who described the concerns as a relic of a past time. He pointed to other junctures in writing trends, drawing parallels between the current shifts and those faced by writers in the last generation. Their struggle, Goldsmith noted, was in their attempt to break away from literary convention by forgoing the strict narrative form. To Goldsmith, contextualizing technology is this generation’s struggle. “If it’s a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire Internet into Microsoft Word, then what becomes important is what you—the author—decide to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and, more important, what to leave out.”

At a college where tedious coursework and heavy reading assignments are the norm, the class is in high demand. The waitlist for the 15-seat class already in the hundreds. Still, Goldsmith insists that students shouldn’t take the class lightly. “Somebody asked me, ‘What if someone actually just wastes time on the Internet and doesn’t come up with any constructive writing?’ Well they will get an ‘F’, I’m still a teacher and there are still academic standards to be met.”

Goldsmith can’t guarantee that the course will achieve its mission, but he remains optimistic: “The cornerstone of a great liberal arts education is to expose yourself to untraditional ideas,” Goldsmith said. “If I can imbue them with a consciousness and for the rest of their lives every time they sit down at the computer it’s not drudgery or wasting time, then I’ll feel like I moved them in the right direction.”