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.