The 15 undergraduate students in “Wasting Time on the Internet,” an English course offered by the University of Pennsylvania, plus professor Kenneth Goldsmith, plus me, are participating in an activity. Actually, a few students opt out, but I don’t. For the exercise, which Goldsmith calls “30 seconds of heaven,” we rotate our laptops Lazy Susan-style around the long conference table. Everyone has 30 seconds with each laptop, to open whatever files they choose. The experience—surreal, funny, nerve-wracking—falls halfway between regretting an email and seeing a therapist. When I get my computer back, almost all of my applications are running. I notice:
- Someone has unearthed one of my old college papers (“Orality and literacy in Chaucer’s House of Fame”).
- Someone has searched my Internet history for the keyword “porn.”
- Someone has pulled up a blank Word document and written me an anonymous rhyming note:
WELCOME TO HELL
IT IS A CLASS
AND IT IS CONFUSING
KENNY’S AN ASS
The sarcasm startles, since so far these Ivy League students have seemed game, bright, eager, and interested. One undergrad brought donuts for everyone to share. The kids banter easily with Goldsmith, whom they call Kenny, and sing the praises of TA Danny Snelson, “wicked smart,” “the brains behind it all.” Several tell me before seminar starts how glad they are they signed up, despite their apprehension about this week’s theme, “Discomfort and Transgression.”
“Not so bad, right?” asks Goldsmith when all of our laptops have been restored to their rightful owners. He is tall and clean-shaven, wearing a dapper jacket, dignified pants, and an aura of gentleness. He is using one of several voices he will adopt during our three hours of class time—the sweetly melodic, guileless, faux simpleton one that implies the opposite of whatever he’s saying. “Kind of fun. Audience, people who sat on the side: Are you sorry you didn’t get in on it?”
Silence. Then: “I’m not,” says one girl. “I’ve done this kind of thing before, for pledging. You put people in shitty situations where they do edgy emotional things so that they bond afterwards and talk about it. I was hazed freshman year. I get it.”
For the briefest second, Goldsmith looks dismayed that his subversive experiment has found such a mundane, charmless analog. But he recovers quickly. “Some of the things we do in this class have resonances in other parts of life,” he offers. “One activity might feel like a flash mob. Or hazing. The uncomfortableness of moving too far out of academia into popular culture can freak people out. This class touches on those kinds of emotional clichés.”
I wonder whether this rationale strikes anyone else as gauzy or imprecise. But I’m (and this will prove a theme of the day) distracted. During my half-minute with one of the laptops, I had clicked on the Stickies application, which allows you to festoon your screen with little yellow Post-it notes, and a saved Sticky, presumably written by the laptop’s owner, had appeared in the corner of the display. It’s going to be OK, it said. Though the activity’s rules barred quitting any programs, I’d reflexively shut the window.
That Sticky stays stuck to my brain as we progress through a wackadoo gauntlet of other exercises. We watch a video called “Try Not to Laugh!!! (IMPOSSIBLE CHALLENGE!!!)” and start over from the beginning every time someone giggles. (Goldsmith stops and starts the five-minute montage of radiantly dumb clips for upward of 15 minutes, until he finally permits the class to surrender.) We make a musical round out of an “Experience Penn” YouTube video. We attempt an abortive daisy chain of typing on the keyboard of the person to our left while using our other hand to control our own mouse, all of our arms intertwining. We agree that the physical contact—a reminder of bodily presence and enmeshment—is significant, though no one elaborates on how or why.
But the Sticky. If the nominal subject of inquiry here is technology—an impersonal tangle of circuits—that uninvited glimpse feels like a violation, a stumble into something deeply private and human. More so than the strained theoretical halo encircling each “activity,” the Sticky forces me to admit that whatever it is we are doing—rummaging through each other’s computers, inspecting digitized emotions and memories—goes far beyond “wasting time on the Internet.” We are dismantling a model of education that matters, and that is already under attack. In a small but important way, we are laying waste to what college should be. Indeed, that’s the point.
When the University of Pennsylvania revealed back in October that its spring offerings would include a course dedicated to messing around online, the press combusted. Cynics seized on Goldsmith’s proviso that “distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.” Since “Wasting Time” lived in UPenn’s Creative Writing Program, kids were expected to do more than stew in Internet juices: They’d go home and transform their Facebook reveries into poetry and memoir, like Walter Benjamin delicately descending from a hashish high in order to produce works of surreal and trancelike beauty. But whether or not Internet ephemera can, in practice, be molded into meaningful art didn’t concern the critics. The idea that students might pay upward of $3,000 to “stare at [a] screen for three hours” just seemed, in the words of one skeptic (me), like “first-rate academic trolling.”
It got trollier. The purpose of “Wasting Time” has morphed from serving up evanescent fodder for immortal work to simply delivering an olio of bizarre experiences. At the beginning of the semester, “Wasting Time” analyzed its own media coverage. Later, the class played “Human Remote Control,” in which they texted instructions to Goldsmith: Go to the business school. Skip down the stairs. Curl up in the fetal position with a poster over your head. According to Goldsmith, the first few writing assignments were a whiff. No one “produced anything interesting.” So he eliminated the writing requirement and instead solicited activities for the class to do together, collecting them in a quixotic spreadsheet that is now 15 pages long and crammed with experiments they will never try. Goldsmith describes the seminar as “meatspace social media”—an autonomous world in which students are afforded a double existence: one bodily, one virtual. “It has a kind of magic, an energy,” he told me of the course, explaining why he didn’t mind the pivot away from traditional homework or writing. “What we create together is so much more exciting than any physical artifact we might take from it or produce afterward. Sometimes I don’t even remember what we’ve done that day—that’s how strange, how ephemeral it is.”
There’s something wonderful about this dogged insistence on having nothing whatsoever to show for your time in class, especially given the cultural rage for productivity. And the seminar courts a drifting boredom that is seductive in its challenge to the cult of mindfulness. But: With the approval of the UPenn English Department, Goldsmith’s crafted a creative writing course that fails to generate any writing, one that to some extent paints basic college benefits like insight, growth, and learning as passé fantasies of the old guard. “We don’t do much,” Goldsmith shrugged at one point, all dunce-cap apologies and haplessness. “Most of our experiments go nowhere.”
The professor is no stranger to either performance or controversy: A leading conceptual writer, he specializes in “uncreative” verse—fat tomes of reproduced traffic reports, collaged newspaper headlines. In March he incensed the literary community by reading his poetic “remix” of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at Brown University. The optics were damning (he is white), the artistic vision reminiscent of the Penn seminar. “I am a dumb writer, perhaps one of the dumbest that’s ever lived,” Goldsmith has claimed. During class, he reminds students to attend to the stuplime, “when the stupid flips over into the sublime and you can’t pull the two apart. Something is so stupidly sublime or sublimely stupid that it becomes transcendent.”