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.”
The stuplime does seem to play an outsize role in the course’s provisional, meandering progress (especially if you take stupid to mean stunned and insensate). Numbly, we drift from topic to topic: borecore, Banana Bunkers, the “Rules” of the Internet, the blog for Denny’s diner. Sometimes Goldsmith will issue his version of Star Trek’s “beam me up, Scotty” command—“Frame us up, Danny!”—and Snelson, a poet and archivist earning his English Ph.D. at Penn, will extemporize about affect scholarship or Freud’s mystic tablet, hinting at some relationship between theory and digital specimen without making the nature of the association clear. After an especially disjointed 20-minute stretch, Goldsmith pauses. “This is what happens,” he says, I think for my benefit. “We just end up going down wormholes. The whole class slides off the table. Someone throws something out and then we’re there, and someone else throws something out and then we’re there, and then we’re all just wasting time together on the Web and laughing. Typically, you know, I’m trying to talk, but you all”—he gestures with fake exasperation at the students—“are laughing at something or sharing something.”
Indeed, the room fizzes with chimes, pings, buzzes, and snatches of songs as students conduct their own private conversations and circulate links. We’re all half-tuned-in. I keep getting email alerts from my Slate account, Slack notifications, and Gchats; my concentration is dispersing into a vacant sky of fatigue, across which fleeting blips of interest are strung like stars. Increasingly stressed-out by my inability to access Goldsmith’s ideal, a kind of hallucinatory immersion in the digital flow, I pull up one of my many open tabs, an academic discussion of the stuplime: “The reader encounters a massive amount of material that surprises in its flatness, resulting in an ‘aesthetic experience in which astonishment is paradoxically united with boredom.’ ”
I scroll down. Unlike Kant’s sublime, which provokes grand torrential passions like awe and terror, the stuplime deals in less “socially productive” or esteemed emotions—irritation, ennui, restlessness. The pettiness of these feelings shawls the viewer in a meta-layer of shame. From that sense of emotional estrangement, that watchful distance from one’s own responses, comes irony, the Internet’s prevailing sensibility.
It is a fascinating theory. But how useful is stuplimity as the organizing principle of a course? Aren’t both art and learning predicated on sustained concentration, heightened focus? (Any critic will tell you that the hallmark of true poetry is linguistic intensity and compression, and you don’t enter academia unless you plan to devote your attention to things you feel are important.) I open a new tab in Chrome with the vague intention of doing research; but then my laptop dings; I have mail.
this is not a normal class
The message is from one of the students. “I’m getting that impression!” I write back.
“not even for us!” he replies. “usually its much more experimental, project after project, less performative/didactic. … People are a little on edge right now, Kenny’s trying a little harder, and I’m starting to lose interest, tbqh.”
I ask him whether he feels pulled in a thousand directions at once, and how he copes with all the distraction. He responds:
*if you’re thinking about doing it, you’re doing it wrong. the whole point of wasting time is NOT thinking. The redemptive thing about it all is that no matter how hard we try to waste time indefinitely, to be totally spaced out, vacant, mindless, we always make something of it. Mindlessness assumes, demands, spawns mindfulness.
For the remainder of seminar, I mentally appoint this student my spiritual guide to Internet Zen. And in the final minutes of class, during a brief Q&A, several of his peers advance a similar defense of Goldsmith’s amorphous methods. One said he felt creatively disinhibited by the course’s free-associative dreaminess: “Because my attention is in so many places, because I’m booking a trip to Europe and listening to Kenny talk and looking up cocktail recipes, synapses that wouldn’t fire fire and connections that wouldn’t be made [are made]. On the other hand, “I wish we did more writing,” confides another student as we pack up our tools of distraction. “That’s why I signed up.”
As for Goldsmith, he suggests that the class might serve as a refuge from the goal-oriented, career-minded ethos of modern-day education, especially at hard-driving UPenn. “They’re artists and writers,” he tells me when seminar is over. “Some of the kids in this course would probably have been happier at another university. Anyway, everyone here already knows how to think and write in an academic context. I suppose I could push them to think and write incrementally better than they do now, but I’d rather push them sideways, out of their comfort zones.”
Ironically, it is the most earnest statement of pedagogy I’ve heard him make all day. Instruction doesn’t really factor into “Wasting Time on the Internet,” despite the pixie dust of theory Danny Snelson manages to sprinkle over the various activities. For all the kids’ intelligence and thoughtfulness, Goldsmith hasn’t so much convened a seminar as created a multiweek piece of performance art. Questions are raised, as in the best conceptual projects, but not answered or even really addressed. In some ways this is a missed opportunity. Human technology doesn’t exist in some other world; nor do our technological selves nourish completely different memories, emotions, lifelines, or interests from our IRL ones. “Wasting Time on the Internet” could have been a fascinating and rigorous philosophy course about who we are online and in general, alone and together, in moments of inspiration or caught in the Web surfer’s everyday riptide of blah. It could have paired each experiment with focused debriefings that didn’t feel like afterthoughts or sops. “If there’s anything that’s remained constant,” Snelson told me about the class, “it’s a continual sense of reflexivity. Rather than come out with a certain set of knowledge or articles or ideas”—I had been begging students, without success, to name one specific thing they’d learned so far—“there’s a general sense of awareness of ourselves.” Had that self-questioning spirit been applied to discussion that didn’t short-circuit insight by equating structure with constraint, “Wasting Time” might have really been something.
Of course, it already is something, and even something besides a noble failure of a college course. “Wasting Time” is the serial improvisatory performance of a long conceptual poem by Kenneth Goldsmith. It reshapes the matter of the Internet, and of the classroom, in startling ways. It allows him to pronounce the kind of elliptical, suggestive mottos you can imagine spray-painted on a pillar at the MoMA. The unseen already exists. Everything is findable. The blessing of being a meme is the curse of being a meme. In streaming the same dumb YouTube video 17 times, or sharing a website devoted to specialized portable capsules for your banana, Goldsmith conjures responses that, as Teju Cole implies in his own essay on “digital remixers,” are “true of art”: “exasperation, the sense of wonder or inundation,” even “glimpses of beauty.” Art-wise, “the shoe fits, maddening as it is,” Cole concludes, and that holds for “Wasting Time on the Internet” too. Goldsmith’s real problem is that, as a professor, he maybe shouldn’t be shoe shopping at all.
If “Wasting Time on the Internet” is less education than creative performance, are the young people gathered in this classroom students—or are they co-creators, savvy participants, beneficiaries, saps? Three-thousand-dollar price point aside, the answer probably hinges on how effectively these experiments raise compelling themes or cast an aesthetic spell. Some activities (the one in which undergrads applied for the same job using their own résumés and a random résumé pulled from LinkedIn) provide stranger, quirkier insights than others (the lame human daisy chain). Some make boredom stuplime; others barrel from the stuplime to the ludiculous.
“My books are better thought about than read,” Goldsmith has said, and in the wake of all the critical coverage, I had hoped that his UPenn course would prove better taken than written about. But the class is just as provocative, infuriating, and elusive as it sounds. Moment to moment, it submerges you in a dull wash of useless noise. As a concept, it shimmers with just enough promise to make the underdelivery bite. Here’s a pro tip from one alumna, in the end dissatisfied with her experience of Web Surfing 101: Sometimes you just close the tab.