College Credit for Wandering the Internet


What a headline: “At Penn, students can get credit for ‘Wasting Time on the Internet.'” (I recently spotted it in the Washington Post while aimlessly wandering the Internet).

Had I been a parent bankrolling my offspring’s major in creative writing, the article might have prompted a screaming text. Too late! My kid already would have commenced the mindless trolling.

However, I am a nonparent, so Abby Ohlheiser’s article hooked me. Admittedly, if my college career had involved the Internet, I would have signed up for a course titled “Wasting Time on the Internet” (taught by poet Kenneth Goldsmith).

So what’s up with all this mindless Internet engagement? Per Mr. Goldsmith’s syllabus, “students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media, and listservs. . . . Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.” (Subject-verb agreement of the previous sentence might trouble a grammar Nazi who does not recognize the thrill of this ride.)

Ms. Ohlheiser writes: “Goldsmith says he hopes the distraction will place his students ‘into a digital or electronic twilight’ similar to the state of consciousness between dreaming and waking that was so prized by the Surrealists.”

I would like to fancy myself falling into this creative state, but my 6:30 a.m. snooze-button battle gets in the way.

Despite the shock of the headline, the course  requires reading of critical texts (this detail disappeared in the article–copy desk chop?). One term rang a distant bell: affect theory. While studying literature in the era of the early Compaq computer, I probably bumped into it.

On the day I read Ms. Ohlheiser’s article, the name of Henri Bergson briefly trotted through my brain. However, I couldn’t Google any terms because I was on deadline for an article about redecorating a tot’s room that will last through her teen years. It’s written on the sixth grade level for harried mothers who like to read about such projects and fantasize about attempting them.

Thus far, it’s a hopeless, indeed  impossible, assignment.

I do not live in a writing paradise. This busy audience will glance at the lovely pics and perhaps skim some captions. If I am truly successful, they will consider the how-to steps that the copy desk managed to cut and then cram into a box compromised by a costly digest-size ad. This will happen only if they actually subscribe to a hands-on publication as opposed to finding free info on the websites of beleaguered lifestyle magazines.

To return to the rarefied world of Mr. Goldsmith: I find his brief auto-bio fascinating. In 2013, he “penned” his experiences on Dazed Digital. Click or go with my condensed form:

  • New Age-Transcendental Meditation parents
  • Drugs out of boredom
  • No more drugs because of an inspiring drawing class in which a car was no longer a car but rather “an amalgam of color, shape, and form” (That recalls the transformation of my 1992 Toyota when a mother-boat blue Ford smashed it in 1997.)
  • From sculptor (Rhode Island School of Design) to “text artist” to poet
  • Radical modernism fan of Joyce, Stein, Beckett . . .  (I cannot argue with his taste.)
  • An English professor and poet followed by a “thinkership” rather than readership (I like the sound of that.)
  • Poet Laureate of MoMA  (pretty cool)
  • Founder of  UbuWeb (Here I can catch a plethora of avant-garde works by the likes of Philip Glass, Jorge Luis Borges, and Allen Ginsberg collected since 1996. Free!)
  • A one-man mind machine

Mr. Goldsmith details some of his literary adventures in his Dazed Digital essay. As someone frustrated by current media, I reveled in the description of his tome Seven American Deaths and Disasters: 

I wanted to find out: what are the words we use to describe something that we never thought we’d have to describe? I transcribed historic American radio and television reports of national tragedies as they unfurled. The slick curtain of media was torn, revealing acrobatic linguistic improvisations. There was a sense of things spinning out of control: facts blurred with speculation as the broadcasters attempted to furiously weave convincing narratives from shards of half-truths. It was as if the essence of the media was being revealed while its skin was in tatters. It felt like a Godard film. . . .

After that nice turn of phrase, I pondered the “bourgeois” meaning of the waking-dreaming state suffered by my business communication students. Actually, they spent a lot of time between waking and non-REM sleeping. They were exhausted: some worked a 30-hour week (or more) while taking a full load of courses.

I will never forget the bright woman who lived in her car and begged relatives to babysit her toddler while she was in class—until she pulled enough shifts as a server to afford cheap daycare and enough square footage for a bed, table, and chair. She always showed up for class, executed sharp presentations, and never passed out.

My students did not get credit for wasting time on the Internet. They had no time to waste. If they committed plagiarism after a thoughtful definition, well, they got zip credit.

F Screenshot 2014-11-05 14.11.55_pe

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For more information about Kenneth Goldsmith, visit the Poetry Foundation. Short bursts are available via Twitter.

Edited Marcel_Proust_1900-2_peOn a personal note, I will mention arguably the most innovative novelist of the 20th century: Marcel Proust, who wrote A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Biographer William C. Carter beautifully explores the author’s world in Marcel Proust: A LifeWarning: if you tackle this novel, you must abandon the extra time you blow surfing the Net, as it is 3,000 pages long.



  1. Silver in the Barn

    I feel I am teetering on the edge of becoming a hopeless Luddite…a curmudgeon….a sour old lady. How ridiculous this all seems to me. What am i missing, Catherine? And, hey, nice to see you on WP again, it seems quite the while.

  2. Karen Lin

    Loved this: “what are the words we use to describe something that we never thought we’d have to describe?”
    And I thought the prof was going to let them choose their specific crap to stare at for 3 hours then layer in (with his clever tech skills) the lessons subliminally as a test to see if it is just as effective as the old lecture method. I feel a short story brewing!
    P.S. Never read Proust… I think I read a quote from him one time and found it rather inaccessible. was I reading the wrong example?

    1. Catherine Hamrick

      Proust’s quotes pulled out of his novel do not work as well for me. I need major context. Taking on Proust is just as interesting as taking on Faulkner. Getting into the language flow was part of the experience for me. However, I read their wonderful works more slowly than “traditional” texts. I remain a very traditional writer.

  3. Catherine Hamrick

    I will free associate here, my dear Silver in the Barn. You are by no means a Luddite. It’s a matter of opinion. Your writing and art are aesthetic to me.

    On the first read, I found the course ridiculous. I was ready to rail. However, I did investigate what the paper omitted. Reading of rigorous texts. But as I pointed out at the end, many people are too busy and worried to read this guy’s books. He does live in a rarefied world that documents culture. On a certain level, I am interested in how technology (TV to social media) has shifted reality and linguistics. (I blithely skip a lot of details; my friends already are leading harried lives.)

    He thinks the Internet makes us “smarter”? That depends on where you go on the Internet. There is plenty of dumbing down and compromise as far as logic and quality writing. He is a smart marketer. His books have controversial titles. Sex sells. A zillion outlets produced a variety of pieces about “wasting time on the internet for credit.” It pays to be outrageous and write about certain topics that offend some readers. Question: Will he be a literary cupcake once people are less enthralled with social media?

    The course’s texts are rigorous and have shown up in serious literary classes. So students must perform. However, they are a very small population. Critical theory and challenging assignments do inform some writers. But should readers care about all that literary pounding? Depends. I wager that most people are looking for books they can apprehend and enjoy comfortably. I mostly live in that world. However, the esoteric does have its moments. I found the article fascinating because I am taking a social media marketing class. It will affect some creative expression and thought process. All this inductive flow can overwhelm a lot of people with a deductively based education. It overwhelmed and stirred up something for me. But the next person will easily say “WTF?”

    In brief, we are in a major cultural shift as far as technology and the effect on language. (I am not saying anything new to anybody.) In the classroom, I had to adjust once gen y breezed in the door.

    The poet’s writing did make me think about major cultural shifts, such as the scientific flip from an earth-centered to a sun-centered world. The humanists flipped from a medieval God-centered world to a man-centered world (Renaissance). Note: I do not make a religious statement here–just stating a perspective. Gutenberg’s press certainly gave more people the gift of reading.

    As I vaguely recall, one of Victor Hugo’s early plays caused riot because he defied strict French rules of classical plays. People threw tomatoes. Then he became another old guy on the syllabus. The Impressionists created a major uproar because they changed art perspective. Now they are just guys and gals we know and love. After World War I mechanized war on an immense, tragic level and fractured society, fractured art showed up (e.g., Duchamps). Dada sputtered out but gave birth to Surrealism, which still flows–if you care about that stuff. Picasso’s rearrangement of women’s body parts blew a lot of minds. Now he’s another guy hanging expensively on the wall. Well, my mother never got over Picasso. She could get with Van Gogh (sp?), Rodin, and Monet. After that–if she had used expletives–she would have said “WTF?” I think her experience with French art is next week’s post.

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