When English professor Kenneth Goldsmith stands in front of his class at the University of Pennsylvania next semester, he hopes his students’ attention will be focused elsewhere.
In fact, it’s a requirement of his new course, Wasting Time on the Internet.
“I want everybody to be in that state in a room together, a state of communal distraction,” Goldsmith told Philly.com in an interview Wednesday. “Hopefully, something wonderful will happen.”
Citing a Surrealist tenet that “the best creative stuff happens when you’re in the shower or between when you’re awake and asleep,” Goldsmith believes mindless messaging, status updating and Web surfing can reap similar benefits.
Digital distraction, he suggests, fosters what he calls “a new unconscious,” providing fertile breeding ground for creative epiphanies.
“It’s about the idea of reclaiming what was considered to be lost time and turning it into something engaged and valuable,” he said.
For three hours each week, students will be required to carry out their daily digital repertoires – cat video viewing included – then use the raw material generated by all that online activity to create “compelling and emotional works of literature,” according to the course description.
They’ll also read critical texts by thinkers like Marxist theorist Guy Debord, sociologist Erving Goffman and feminist Betty Freidan.
Goldsmith said he was inspired to create the class after becoming tired of reading articles detailing how the Internet is making society dumber.
“I think we’re reading more and writing more than we ever have in different ways we may not be able to recognize as literary quite yet,” he said.
It’s not his first experience with a less-than-conventional course – for 10 years, he’s been teaching a class called Uncreative Writing, in which he encourages students to plagiarize.
“When I came up with another outrageous idea, people said, ‘Go for it,’ ” Goldsmith said. “At Penn, we encourage people to think differently. An undergraduate education should encourage students to think in ways they never thought of before.”