Watching pornography in Huntsman Hall, playing hide and seek in a campus building and blasting explicit rap music on a dozen computers might seem like features in the dream of a sleep-deprived Penn student rather than a class taught by a renowned poet at an Ivy League university.
But these are only some of the highlights of ‘Wasting Time on the Internet’, the class first taught by professor Kenneth Goldsmith in the spring of 2015, that's also being offered for the second time this semester.
Goldsmith — to his students, Kenny — explained his class in the New Yorker in November 2014, expressing his "frustration with reading endless indictments of the Web for making us dumber."
“Everybody says all we do is waste time on the Internet and everybody feels bad about it,” Goldsmith told The Daily Pennsylvanian. “So let’s all waste time together and see what happens. Is it really as bad as we’re told it is?”
Goldsmith objects to the pessimism surrounding the intellectual consequences of the Internet, instead seeing trolling, blogging and hashtags as continuous with modern movements like surrealism and pop art.
The initial idea of the class was to create literature based on the Internet. Goldsmith envisioned the students not talking but communicating only through the listservs, chatrooms and social media, and creating works like memoirs or plays based on Facebook chats or browser history. He quickly realized that this model was not working.
He found that not talking to each other was making the students miserable, but he struggled to come up with a solution. One day he stepped out of the room and returned to find his students dancing and simultaneously playing the music video for the explicit rap song ‘My Neck, My Back’ by Khia. Despite annoyed writing tutors asking the class to quiet down, Goldsmith was inspired.
“After that I just thought let’s try to be together as a group and see what happens,” Goldsmith said.
The class then shifted. Instead of reconstructing time typically spent on the Internet, students instead reimagined how they could use the Internet in the first place. No exams, no essays, no grades. Just a series of social experiments finding different ways to change wasting time on the internet from a solitary to a communal activity.
Most notoriously, this included watching pornography on full volume as a group in Huntsman Hall.
The students played the same video on their computers as others outside the class studied nearby and several tour groups passed through. Many students became too uncomfortable and left, and by the end of the short video fewer than five students remained. Surprisingly, not a single person approached them.
Goldsmith is frank when describing his reasoning behind the exercise.
“If you're going to waste time on the internet, you’re certainly going to look at pornography,” Goldsmith said. “I didn’t want to say that was off limits.”
College junior Zoe Stoller was part of the original class in the spring of 2015, and she was undeterred by the unusual nature of the class.
“It’s something really socially not acceptable, but we were not interested in what is and is not acceptable,” she said.
The class spurred a media firestorm when it was first offered. Although Goldsmith gave interviews to only Vice and the Washington Post, dozens of media outlets covered the class, with one Fox Business anchor saying, "That's insane. Poet or not, renowned or not. And if I were a parent paying tuition at UPenn, sorry UPenn deans, I'd be furious."
Seth Schimmel, who graduated from the College in 2015 and took the class his final semester, felt that the prestige and professionalism of Penn increased the controversy.
“It’s here at Penn and people pay a lot of money to be able to make a lot of money,” Schimmel said. “So the idea of wasting time is controversial.”
Despite all the media attention, both Goldsmith and his students seemed unfazed by it.
“I only gave two interviews and it just got so distorted,” Goldsmith said. “It was kind of funny, but stupid and useless.”
And through all the criticism, the class defended the nontraditional learning model.
“It's not so simple. The class became really interesting and really connected,” Goldsmith said. “It was educational to say the least, one of the most educational classes I’ve ever taught.”
Another former classmate, College senior Justin Sheen, agreed.
“I think there’s different ways of learning besides the syllabus class,” Sheen said.
Not all of the students were happy with the unstructured classroom model, although most of those who were dissatisfied with the course declined to interview. Some of the students speculated as to why the class didn’t work for everyone, with some citing differences in opinions and politics.
“He’ll show an artwork and half of the room will be like ‘Oh my god that’s amazing’ and the other half was not as taken. I have no idea why that is exactly,” Sheen said. “Definitely you’ll run into people who hated it, it just comes with the class.”
“Kenny is provocative and some of his stuff his problematic and I don’t necessarily agree with his politics, even though I think he’s an effective provocateur and an artist who’s done a lot of interesting work,” Schimmel said.
Schimmel is referencing Goldsmith's reading of the autopsy of Michael Brown in the form of a poem, which drew heavy criticism in March 2015, while he was teaching the class.
College senior Feimei Zeng who also took the class, agrees that Goldsmith can be provocative, describing him as "a cross between a writer and a performance artist."
Zeng often found herself wondering, “are we doing the experimenting or are we part of the experiment?”
Although Zeng found the border between social experiment and performance art stimulating, she speculated that other students suspected the class was a publicity act.
And she conceded that many of the class's activities were "stupid, not even deep, just stupid.”
For the students that did enjoy the class, they found the class taught them more about themselves and their writing.
“In this class, because we were given so much freedom, I decided to try out a lot more things that I wouldn’t have done before and I put a whole lot more effort because I was given so much freedom,” Zeng said. “I understood myself and my own actions through social media and how it affected my own personal beliefs and my own personal identity,”
“I learned a lot about myself, my own writing and the possibilities of the Internet and what you can do from it.” Stoller said.
Students are still affected by the class, nearly a year and half after its conclusion. Stoller is doing an independent study with Goldsmith, and Schimmer is working on a book inspired by the class’s premise.
Meanwhile, Zeng, who interned in the business department of NBC Universal this summer, finds herself talking about the class during job interviews more than any other class she’s taken at Penn.
“The whole thing became very magical and very special. We were very much bonded by that experience,” Goldsmith said.
Goldsmith himself may have been the most affected by the class. He recently published a book titled after the class, which includes a list of 101 of the best ways to waste time on the Internet, submitted by his students.
“The book was spurned by the class, it was such a success I was like, ‘I’ve got to write about this somehow’” Goldsmith said. “I learned more from this group than they ever would have learned from me, that’s for sure. I wrote a book about it, about what they taught me, basically.”
Goldsmith is approaching the next class similarly to the first one – with no plan, no syllabus, and no expectations — but this year he plans to scrap the idea of silent communication, and skip right to the social experiments.
“I don’t really have a plan when I teach I just go in and I do it,” Goldsmith said. “I just try to open up a space in the classroom for experimentation and openness and see where it goes.”
College senior Frances Patano had not talked to any of the former students before enrolling, and only found out upon the very first class about the previous year’s social experiments.
She was surprised to find that Goldsmith had issued a trigger warning that the class would include difficult subject material, and advised any students uncomfortable with that to leave the class. One student did, after the first activity required students to leave their computers while they rotated around, allowed to do anything they wished for a minute at a time.
"When he hit my computer he was like 'I just emailed someone’s mom' and I was like 'that was my mother,'" Patano said.
Patano admits she came away from the exercise feeling "a little violated," but plans to stay in the course.
While the class might be criticized for its lack of structure and graded assignments, in pushing the boundaries of education, Goldsmith pushes the boundaries of the students themselves.
“It’s terrifying, it’s not a free ride at all,” Patano said. “You are just putting yourself out there and you are totally testing your limits with what you’re comfortable with.”
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