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Not Time Served
Majoring in Time-Wasting

At the University of Pennsylvania, students are taught how to waste time—literally. According to The Washington Post, the university will offer a course in the spring of 2015 called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” It is exactly what it sounds like. The course will be offered for creative writing students, and will have them spend their class meetings surfing the internet. As the description for the course puts it, “students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs.” More:

The instructor, Kenneth Goldsmith, tells The Washington Post that he will strictly enforce “a state of distraction” among the students — exactly the sort of thing he and virtually every other professor on Earth spends time trying to eliminate from their classes.

The purpose, Goldsmith says, is to have the students write something good at the end of the course, as a result of all that forced distraction. 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.

After pausing a moment (or several) to relish this story, it’s worth recalling that not all students are as well-endowed with time and money as these Ivy League-ers—and one way to save those students money is to let them to save their time. To do so, more schools should consider creating programs that credit “stuff learned” instead of “time served”—such as the competency-based programs now getting attention from public universities like the University of Michigan.

Thankfully, “Wasting Time on the Internet” is an elective course at Penn—at least as far as we know. Let’s try to make sure that wasting time in college becomes a lot less mandatory for students everywhere else, too.

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  • Boritz

    This is inspiration for a TF version of “Life of Julia”.  In this version Julia graduates from a quality school in record time by getting credit for ‘stuff learned’ thereby fast-tracking past the ‘time served’ crowd.  With her credentials and smarts she quickly acquires a good job with an organization that allows her to telework an optimal number of days per week.

  • Fat_Man

    I sent the item about the UPenn course to my nephew, who graduated from the institution in 2006. He replied:

    “This, I already have a PhD in.”

  • wigwag

    There is something very unattractive, Professor Mead, about ridiculing the idiocies of others when you refuse to hold a mirror up to yourself. Here are some of the courses being offered at Bard, the institution that you teach at, in 2014:

    “How to Form an Opinion” (Professor Lipsky)
    “The Invention of Celebrity” (Professor Libbon)
    “Virtues and Vices” (Professor Elilott)

    The Bard catalogue, like the catalogue of most well-repsected colleges and universities in the United States is filled with junk-courses masquerading as higher education.

    You work at Bard so your intimately familiar with the place. How about an essay lampooning your co-workers instead of people at the University of Pennsylvania who you don’t even know?

    • Thirdsyphon

      I’m not sure why you think these three courses aren’t worth taking.

      Virtues and Vices is a class in ethics, taught by the philosophy department. Are you claiming that “Virtues and Vices” is a ridiculous title for a course on ethics? That ethics is an inappropriate subject for philosophy? That philosophy itself is a waste of time? Whichever one it is, you won’t get many takers.

      How to Form an Opinion is a journalism class focused on the craft of writing opinion pieces and how to go about getting them published. You might personally disapprove of this sort of activity, but you’d be smart to keep that to yourself since: a) in odd-numbered years, this course might well be taught by Professor Mead; and b) half the interns who edit this comments thread have probably taken it, and are apparently finding it useful.

      The Invention of Celebrity is a course that explores the challenges involved in creating and preserving a stable public identity in cultures that are dominated by volatile media. Parallels are drawn between the (unstable) handwritten manuscript culture that existed before the printed word and the (equally unstable) electronic internet culture that is now emerging to replace it. The syllabus involves readings from “Virgil, Chaucer, and Chaucer’s devotees John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve, as well as Margery Kempe, and works produced by William Caxton, England’s first professional printer.” You might or might not find a course like this worthwhile; but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a class on the Kardashians.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Perhaps so, but wigwag’s point still stands. Perhaps these courses are all viable intellectual excursions in the best tradition of the academy, but perhaps not. Even if they ARE, however, how can we be sure that the other courses that WRM is lampooning are not also defensible?
        Fact is that even the courses that you describe are slivers of slivers of thought, notable for their precious sensitivity to the unique (and isolated) polishing of facets of knowledge…at best.

        • Thirdsyphon

          Most college classes are specialized explorations of relatively narrow fields of human thought and knowledge, but that shouldn’t be held against them. They’re operating on the (hopefully still accurate) assumption that their students covered the basics back in high school.

          Classes like these are mostly about teaching the art of analysis (which, once learned, can be applied to anything). The trick to teaching someone analysis is to find a complex and difficult topic that genuinely interests them, so that they’ll put in the heavy lifting that’s required to master it. That’s why so many classes have quirky titles and subject matter: they’re trying to incite curiosity.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Lets start with the truth of the matter, most students HAVE NOT covered the basics in high school, though that is relevant more to the question of whether they should be in college at all, not what courses they are taking there…
            As for the courses themselves, some are about analysis, but others are about providing information. The problem is that colleges have stopped trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, and present everything that tickles a professor’s (or administrator looking for enrollment numbers) fancy as a valid basis for study. Vanity courses like these (and lets be blunt, that is what most of them are) have always been with us, but they have become the junk food of academe in recent decades…filling but not nourishing, and making up far, far too much of the diet.
            WRM should be ashamed of his double standard, but only because he is unwilling to look in his own backyard for the same rot that he is so willing to point out in others.

          • Thirdsyphon

            The Invention of Celebrity is a vanity course if ever I’ve seen one. The other two are just standard-issue classes on mainstream topics, gussied up with amusing names. (There’s a real market demand for opinion writing, which I think makes that class at least as practical as a course in how to write advertising or public relations copy, which most people would concede are useful skills; and Ethics has been standard fare for students of philosophy for as long as philosophy has existed).

            Vanity courses are certainly common; but I don’t think they’re as worthless as you’re assuming. I’ve taken one or two of those myself, and I can attest that the enthusiasm of an instructor can be contagious. The point of a semester spent wandering around in someone else’s random corner of the world of ideas is not to learn what’s in it. . . it’s to learn that the world of ideas exists, and how to find the pathways through it for yourself.

    • Lee Dryden

      “Virtues and Vices” would have to examine the nature of moral thought. This could hardly be a waste of time in a well constructed undergraduate program.”How to Form an Opinion” would have to consider the facts and logic that support (weakly, strongly or not at all) one’s opinions. How could that possibly be a waste of time?

  • TheCynical1

    Yesterday: the Professor posts “The Utter Moral Collapse of UNC-Chapel Hill,” shrieking loudly (and understandably) about student-athletes taking good-for-nothing classes . . . at this non-Ivy school.

    Today: the Professor posts “Majoring in Time-Wasting” at U Penn, in a more indulgent tone, this time to “relish” this story about students taking an almost-as-useless class . . . at this Ivy school.

    The Professor’s credibility: down.

  • rheddles

    Will The Feed be on the reading list?

  • FriendlyGoat

    Some of us spend lots and lots of time at places like TAI—–for the purposes of being informed, being exposed to others’ opinions, and to practice articulating our own opinions. This isn’t the worst place to waste time on The Internet, is it? A lot of students should spend some free time here, maybe even under some kind of scheme for some kind of educational credit. But “free” time has two meanings. I wouldn’t want to be paying money for someone to basically teach me “the path to self-hypnosis via clicks” when we can all argue ourselves silly here for nothing.

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