Most people are aware of the influence of the internet on society in general and on the process and administration of formal learning i.e. education.
The writing process was simplified with the advent of the word processor, which replaced the manual typewriter and then the electric typewriter (as early as 1937 International Business Machines produced the electromatic typewriter and various improvements and models were made until 1986 when the IBM Selectric was “retired” due to the introduction of personal computers and daisy chain printers.(https://www.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/modelb/ modelb_milestone.html)
Of course, much progress has been made since then in the area of personal computers and writing aids such as Apple’s TextEdit and Page, Microsoft’s Word, and Google Chrome’s GDrive (on which I create this column.) .
The main reason I write about writing is because I recently came across an article in the New Yorker magazine archives (in its November 13, 2014 issue) “Wasting Time on the Internet” by Kenneth Goldsmith, a professor creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
Until I read it completely I had assumed this was going to be another rant or sermon on how young people as well as many members of the older generation (who should know better) not only lose time, but destroy brain cells to start with playing games, watching pornography or other “frivolous” activities on the Internet. Instead, they should re-read Tolstoy and Shakespeare or even join their favorite political movement. But I was snooked and shocked, shocked! It was a whole different sight which, initially confusing, made me wonder if I should laugh or cry.
A CLASS OF THIEVES
In a nutshell, Gold was using a student’s lazy natural inclination to plagiarize and omit quotations as a tool to teach him to write. Say what? Can a bad action lead to a good result? Maybe. He begins the essay by laying the foundations: “We are inundated with a new electronic collective unconscious; tethered to multiple devices, we are half awake, half asleep. We talk on the phone while surfing the web, partially listening to what’s being said to us while simultaneously answering emails and checking status updates. We have become very good at being distracted.
Even though it looks like he’s about to start his rant against the internet, he changes direction 180 degrees and begins to praise what he sees as the positive side: “From a creative point of view, it’s a reason to rejoice. The vast amount of language on the web is perfect raw material for literature. Disjunctive, compressed, decontextualized and, most importantly, cut-and-paste, it is easily reassembled into works of art.
Although this may seem counter-intuitive (and somewhat opaque to the non-specialist), it is much the same logic that underlies the drug or alcohol addiction treatment regimen. At some point, the individual must realize that his actions are unproductive and are destroying his mind and body. Only then can they take steps to address and resolve the problem, such as joining helpful programs like Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous.
By applying this same type of strategy and making cheating a requirement, he actually helps students wake up and examine exactly what they are doing: it’s not the right thing to do. If all goes well, it can actually change a bad habit. Lectures exposing plagiarism are mostly ineffective, but actions forcing them to think about what they are doing can do the trick. As the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words”.
Not only does he continue: “Nothing is forbidden: if it’s on the Internet, it’s fair play. Students watching three hours of porn can use it as the basis for compelling erotica; they can troll infamous right-wing sites, scraping hate language for spy thrillers; they can turn celebrity Twitter feeds into Dadaist epic poetry; they can recast Facebook feeds as news; or they can simply turn over their browser history at the end of a session and present it as a memory.
He goes on to say, “I’ve never taught this course before, but I have a feeling it will be a success. For the past decade, I’ve taught a class at Penn called “Uncreative Writing,” where students are forced to plagiarize, appropriate, and steal texts they didn’t write and claim them like theirs. For a final assignment, I ask them to buy a piece of paper from a stationery store, put their name on it, and defend it as their own—certainly the most forbidden act in academia. In the classroom, students are penalized for their originality, sincerity and creativity. What they have been doing surreptitiously throughout their college careers – writing patches, copy-pasting, lifting – must now be done out in the open, where they are accountable for their decisions. Suddenly, new questions arise: what am I raising? and why? What do my choices about what to own tell me about myself? My emotions? My story? My prejudices and my passions? “
In conclusion, he always insists that what are commonly considered bad behaviors on the Internet, such as distraction and divided attention, have an unadvertised positive side.
This bold educational experiment, until fully evaluated, seems like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, students uncover and examine bad behavior such as cheating; on the other hand he is redeemed by examining the motives of this bad behavior. Self-examination can be a very rewarding experience. In the words of Socrates, “Know thyself”, and in a more contemporary formulation of movie star and philosopher, Richard Gere (yes, that Richard Gere): “I think life is an examination of conscience Certainly the journey that we make”.
And if life is a journey guided by self-examination, for most people that would be sound and reasonable advice.
Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is professor emeritus of computer science at Plattsburgh State. He recently retired after 30 years there. Prior to that, he worked as a technical writer, programmer, and consultant to the US Navy and private industry. Send your comments and suggestions to his blog at www.tec-soc.blogspot.com, where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at [email protected]