UPenn to Offer New Class, “Wasting Time on the Internet”

There have always been jokes about easy or absurd college courses. A simple geology class becomes “Rocks for Jocks.” I can recall my alma mater offering courses that included “Methods of Coaching Volleyball” and “The Physics of Star Trek.” Underwater Basket-weaving has become something of an urban legend. And these seemingly frivolous classes aren’t just at your local community college. Next semester, the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, will offer a class titled “Wasting Time on the Internet.” I’m not going to claim that getting into Penn is easy, but it looks as if maybe getting in is the hardest part. Because once you’re there, you’ll be able to get course credit for the Internet’s most popular activity: looking at pictures of cats. How is This Not Available as a Major Already? It sounds like a class students came up with to get credit for doing nothing. You may think it’s an academically rigorous investigation into the sociology of 21st-century Internet culture – and the course catalogue does make the class seem more substantial – but it also mention cats. “Using our laptops and a Wi-Fi connection as our only materials, this class will focus on the alchemical recuperation of aimless surfing into substantial works of literature,” according to the course catalogue. There’s also some pretty heavy reading involved. But the course description does end by stating “Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory” and oh look, a kitty. A Cat Course With a Pedigree The course instructor will be Kenneth Goldsmith, a conceptual artist who made headlines for trying to print out the whole of the Internet, a Sisyphean task for the online age. His suggestions for coursework include using your Twitter feed as source material for a novella, and reframing “the Internet as the greatest poem ever written,” whatever that entails. What the Internet and Soylent Green Have in Common The Internet is people, having spawned unique cultures and communities with their own memes, in-jokes, traditions, and vocabulary. It’s worthy of study, and not just for the technical side, the fiber and the routers. This class could actually be quite valuable for sociology and psychology majors, or anyone who wants to understand people better. Besides, 100 years ago, there were probably critics aghast over college courses devoted to frivolous modern pleasures like the works of James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, and Franz Kafka rather than older, more accepted authors and subjects. Okay, But It’s Still About Cat Pictures We suspect there will still be plenty of cats, and viral videos, and social media examples taking up bandwidth during students’ required three hours online each day. But since Penn’s network only offers 40.4 Mbps download speeds, their cat-pictures-per-hour speed will be far below that of students at other U.S. universities. Students probably already spend that much time online, but now they’re just getting course credit for it, and it seems like the perfect thing to put on their resume if they ever hope to see the words “guru” or “ninja” in your job title. Is this a course you’d sign up for if it were available to you? What about if this class is what your $64,200 each academic year was buying for your child? And is your own Internet connection getting you those cat pictures fast enough to support your own, um, academic endeavors?

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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