Last fall at my institution (UW-Milwaukee), I designed and taught a 200-level literature course on the topic of information overload. It was a pretty wild ride that moved quickly through large chunks of literary and media history, often stretching the limits of a 75-minute class period. The first two units of the class focused on the history of information overload in print culture and the birth of computing in the mid-20th century. The third unit dealt specifically with internet culture and electronic literature. In this post, I want to talk about the Internet Poetry assignment I developed to get students thinking about this question:
Is there a new definition or type of “literature” emerging from online communities of writers? (Hint: the answer is yes.)
This question grew from the readings and student responses, which all concerned digital-specific writing practices and literary genres. In particular, we focused on Kenneth Goldsmith’s notion of uncreative writing, which is his term for a type of writing that thrives in digitally networked environments. Uncreative writing is what it sounds like: writing that deliberately tries to avoid creating or doing anything new. Instead, it appropriates, manipulates, repurposes, refashions. But of course, argues Goldsmith, appropriative writing IS creative writing. The author’s choices will always work their way into the text, by way of typography, layout, design, selectivity, arrangement, and other creative actions. And not just human actions. Mechanistic or algorithmic writers also contribute creative texts that Goldsmith includes in his category of uncreative writing. A striking is example is a .jpg file that Goldsmith opens in a text editor. He proceeds to read the resultant code garble as a poetic expression not too unlike the “shards of language” we find in conceptual, concrete, and language poetry (17). But this text has no direct human author.
I was hoping that Goldsmith’s provocations would spark interest and debate in my class, and I was right. He basically says that originality is overrated. That’s a hard pill to swallow, when students come to a class expecting to grapple with real actual literature. Students have spent much of their academic lives learning to value and appreciate originality, in their own writing and in the books they read. They sit in classes that prohibit laptop use. The message is that internet culture and meaningful, worthwhile writing do not mix. But Goldsmith is on the same page as internet poet extraordinaire Steve Roggenbuck: not only do they mix, but literature can actually get better if it learns something from the internet!
The assignment itself was simple. I asked students to make an internet poem. What is an internet poem, you might ask? Well, part of the assignment was to get students looking at examples of poetry that exists because internet. Check out some examples from the Internet Poetry tumblr. Here are two of my favorites:
This might not look like “poetry” to those who come from the creative writing / original genius tradition (or a to a conservative English major!), so it requires some horizon-broadening to discuss it seriously in class. Goldsmith helps with that. But I wanted to do more than discuss it. I wanted students to put Goldsmith/Roggenbuck to the test and experiment with the form by creating their own internet poems. The assignment asked them to imitate or draw inspiration from the examples. I recommended they try to imitate flarf, screenshots, or image macros since these forms are easy to do and they don't require a lot of technical knowledge. “You mean, you want us to make a meme?” one student asked. Yes?
Here are some examples of what my students came up with (clicking should enlarge).
Looking back, I am glad we did this. My primary goal with the assignment was to unsettle assumptions about what counts as worthwhile literary practice in the 21st century. But more than that, in those precious final weeks of the semester, I wanted to make a final push in convincing students that information overload might not actually be a problem. Unprecedented abundance might be a real asset to the future of writing. Poetry can be shared effortlessly. It can be reliably amassed in one place for the world to see. And abundance does not equate worthless garbage: “The raw, unedited, unfiltered internet communities are rich with opportunities to teach students about the power of language and text” as Alice Daer recently wrote on her blog. There is so much material out there to uncreatively work with. Poetry as meme? Yes.
Poetry should be so lucky.
One final thought. This was a low-stakes assignment, but it was 10% of the final grade, though. That could make a difference between a B and a B+ for instance. My evaluation strategy was “A for effort.” Basically, if students submitted a poem, they received an A. I don’t know any better ways to evaluate oddball assignments like this one. Have you tried any experimental or creative assignments in a literature class? Do these help with analytical skills or do they distract? How do you evaluate assignments like this, or do you just make them in-class work?
Note: This post is part of The Pedagogy Project on HASTAC.