Michael Greenstein Junior College graffiti “Welcome to Penn State” in blue chalk spray paint across campus as part of a class assignment last week for ENGL 111, “Writing Off the Page”.
The course explores the limits of writing and alternative forms of expression. Each week, students are given an assignment, such as “make it private, public” and complete it by creating an installation written anywhere except on a physical page.
Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches the course, said the students wrote on surfaces such as bodies, bathroom doors, the internet and trees. Greenstein, who is currently enrolled in the class, said a student completed an assignment by filling an empty brick on the sidewalk with pork casings.
Goldsmith said the course is designed to promote self-expression and encourage creative thought forms.
“[Students here] learned a trick and perfect that trick over and over again until [they’ve] achieved the ability to get into a school like Penn, ”Goldsmith said. “My job as a teacher here is to expose students to other ways of being in the world.
Greenstein, who graffiti the campus, said he aimed to “degrade Penn’s logo and branding”.
“I think Penn’s students take themselves too seriously,” he said. “It’s X, Y and Z. It’s your fraternity, it’s your social group, it’s the club you’re going to do for four years, it’s the job you’ll have when it’s all over.”
Greenstein added that he placed the Penn logo next to the words “Penn State” to highlight Penn’s “group and non-group culture”. He also attached balloons labeled “Welcome to Penn State” to the statue of Benjamin Franklin on Locust Walk and to the railings in front of Huntsman Hall and Fisher Fine Arts Library.
2008 College graduate Steve McLaughlin took “Uncreative Writing,” a similar experimental writing course taught by Goldsmith as a student. McLaughlin said he remembers a student who released a pot of flies in the classroom as part of an assignment. To accomplish his own mission of “making the private, public,” McLaughlin hung a flag printed with a computer password on the roof of the Fisher Bennet Library.
Greenstein said he values Goldsmith’s class because it allows him to think meaningfully and provides a break from other stressful classroom environments where students care more about grades than learning. But he stressed that English 111 is not a “bogus easy course,” adding that he spends the whole week thinking about its setup and what it means.
Goldsmith, a prominent experimental poet, wrote 10 books of poetry and was invited to perform at the White House for former President Obama in 2011. He was also the first poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art in 2013.
Goldsmith is known for teaching unconventional writing courses at Penn, including “Wasting Time on the Internet” and “Uncreative Writing,” which encourages students to copy previously posted content.
“The cornerstone of a good undergraduate liberal arts education is exposure to new ideas that you may never be exposed to again,” Goldsmith said. “I don’t expect great literature. I expect great openness. Be experimental.”