At 12:59 on a Monday, professor Craig Dworkin stood at the front of the class in his graying black sweatshirt, coffee cup in hand and said, “Okay, so right now we’re going to experiment with Breton’s automatic writing. If you get stuck, just think of the letter L and words that start with L.” I looked up from my notes, expecting to see an encouraging face and hear, perhaps, some helpful hints, but what I saw instead delighted me: a smirk, a twisting, devious but delicious smirk growing in the corner of Dworkin’s mouth. It was a challenge, to write something brilliant without thinking at all! To be brilliant without knowing it! “I’ve heard this joke before,” I thought. “You put three monkeys in a room with a typewriter, and they will eventually write Hamlet. Or the Bible, depending on the monkeys.” So there I was, in a classroom, trying not to think, trying to be a monkey at the best university in the country, perhaps the world, all the while staring at my smirking professor.
Was Dworkin some kind of Jane Goodall, finding the hidden intellect and value in work I would otherwise call crap written by well-trained monkeys? And was he, by extension, trying to teach me and the other students scribbling wildly and thinking of lollipops, lamb-chops, lymph nodes, lollygagging and lactating how to become Jane Goodalls, ourselves, rather than monkeys? Too often in Princeton classes, do we, as students, act like well-trained monkeys, assuming that there is value in every reading we are assigned. But who decides what work has value? “Das Kapital?” my roommate reminisces on her precept. “More like Das Krapital.” But how can she reconcile her opinion with her professor’s assignment without deflating the work he values? In ENG 374: Uncreative Writing, Dworkin’s smirk challenges his students to question his assignments, thereby liberating work from the contextual value we assign it in precept and at this university.
Sometimes Princeton students fall into the rut of using their professors’ words as the flying buttresses of their own intellects. We cannot allow ourselves to write our teachers’ words verbatim in our essays, theses, and minds. Dworkin’s smirk dares his students to challenge his value-decisions and to create opinions and products entirely their own. As a Jane Goodall, he teaches us to walk upright and get off our knuckles. On these pages, we present just some of the uncreative works this semester’s ENG 374 students have come up with – some of the results of his experiment.
Dworkin’s not the first to test the monkey-typewriter theory, however. In 2003, British scientists tested the theory and found that rather than using the typewriters to write literary masterpieces, the monkeys used them as toilets and defecated all over them. To me, both experiments were a success: it turns out our mental diarrhea was, in fact, brilliant, and the monkeys had fun