Blog Post

Surprise Endings: A Public Course Offering by Dan Ariely and Cathy Davidson on Social Science and Literature

English 390-5 and ISIS 390*: “Surprise Endings: Social Science and Literature”    

Prof Dan Ariely (Fuqua, Economics, SSRI)

Prof Cathy Davidson (English, Franklin Humanities Institute, PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge)

Spring 2013 Monday, 3:05-5:35 pm  (First class, Wed Jan 9, make up class for MLK day)
Garage, Smith Warehouse, Bay 4, 114 S. Buchanan
Teaching Assistants:  Amanda Starling Gould, Peter Lisignoli, and Erin Allingham
Prerequisites: None. Areas of knowledge: ALP (Arts, Literature and Performance), SS (Social Sciences)
Modes of inquiry: CCI (Cross-Cultural Inquiry), STS (Science, Technology, and Society)  

Twitter Hashtag:  #Dukesurprise


Course Description

How do we know what we know?  How do we come to see that we often have a much higher opinion of ourselves--our motivations, our history, our beliefs--than we actually evince in everyday life?   In social science, especially in the field of behavioral economics, we can construct experiments that reveal how people actually respond in situations, as opposed to how they say or believe they respond.  That’s the “surprise” of experiments, revealing truths about ourselves that are otherwise invisible to us.  Professor Dan Ariely has called this the “predictably irrational” aspect of human nature.  Without benefit of controlled empirical experiments, artists reach the same conclusions about our predictably irrational selves. In poems, plays, short stories, novels, and movies, artists have time again exposed the inner workings of humans who are less than ideal and less than honest (with themselves or others).  The “surprise” of literature or social science serves an important function:  it helps us to see our blind spots and rethink our assumptions.  Professor Davidson calls this the “now you see it!” moment, the opportunity afforded by distraction or disruption, that makes us stop in our tracks.  That’s a good thing.  We can take that opportunity to reconsider our patterns and then (with the right tools, partners, and methods) work to change our practices for the better.  

“Surprise Endings” isn’t just a content course.  It practices what it preaches.  In this course, students themselves will be in a leadership, maker role and will be communicating their new insights to a general public.  Teaching is one of the best ways to learn yourself and students will work in project teams to “produce” one online public segment about each of the main topics of the course.  Undergraduate students will be working with a professional videographer, with a certified creator of online courses, and with a filmmaker--as well as with PhD students learning how to become professors themselves--to think about how we present our ideas (our selves) to the world, what are the key questions we are invested in, what and how do we make meaning, and how does art--magic, humor, mystery, narrative, suspense, surprise--help us to learn, not just in the classroom but in every aspect of our lives.  Students will also learn about the challenges and opportunities of collaboration, of producing a great end-product not just for their teachers but for the entire watching world--and they will work to make sure the world is watching.   

Besides being an important workplace skill, working together to make ideas public prompts what John Seely Brown calls “metacognition,” an ability to think about our thinking.  In literary and cultural criticism, this has been described as “defamiliarization” (being introspective about our own habits and reflexes).   

Course Methods
The class is limited to 32 students.  We will meet once a week for approximately three hours, with the final hour reserved to discuss production of the day’s class session into a public Webcast.  Students will sign up for one team in the first half of the class and one team in the second.     

For each of the eight topics or problems in social science and literature, a team of four students will be in charge.  On the first day of class, students will “self-tag” themselves, indicating what they believe they can contribute to a collaborative team and indicating what topics they would most like to work on.  The TAs and instructors will then work to construct teams that balance the skills and abilities of the students and will assign each student to a team.

Before class, all students will read classic social science papers on the topic and then a paired literary work that addresses the same problem.  In some instances, later in the semester, the lead team will choose the literary reading or film viewing as well.  The four-person team will conduct an online reading group around the materials before we come to the Monday classes.  This discussion is public, students may write under pseudonyms, but their conversation will be public and, if the projects leaders wish, can also be customized to receive feedback and comments from the wider public, to be moderated by the class project leaders.  This is sometimes called “flipping the classroom.”   [ ].  

The prompts for each online pre-class discussion might be:  1) What did you learn from the readings? 2) What questions do you have? 3) What would you like to know more about? 4) What questions do you have for Professors Ariely and Davidson?   Students will use a rating system on Wordpress to finalize a set of questions from all of those proposed in the online pre-class session.   NB:  Peer-to-peer evaluation is a key component of our “practice what we preach” method.  Each student will be asked to write a constructive yet candid assessment of what each member of the project team contributed to the online discussion as well as an assessment of the entire class’s participation.  Online assessment tools will help us to keep track of this real-time feedback on performance and, in aggregate, will constitute the “participation” component of the final grade.  

CLASSTIME:  The first part of each Monday class will be spent with one or perhaps two members of the project team interviewing Profs Ariely and Davidson about the topic, scientific papers, and literary readings of the week.  (The profs have promised not to discuss their ideas on these works prior to the class.)  A professional videographer will be taping this 45 minute dialogue that will also include questions from students in the manner of Inside the Actor’s Studio  (  The full, edited interview will be made available on line.  

That’s just the beginning.  The last part of each class will be spent with the entire class brainstorming ideas for how to make the dialogue into a compelling online program and, eventually, into a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).  What is the key story we want to tell?  How can we surprise our audience into realizations about themselves?  How can we move beyond the “talking heads” MOOC to think about the online experience as a learning experience?  What do we learn from brilliant constructed social science experiments or from a gripping narrative about how we can be surprised and how we can surprise others for a crucial, potentially life-changing purpose?  [NB:  The last hour of every class should be bursting with social science insight, artistic inspiration, and a lot of “metacognition.”]

The project team for that unit will then be responsible for producing such a segment. Think big.  Do you want to make an experiment, possibly an online interactive one?  Or a documentary or animation?  Do you want to bring in a magician or a juggler?   A rough cut will be shown to the class for feedback.  It can include any material at all and will be behind an academic firewall, for our class only.  However, a final cut will then be made public on a MOOC website.  It must adhere the most professional video standards as well as to all IP and copyright laws and relevant IRB and COPPA (if children are involved) regulations. Permission must be obtained for any copyrighted material.  This will be a fully professional student-produced Web production.    

Expert Assistance
Video production experience is not a requirement of English 390-5/ISIS 390. In addition to two or three TA’s, the course will be working with doctoral students (in a separate course taught by Prof Davidson) as well as the twenty students in Duke's new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge.  We will also have assistance from professional videographers at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke and input from distinguished alums in in the media and communication business as well as from guest speakers visiting the class.  In post-production translation of the online material to a MOOC, graduate students who are studying online assessment will work with undergraduates to make the most responsible learning experience possible--for the students in “Surprise Endings,” for the graduate students in “21st Century Literacies: Digital Knowledge and Digital Humanities,” for the students in the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, for the Teaching Assistants, and, eventually, for the online learners taking our MOOC.

Course Tools

Sakai Duke site--for copyrighted “reserve” materials from the library and grading
Wordpress--for class-specific (access limited only to our class) assigned materials, blogs, resources, multimedia archiving, wikis, rating systems.  This is also where students will post both their full class projects (compiled without regard to IP issues) as well as their final public posts (compliant with pertinent laws and rules surrounding IP, IRB, privacy, COPPA, and any other relevant laws about Internet publication)
Google Sites--to create quick websites for the public
Tumblr--for public access of papers, articles, videos, url’s, and annotated bibliography for the general public, to accompany our MOOC
eRubric--a customizable grading and feedback tool where students, together, can set the criteria for what counts as a high-quality product, and (possibly) use the eRubric to evaluate every stage of the collaboration as well as final projects
Twitter & Storify--  #Dukesurprise    
Google Docs--for shared course notes, collaborative writing
MAC Video Editing Suite--available for use in the Smith Warehouse Franklin Humanities Institute
Mozilla Popcorn--Video web editing  TED talk by Ryan Merkley on Popcorn; and here’s a TED talk by Prof Beau Lotto on “Science as Play” annotated with Popcorn:
Screen Flow---animated slides.    Video editing program. (CIT train TA’s in Screen Flow and TA’s can train students).
QUALTRICS---Duke Survey Tool

Assignments and Grades

Grading philosophy:  We do not believe in bell curves.  We believe in achieving excellence.  This is how the rest of life works outside of school and no one should take this course without expecting to be judged by the standard of success.  This is a tough, demanding, time-intensive, creative challenging class.  Your work will be scrutinized constantly by other students and, often, by the general public.  We have set the bar at A:  if we end up with a great, public online discussion and online web series, if your peers and instructors believe you have contributed to the max to the success of your team’s project, you will have made it over the bar and will earn an A for the course.   (For more conceptual understanding of grading for attained excellence rather than relativity, see Finnish Lessons:  What The World Can Learn from Educational Change in Finland by Pasi Sahlberg.)  

I.  Weekly Readings, weekly participation in the pre-class blog and face-to-face discussions in advance of the in-class dialogue; submission and rating of interview questions.   
2.  Full participation in a four-person group project, as described above, that will be ongoing throughout the class.
3. Presentation of a rough cut of a segment, viewed and evaluated and given audience feedback by the class. In advance of the presentation, each student will prepare an individual  ‘artist statement’ which will explain the selection and presentation of elements used in the final project and his or her own self-described contribution to the project.  Other students in the group will then “authorize” or decline to “authorize” that statement as part of the peer-responsibility and peer-to-peer evaluation of the class.  
4.  Public presentation of an online web version of the segment that observes all copyright, permissions, IP, and legal (ADA, COPPA, etc) requirements of a public broadcast.  
5.  Final class event:  Screening and presentation to the class of all projects, including a reflection (written or audio) on what was learned, what is still to be learned, on the course content and your translation of the content into the MOOC.  

Course Topics and Readings
[NB:  Some of the suggested readings will change, some will be chosen by the students, and some offered here have been crowdsourced, suggested by people who have read and contributed to this course description which has been online since February 2012.  WE WELCOME ADDITIONAL SUGGESTIONS IN THE "COMMENTS" BOX BELOW ]

Wednesday, Jan 9:  Introduction to General Topic and Course Method
The course begins with readings and a conversation about making knowledge in public, what it means to translate from the classroom to the larger world, the meaning of public knowledge and public culture, and the MOOC movement in higher education.  It introduces John Seely Brown’s idea of the “entrepreneurial learner,” not the learner who wants to be an entrepreneur but one who takes charge of his or her own learning, is creatively engaged in thinking across disciplinary and cultural boundaries, and isn’t just a thinker but a maker.  



Monday Jan 14:  Why Social Science?  Why Literature?  Or, How Do Experiments and Stories Help Us See Our Own Attention Blindness?  
Beginning with Ulric Neisser’s classic gorilla experiment of the late 1970s, reprised by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in 1999 as “the invisible gorilla,” we have had experimental evidence that shows how, by focusing attention on a particular object, we can miss just about everything else happening in the same place at the same time. Other experiments teach us that we have difficulty noticing change when we are fixated on certain constant elements (especially our own centrality to the action).  Still others show how we inflate our estimation of our own accuracy, lack of prejudice, memory, and courage.  Magicians, pickpockets, gamblers, thieves, insurance adjusters, and trial lawyers have all known this.  So have artists.  In this unit, we’ll look at classic experiments in attention blindness and change blindness as well as some classic magic acts (and may bring in a professional magician), witness unreliability, and movies about classic cases of cons and double-cons that depend on self-absorption and its flipside self-deception. We will read a number of essays by literary theorists and writers on the importance of “defamiliarization” (being able to gain perspective on oneself) as well as on the role of literature in making visible what is otherwise inexpressible.  



Jan 21:  Dr. Martin Luther King Day:  No classes

Jan 28:  TOPIC #1:  Self Control
As we see in the famous classical story of Ulysses and the Sirens, self control sometimes can be maintained successfully only when we’ve lashed ourselves to the mast, effectively forcing ourselves not to succumb to temptation.  This topic will focus on the  difficulties we have maintaining self control in the present even when we understand it is necessary in order to care for ourselves in the future (i.e. overeating, undersaving).  We will look at the tricks we play on ourselves to make ourselves think we are doing better than we are (ex: hundred calorie snacks).  


Other possible readings/TV show:

  • Portia de Rossi, Unbearable Lightness:  A Story of Loss and Gain
  • Cheryl Strayed, Wild
  • Weeds

Feb 4 : TOPIC #2:  Identifiable Victim Effect
The identifiable victim effect occurs when we see one person suffering.  When an identifiable victim is present, we are compelled to act and help that person.  However, research has shown that when we see masses of people imperiled, we are less likely to respond.  Why?  We will look at social science experiments on this phenomenon as well as literary examples.  How do writers use the identifiable victim effect to evoke strong emotions and even encourage social responses and activism?


  • The Diary of Anne Frank
  • Hannah Arendt, “The Human Condition and the Origins of Totalitarianism
  • Art Spiegelman, Maus

Other possible readings:

  • Arthur Miller, The Crucible
  • Wolf Whistle  [Emmet Til]
  • Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen, “How the Other Half Lives”
  • Movies:  The Lives of Others
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  • martha marcy may marlene

Feb 11: TOPIC #3:  Relativity and Defaults
Another topic studied by social scientists is how people value things in relative terms rather than absolute terms.  How much are you willing to pay for a cup of coffee?  How do you decide how much an iPhone is worth? What factors change our valuations?   In literature, we often see these kinds of relative evaluations made, including in folk tales of wily con men, in Native American trickster literature, in slave narratives and immigrant literature (where “inside” and “outside” often include evaluation of net worth and value).  A related topic we might also consider in this unit is the concept of “defaults”:  how marketers and others learn quickly that consumers tend to make choices based on the path of least resistance.  For example, for organ donations, if you say “sign if you want to participate,” you guarantee low participation.   However, if you are asked to sign if you don’t want to participate, you ensure a larger percentage of potential organ donors.  This topic raises issues about how difficult is it to deviate from the status quo.  


  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby   
  • Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
  • Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire- Chapter 2 Desire: Beauty I Plant: The Tulip (documentary is available on PBS)
  • Karen Ho, Liquidated (on culture of young all Street traders)
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed
  • Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano  
  • Jonathan Safran Foer Everything is Illuminated
  • The Piano
  • Fitzcarraldo
  • The Value of Life Andy Crowson
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
  • A Raisin in the Sun.
  • Fauset's Plum Bun
  • Amazing adventures of kavalier & klay?
  • Imitation of Life
  • Spike Lee's Bamboozled.
  • Joseph Mitchell's short stories published in the New Yorker.
  • "Joe Gould's Secret,
  • Yezierska, 'Salome of the Tenements'
  • Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
  • Indecent Proposal
  • Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
  • Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
  • "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People" by Lenny Bruce plus clips of his comedy (audio as well as video). "What's really obscene is that I get paid for one night in Las Vegas what a teacher makes in one year.”
  • Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" and/or "City Lights."
  • Charles Johnson's neglected short story "Exchange Value" in The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
  • ch. 7 of Absalom, Absalom! It contains the young Sutpen's "innocent" commentary on the value of a rifle.
  • Yezierska's "Soap and Water,"
  • Kafka "A Hunger Artist"
  • Morgan Spurlock, Supersize Me
  • George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • Dr Who Episode, “The Beast Below”   [Netflix]
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird  
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (also a movie)
  • Scott Westfeld, The Pretties (YA)

Feb 28:  RECAP: Surprises Along the Way.  No new student-led topics.  
Online discussion, led by TA’s and the instructors:  What do we learn from ‘learning in public’?  What do we learn when we have to teach others what we’ve learned?  How has the “make” component of the class changed our theories, our ideas?  What happens when, to use programmer slang, you go from “yack” to “hack”?   This will be a general discussion online that we will continue (and will video tape) in class, with a real-time projected Twitter feed from the public asking us questions about what we’ve done so far. General discussion online and in-class, with some previews of early work by Groups 1, 2, and 3.  What are we learning from making, teaching, discussing, and from the project of “learning in public,” learning beyond the walls of the university?  

Feb 25 : TOPIC #4: Obedience, Evil, and Resistance
People are capable of tremendous evil if you put them in the right circumstances. This unit would look at experiments like the Milgram experiment (which has not been successfully replicated because of IRB restrictions).   However, a recent French TV program restaged parts of the experiment with similar results.  In this class, we’ll also be looking at new media forms of “surprise,” including some iPad experiments, augmented reality and beyond. 


Other possible readings:

  • Alan Moore, V for Vendetta (graphic novel)  
  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


  • Children of Men
  • Battle Royale, Batori Rowaiaru, 2000

March 4:  TOPIC #5:  Dishonesty
Research shows how lots of people can cheat a little bit, and then the boundaries of what actually constitutes cheating are not as clear.  Basically, they push the envelope more and more and justify what they are doing gradually.  This tendency allows people to misbehave and think of themselves as being upstanding citizens even while they are misbehaving.    


  • Emma Donahue, Room
  • Shakespeare, Othello
  • Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; Easy A (movie based on The Scarlet Letter)


  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  
  • Oceans 11
  • Wall Street
  • Life is Beautiful
  • A Face in the Crowd (Andy Griffith, 1957)
  • The Thieving Hand, 1908,

March 11:  Spring Break.  No Classes.

March 18:   TOPIC # 6:  Social Proof
If  lots of people say it’s good, it must be good.  Ex: “Liking” on Facebook.  This topic explores the herd mentality (a structure known at every university in America). We’ll also look at examples in  literature of people not doing what the herd wants them to do and paying the price.  This week, we will look at some classic discussions of heroism (Joseph Campbell, for example) as well as Margaret Atwood’s witty description of the hero in scientific literature in In Other Worlds (2011), and will look at some of her speculative fiction that features characters working against the herd.


  • Margaret Atwood, “Burning Bushes:  Why Heaven and Earth Went to Planet X” in In Other worlds:  SF and the Human Imagination  [on reserve]
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale


  • Heathers
  • Mean Girls

March 25:  RECAP 2: More Surprises Along the Way.  No new student-led topics.
[Note this is Passover ; some students may be missing this class due to the religious holiday.]  No new reading.  Students will work in their project groups with TAs, RAs, doctoral students, and PhD Lab students, showcasing rough cuts of their work, refining ideas and presentations.

April 1:  TOPIC #7:  Gender and Success
The social science research on decision making doesn’t show radical differences in men’s and women’s decision-making abilities in the US, yet it is clear that men and women occupy very different socio-economic roles and positions of leadership in U.S. society.   Why?  Sociological research on women’s workplace performance suggests that women are more likely to measure success based on personal relationships (gaining approval from, collaborating successfully with, or competing against others, especially other women).  The studies of male success tend to suggest that men succeed by aspiring to those above them,  in competition with peers.  Other experiments suggests that women are reluctant  to put themselves into a situation of competition with other women and are also less willing than men to negotiate for better salaries or benefits in the workplace.  The literature complicates these issues, asking what part of gender enculturation confuses “gender” and “competition.”


  • Deborah Tannen, Talking from 9 to 5:  Men and Women at Work
  • Melissa Fisher, Wall Street Women
  • Current TV shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” “Mad Men,”  or “Smash” or reality-based shows from “Real Housewives” to “America’s Next Top Model.”  

Other possible readings:


  • “All About Eve” (1950), Dir. Joseph Mankiewicz 
  • Girls
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • The Social Network
  • Bend it Like Beckham
  • Thelma and Louise
  • 9 to 5
  • I Love Lucy where the women & men job/chore swap - to predictably wacky results. many eps feature Lucy failing in the professional realm. 
  • Father Knows Best called "Betty, Girl Engineer,"
  • Damages
  • Me and You and Everyone we Know 
  • Up in the AIr 
  • Margin Call
  • Mildred Pierce 
  • Imitation of Life 
  • Sweet Smell of Success 
  • Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
  • Whale Rider
  • Rabbit Proof Fence
  • I Like It Like That
  • Black Swan
  • Industry on Parade, a syndicated TV series produced by the National Association of Manufacturers:
  • Mrs. America Serves Again!

April 8: TOPIC #8:  Race, Prejudice and Political Correctness
This topic begins with the University of Chicago experiment in which identical resumes were submitted in response to job openings with only changes in the applicants names, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”  Employers may insist that they are not making racial but quality distinctions, yet this study found that, with only the proper names changed, “white sounding applicants” were fifty percent more likely to receive call-backs than were those with African American sounding names. A similar study was recently done at Yale comparing female/male names on applications for lab positions: "female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring (whether the scientist would be willing to mentor this student). Both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower."


Other possible readings:

  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
  • Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen
  • Possessive Investment in Whiteness, George Lipsitz.
  • Marlon Riggs's Ethnic Notions,
  • White man's burden

April 15:  Overview, Conclusions, Screenings, Feedback, Workshop Day
No new reading.  Students will work in groups and work on projects

April 22:  Showcase Marathon, Design-Critique Lab, Final Party   3:05 pm to Midnight?
In the final week, we will have design-critique sessions in which we view and review and offer feedback on all of the episodes.   Prior to this, see:   Choose a digital humanities project (we’ll supply examples) and evaluate using Brian Croxall’s cirteria.  Next, we will set up eRubric ( ) and come up with collective criteria that will help generate 1) possible project ideas 2) criteria for what students like/dislike about existing projects and how they might integrate those into their own projects 3) what the instructors will expect from the projects students produce and 4) the crowdsourced (class-sourced) grading rubric for their final projects.



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I am in Australia. Could I join the class?


There will be public online discussion groups from the beginning, eventually students will begin posting material, and then over the summer we hope to turn it, with the help of the graduate students, into an actual online course open to anyone.   Stay tuned!


Yes-please add me to the alert when the MOOC is available.


hello, i am from Colombia, living in Spain, i would love to do the course, what so i have to do?

thanks a lot



Please, alert me, too, when the course goes online.