Blog Post

How Literature Teaches Social Science: Crowdsource This Syllabus Please!

In Spring 2013, Dan Ariely and I will be team teaching a class called "Surprise Endings:  Social Science and Literature."  I won't repeat what is in the syllabus below but I'd love help from the HASTAC community in thinking of other great works of literature that might play out some of the ideas in the social science experiments that we are highlighting.   Also, as I've said before in this blog, we'll be making some open content in the course, having some of it happen on line, and students in the course will be transforming the content into open source, public courseware.   The undergraduates will be working with students in our new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge as well as with doctoral students in my course on "Webmaking, Digital Literacy, and Digital Humanities." So you'll have plenty of opportunities for participation.  However, for now, I invite any lovers of literature to use the Comments section below to contribute ideas about what literary works best explore the human themes in the social science.  

Surprise Endings: Social Science and Literature

Professors Dan Ariely (James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics; Fuqua School of Business, Dept of Economics, Social Science Research Institute); and Cathy N. Davidson (Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies; Dept of English, Franklin Humanities Institute, and PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge)


Course Description

English 390-5/ISIS 390: "Surprise Endings" is an undergraduate interdisciplinary course designed to introduce students to basic topics and ideas behind social science empirical research design and interpretation of data as well as to narrative structures and the way empirical research tells stories about humans, society, and culture.  In addition, it has a production component:  students will be contributing to a class blog, designing their own experiments (online and face to face), and taking the materials, ideas, and lectures from the course and turning those into a public, open, online, noncredit course.   Although "Surprise Endings" will feature specific content and concepts in the social sciences and in literary and cultural studies, the course will also place emphasis on modes of thinking, what is made visible by certain forms of investigation and what is not, what one can say or prove through certain modes of inquiry and what one cannot.  We will also investigate the questions “why do we experiment?” and “why do we tell stories?”--and how does communication online, through static websites and interactive social media, change the stories we tell?  Finally, some portion of each class will be dedicated to what Dean Laurie Patton discusses as “public knowledge,” specifically, how the specialized research at universities can be communicated and shared with a larger public.  There is a production component in this class.  Along with the TA’s assigned to the course and students in Duke's new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, students in English 390-5/ISIS 390 we will be working together to turn each week’s conversation into some form of public knowledge, and we will be discussing, as a group, what component of the research we’re addressing has implications and applications beyond the lab to everyday life and work.


Course Methods

The class will consist of 30 students (including ten first-year students) and will meet once a week for approximately three hours.  Each week, students will be assigned several readings on a given theme prior to the class meeting (see “course topics” for a list).  The readings will be any combination of literature, popular fiction, scientific papers, literary/cultural theory, popular science articles, films, or other forms of multimedia.  The class itself will consist of a dialogue between the students and professors, with students posing challenging questions across the boundaries of social science and literature, based on the readings.   

This class will also have a public production component.  Students will prepare written, public questions on the class Wordpress blog before each class and will be responsible for reading all of one another’s questions and choosing one to answer.  Some form of a badging or other reputational ranking system will move the questions most often chosen to the top of the list and will provide some of the inspiration for the questions posed during the class conversation.  Working with TAs, students will video tape the lectures and upload them to a public site and will also work, in groups, on editing the video into segments,  augmenting the conversation with additional bibliography and study questions, and otherwise making our course content accessible as an informal online course.   

One consistent thread throughout the course will be how we translate the specialized research of faculty and students at an elite university into public knowledge, made available free and online to anyone who wishes to participate.   During the course, we will experiment with a variety of formats that will also allow a larger public to interact with us in class--largely through Twitter or comments made on the class blog.


I. Weekly Blog Entries

Prior to class, each student will post three challenging, open-ended discussion questions based on the readings to the public WordPress class blog.  Prior to the class meeting, each student will also be required to respond to at least one of their classmates’ questions, via the commenting function on WordPress.  The responses should be brief (approx 500 words) but well-conceived essays.  The TAs will be responsible for keeping a record that each student is fulfilling their weekly obligations on the public class blog.    The top-ranked questions and responses will then be formatted as “study guides” to accompany the taped version of each class session, as part of the public contribution to knowledge taken on as the collective responsibility of the class, managed by the TAs.   We'll decide as a class who will moderate, pose interview questions, and so forth for our online production.  (Meritocracy? Democracy?  "Merit" as decided by quality of questions asked and answered?  "Merit" as decided by best online interviewing skills?  These are the kinds of questions that translate social science and literary questions into real-world practice and a good example of how making this a production-based course for the general pubic transforms the content, impact, and meaning of the course itself.)

II. Midterm

The midterm will consist of a brief written proposal for final project topic, outlining the topics, the bibliography, and the methods to be pursued.  Students will use some combination of social science and narrative methods and resources.  They will be encouraged to include bibliographies, study guides, and some form of multimedia final project, again to be assembled as part of the public contribution to knowledge made by the course.  Professors Davidson and Ariely will approve each topic and provide feedback before students move forward with their project.  

III. Final Project

The final project will be an individual assignment, unless two or three students wish to work together and make a compelling case to do so.  Students will select one of the course topics (or can pitch another similarly broad topic of their own choosing).  Students will create a set of multimedia materials (articles, experiments, videos, websites, interviews, video games, etc.) which will serve as a “Reflection Module” on the chosen topic.  The Reflection Module should be geared towards a general audience of high school and undergraduate students, and will be made public via the class blog and a selected video outlet (such as YouTube) at the end of the course.  

During the final weeks of class, students will present their work to their class in draft form and students, instructors and the TAs will make comments for revising.  

The final multimedia project will be submitted to the professors and TAs for evaluation, either with URLs or via a DVD on the date/time of the scheduled final exam.   

Course Topics

Week 1: 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.  Literary examples might include Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, where individual and crowd behavior are constantly in conflict and interplay, especially motivated by race and class.  Another example is The Diary of Anne Frank, where one person’s story stands in as a synecdoche for genocide.   How do writers use the identifiable victim effect to evoke strong emotions and even encourage social responses and activism?  Other works of literature we might consider include Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition.

Week 2: 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).  Works of literature we might consider include:  Frank Norris, McTeague; Anna Patchett, Bel Canto, Vladimir Nabakov, Lolita.    

Week 3: Relativity
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), and in stories such as  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic “Diamond as Big as the Ritz” or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Week 4: Defaults
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.    Literary work?  

Week 5: 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.   The classic literary allegory on this topic Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor's New Clothes.   We might also consider:  Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm or Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Week 6:  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.  This unity will consider the definition of cheating and look at classic examples of dishonesty (such as Dreiser’s Sister Carrie) and also at Karen Ho’s ethnography of Wall Street traders Liquidated.    We might also look at a modern redo of Plato's allegory of The Cave, Emma Donaghue's Room.

Week 7: 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 fascinating  and unexpected literary work on this subject is James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water:  A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, a story of a white woman who “passes” for black. Also, for critical Linda Lopez McAlister (1999). ‘My Grandmother's Passing’ in Whiteness: Feminist Philosophical Reflections by C. Cuoma and K. Hall (eds). New York: Rowman and Littlefield.    We might also read or view Lorraine Hansberry's classic Raisin in the Sun and then the reversal in the recent Broadway play by Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park

Week 8: Gender in the Marketplace
The social science research on decision making doesn’t show radical differences in men’s and women’s decision-making processes, yet it is clear that men and women occupy very different socio-economic roles in U.S. society.   Why?  Research on women’s performance suggests that women are far more likely to want to achieve excellence by “besting” other women than by achieving some specified standard of excellence.   Men, by contrast, tend to prefer to excel by being number 1, succeeding by competition, relative to their peers.  Research also suggests that women are especially 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.   Several classic films about women dramatically show the competitive woman as the villain--ranging from “The Women” to “All About Eve” and current TV shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” “Mad Men,”  or “Smash” or reality-based shows from “Real Housewives” to “America’s Next Top Model.”  

Week 9: Obedience & Evil
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.  Why?  Sophie’s Choice might be a good reading on this.   Or Hunger Games.  

Week 10: Motivation at Work
Why do people work?   What do they get out of it, what motivates them?   Many studies find that recognition counts almost as much as financial reward in some settings--but not in all.  One reading on the ethnographic side might be Karen Ho’s Liquidated, a study of the culture of privilege and precarity of Wall Street traders written by a former Wall Street trader turned Ph.D. student in anthropology.   A brilliant film on this topic is Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep; Wall Street is another.   We might also view The Godfather or On the Waterfront, and perhaps read Death of a Salesman.   Margin Call has also been suggested. 


Week 11: Licensing
Licensing is the idea in social science that you can do one nice thing, and then that action justifies highly immoral or unkind other behaviors--the prison guard who takes care of rescue dogs, or, one might say, the Robber Baron philanthropists.  This has been shown to be the case in treatment of minorities, women, children, or the less powerful as well as in behaviors in regard to the environment (recycle the newspapers--and drive a Hummer).  Classic literary example, Leon Uris, QB7 (novel or film).

Week 12:  Design-Critique Lab for Final Projects
In the final week, we will have design-critique sessions in which we view and review and offer feedback on all of the final projects. 




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, .  

The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 :



Here are some additions to the course being made via Facebook.
via FB Friend #1:
Poetry -- especially that of Wordsworth deal with ideas of perception and development -- The Child is Father to the Man line reflects the ideas being developed in his day that persist -- and of course the Prelude. Coleridge's conversation poems are all about psychological states.



via FB Friend #2: 

Franklin's autobiography would be a good source for a few of these topics as would Rousseau, of course. Also, Crane's Maggie (along with Horowitz on the Sociological Paradigm). Giddens's Consequences of Modernity might put some useful critical pressure on what I take to be the presupposition of the course (i.e., literature might be have awareness of and resistance to the institutionalization of sociological methods--the 'double hermeneutic').


Cathy, the syllabus looks wonderful. I'm so glad you are sharing it on HASTAC.

For Week 3, "Relativity," William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" might be a book to consider. Relevant questions include why do so many people help the Bundren's transport Addie's stinking, decomposing body from one town to another for her burial. Friends and strangers help the Bundrens though they put their lives at risk, their farm animals lives' at risk, a barn is lost to fire, and the smell is pretty bad. These people get little or nothing in return--would the Bundren's do the same for their neighbors? Who knows. Anse Bundren, Addie's husband, doesn't do any work at all. At the end of the book, after Addie is buried, her husband gets a new wife and new teeth, the family gets a new gramophone, and Darl, the family's clairvoyant son, is deposited in an insane asylum. I think these "rewards," gained after the arduous, even pointless (the Bundren's could have taken a less risky route; Addie could have been buried in a temporary plot and transported at a safer time) trek raise complex questions about valuation and how much someone is willing to give of themselves and take for themselves. There are many other instances in the book that would serve this topic well. Though some students might already have read this book, it could be useful for them to return to it and approach it under these terms.

Toni Morrison's novel, "Paradise," and her short story, "Recitatif," each raise issues that might be relevant to "Race, Prejudice, Political Correctness." In particular, the short story raises those issues for readers, since we know the one main character is black and one is white, but we don't the race of either girl. Morrison forces the reader to examine stereotypes and question their validity. Why do we even need them in order to better understand the girls' motives and behaviors? If we can look past those stereotypes and stop caring about which one is black and which one is white, we can change our understanding of the story and the relationship between the two girls.



Dishonesty- "Going Postal" or "Making Money" by Terry Pratchett.  In the satiric world of Discworld, a confidence man is given an offer he can't refuse- reform the post office or hang.  He does so well in "Making Money" he is swindled into moving the economic system from coin to credit.  (could also cover motivation at work) How does a twisty mind build a common good?  Could also fall under the idea of licensing.

For a fascinating view of leadership and manipulation, obedience/evil I recommend "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card.

"Glasshouse" by Charles Stross covers a heck of a lot of turf. post singularity what happens to identity?  How do perpetrators of war crimes rejoin society when everyone lives forever?  What happens to gender when you can change it at will?  What are the social constraints that lead to facisism?  -might be an excellent choice for the evil/obedience topic.  I hate to give away the plot but the main characters (war vets who have undergone voluntary removal of parts of their memory/identities) slowly discover that they have signed up for a multigenerational MIlgrim experiment to recreate a facist society.

thanks for the opportunity to play


One of the best books I've ever read for this is Erik Larson's In the Garden of the Beasts since it capitalizes on a kind of on-the-ground history-which-reads-as-a-novel, and the most contested time of the 20th century, as Hitler came to power and began to use that power. There are a few other history books with this flavor, but Larson's the best practitioner in my experience. And, when he was asked about why he chose to stuy the Nazi's, he said, "I watch the news on television." If that doesn't send shivers, nothing will. And literature and history should send more than shivers in this day and age.

And also don't ignore movies. Given that this is the day after Gore Vidal died, The Best Men is both history, fiction, and non-fiction, but there are loads of others.

Probably the best thing about your course are your brainstormed topics. My advice for a "final exam" is to ask each student to suggest two new topics for next year, and assemble some fiction/nonfiction to validate that choice. And this illustrates the key feature of your innovation: open ended, unstructured questions that provoke synergistic responses. Look at David Jonasson's Meta-Theory for how those questions are particularly generative, or, perhaps, more traditional but just as radical in impact, Seymour Papert's case for new media.

The most "radical" thing I'd suggest is to ask students to write you an essay in the beginning - or produce a 5 minute video - that represents why they chose this course over another, and what they expect to learn here that they might not learn elsewhere, and then to reflect on that as a mid-term, and again at the end....  Conscious innovation beats accidents every time, particularly if you can blend innovation and reflection.

Good luck. Great idea.


A great one for obedience and evil is Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay.  It takes the holocaust and shows how it wasn't just Nazi Germany who committed atrocities - in this book, based on a historical event, it's the French police and ordinary citizens who take part.  The book is beautifully written, and rich in discussion possibilities.


Catherine Novak

Royal Roads University

Victoria BC, Canada


Thanks to all above for great suggestions.   Here are some from Twitter and Facebook.  Wow.  I'm going to have so many fabulous choices thanks to very smart virtual friends!

For Obedience & Evil, check out NIGHT by Elie Wiesel. It explores not just the cruelty of Nazis, but of prisoners as well

Interesting syllabus! For Week 10: Motivation at Work, you should definitely read DRIVE by

Franklin's autobiography would be a good source for a few of these topics as would Rousseau, of course. Also, Crane's Maggie (along with Horowitz on the Sociological Paradigm). Giddens's Consequences of Modernity might put some useful critical pressure on what I take to be the presupposition of the course (i.e., literature might be have awareness of and resistance to the institutionalization of sociological methods--the 'double hermeneutic').
Probably the greatest literature-social science-life science collaboration was the friendship of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck. Ricketts was a marine biologist who, like his mentor Warder Allee, saw powerful connections between the biological world and sociology. During the time of their friendship, Steinbeck was essentially a scribe of Ricketts' eastern-inspired philosophies of how to see nature non-teleologically and achieve a "break through" to a higher consciousness. Ricketts was also hugely influential on his friend Joseph Campbell, and all three were inspired by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, especially "Roan Stallion". Steinbeck and Ricketts' "The Log from the Sea of Cortez" is an incredible work - part naturalist's notebook, part philosophy, and part sociology. Ricketts also appears as the character "Doc" in "Cannery Row", which upon re-reading, is a way deeper story than just a farce about some great parties.
Frank Spufford's Red Plenty was perhaps written specifically to address the paired questions "why do we experiment?" and "why do we tell stories?" It's about social science (the grand empirical Soviet experiment of the planned economy) but written in the form of a novel. The questions of why he chose the novel form, and what storytelling and experimenting, literature and economics, might share, could drive a good discussion. Website for the book here:

This is the website for Francis Spufford’s new book Red Plenty, published by Gra...See M
if you use sci-fi, the best social science is the Foundation Trilogy. The idea of pyscho-history as proposed by the encyclopedean Harry Sheldon has been a big influence on Paul Krugman, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and even Newt Gingrich. Two of them important social scientists. Barabasi's book Bursts and his research mention Asimov, Sheldon and Foundation. Krugman claims to be Sheldon (in a humorous blog post)

barabá -- center for complex network research. Our research, directed b...S
My short film might work for week 7 on Race. I think Duke's library has a copy of it.

Yvonne Welbon presents a witty and original coming-to-terms with race, culture a...See More


I thought about suggesting the Foundation series, but they are based on a very Newtonian view of human behavior- only one mutant in how many thousand of years?  Asimov wrote them prior to chaos theory.  So they could be a great historical look, especially about how others were influenced by his thinking.  But I'm not sure about them as a current work, unless you wanted to use them for "do we feel safer when we think someone out there has a plan, or when we think they don't"?  Something about social planning?  Maybe pair them with Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" as a thought experiment in historical causality?


Check out the novel Unless by Carol Shields. It's really fantastic for that, I think. But that's a hard one, isn't it? Maybe also Fight Club, if only because it really features how hard it is to change, and how terrifying it can be.


Hi, Cathy,

I had mentioned some e-lit suggestions for your syllabus. Obviously, there are lots and lots of ways to take this question.  In many ways, any work of lit can be marshalled into service here, but I'd like to recommend some works that are either collaboratively authored or directly engage with contemporary Internet use.  The following works also engage with points of collision between communities.

The LA Flood Project by LAinundacion
A locative media project that includes recorded accounts of Angelenos who have experienced the city and crisis along with fictional accounts of a Flood that has hit the city.  The piece has included a "War of the Worlds"-style collaborative Twiter performance (netprov) of a flood hitting LA.

Flight Paths:
Chris Joseph and Kate Pullinger's beautiful tale of a collisions between a British and Pakistani laborer trying to escape.

Public Secrets:
Sharon Daniel & Erik Loyer
Non-fiction narratives of women incarcerated in the Central California Women's Facility.  Technically nonfiction, but included in ELC2.

Ask me for the Moon: Working Nights in Waikiki
John Zuern's stirring exploration of the work and workers that make an island paradise.

A  semi-secret Jason Nelson distributed narrative project.  Google "ramblemancy". A glimpse into a hack of writing across the Internet.


A bit surprised this one hasn't come up yet:


Major Barbara, by George Bernard Shaw.


I see tie-ins with "Self-Control" - the control that the fed and clothed have, that those who have to think hard, every day, about such things lack. With "Social Proof" - not because people will say that something is good, but they say that something is bad, and may become disbelievers if someone takes the Devil's money to do God's work. With "Dishonesty" - the entire play is rife with self-concept maintenance and categorization malleability. And, for good measure, it ties in with "Obedience and Evil" (naturally - why would we need to maintain our self-concept from anything if evil didn't exist?), with "Motivation," and, for that matter, with "Licensing" (heck, Underwood basically pays an indulgence).


Hope that helps. :)