Course Description

“Surprise Endings” is a for-credit Duke University course with a public component. Throughout the term, students will use this site to host public online discussions of key topics in the course.   Anyone (you do not need to be affiliated with Duke) can participate.  Simply go to the bottom of the page or post the comment.

You can also join us on Twitter @DukeSurprise or on Facebook at our Surprise Endings page.

In this course, students write and conduct weekly video interviews with the instructors, edit the interviews, and then post them to this public site.   They work in project teams to turn these videos and other materials into exciting, interactive, original material for an online non-credit course open to the public. We will be announcing more of these public plans as the semester progresses. We look forward to your participation!


Professors Dan Ariely (Fuqua, Economics, SSRI) and Cathy N. Davidson (English, Franklin Humanities Institute, PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge)

Teaching Assistants: Erin Allingham, Amanda Starling Gould, Peter Lisignoli, and Talena Sanders

Spring 2013 Monday, 3:05-5:35 pm (First class, Wed Jan 9)
Garage/Room 105, Bay 4, Smith Warehouse, 114 S. Buchanan
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)


This course investigates the different ways we know the world and ourselves–and the many ways we deceive ourselves about what we think we know. It asks how 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 and 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 two filmmakers who will help guide them 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).

“Surprise Endings” won’t solve life’s puzzles–but it should make students more prepared for life’s surprises, wiser about the ways to handle them, and smarter about the different ways that empiricism and artistry–social science and storytelling–can be used for learning, persuasion, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, insight and introspection.

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.

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 students will then work together 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 (starting at least a week before the class).  This discussion is public–students may write under pseudonyms, but their conversation will be public. If the project leaders wish, the conversations can also be customized to receive feedback and comments from the wider public, 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.


On group presentation days, the first part of class will be spent with one or perhaps two members of the project team interviewing Professors Ariely and Davidson about the topic, scientific papers, and literary readings of the week.  (The professors 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 online.

Group Project:  Turning the Topic Into an Online Public Webcast (and possibly a unit in a MOOC)

 The last part of each class will be spent with the project group brainstorming ideas with the instructors, TAs, and the rest of the class for how to make the videotaped dialogue between Profs Ariely and Davidson  into a compelling online program and, eventually, into a Massive Online Open 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?   On RECAP days, a rough cut will be shown to the class (and guests of class members) for feedback–a form of test screening.  If you wish, it can include any material at all and will be behind an academic firewall, for only those present.

However, a final cut will then be made public and, possibly, will be hosted on an official Duke MOOC website.  It will be uploaded no later than the scheduled final exam time.  It must adhere to 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.

Peer Feedback

Peer-to-peer evaluation is a key component of our “practice what we preach” method.  Each student will be asked to give constructive yet candid feedback to the other members of the team about the quality and quantity of their contribution.  Each project will also be the focus of a formal “crit” from the other members of the class both at the draft and at the final stage.   Online and printed 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. Please read for more information.

Expert Assistance

Video production experience is not a requirement for 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 Professor 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 alumni 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,” the graduate students in “21st Century Literacies: Digital Knowledge and Digital Humanities,” the students in the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, the Teaching Assistants, and, eventually, the online learners taking our MOOC.

Assignments and Grading

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 receiving constant feedback from your project team members and your group work will be receiving criticism from the entire class and sometimes from the larger public.

 The method for this course is contract grading paired with peer-evaluation within your project team to ensure everyone is contributing and fulfilling a contract.

  • Contracts will be distributed on the first day of class.  Successful completion of all terms of the contract, as determined by the instructors, teaching assistants and the other students, will result in an A for the course. (See the draft contract).
  • A peer-evaluation, collaborative feedback form will help team members recognize the valuable contributions of team members in a number of categories defined by the team as important to the project’s success.   Some part of each class will be spent checking in on peer-participation.  Most “group work” in classes assumes collaboration is an easy, natural skill.  It isn’t.  Everyone beyond school knows it is one of the most difficult skills to master and business schools spend a lot of time working on methods and tactics to make the process go more smoothly (some of which we’re using in this class).  You will be giving and receiving constant feedback to your team about their contribution so all can succeed together. (See the draft peer badging grid).

Please take the requirements for the course seriously.  This is not for the faint of heart!  Our collective goal is to end up with a great, public online discussion and online web series produced by you.  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 and the Peeragogy Handbook )


  1. Weekly readings and participation in the pre-class public blog and face-to-face discussions in advance of the in-class dialogue; submission and rating of interview questions.  (NB: Group leaders will be responsible for recording contributions to the online pre-class blog and indicating anyone who is not contributing (i.e. who is not meeting the week’s contractual agreement). 

  2. Full participation in a three- or  four-person group project, as described in the “Group Project” portion of the “Course Methods” page.   (N.B.:  Team members and the four TA’s in the course will be tracking quality and quantity of contribution to the group project.) .  

    Each group is responsible for making a final lesson that goes beyond the “talking heads” MOOC . The group will have time each class period to discuss how the videotaped dialogue between Profs Ariely and Davidson  can be transformed into a compelling online program. Think big.  Do you want to make an experiment, possibly an online interactive survey?  Or a documentary or animation?  Do you want to bring in a magician or a juggler?

    The final lesson will be made public and, possibly, will be hosted on an official Duke MOOC website.  It will be uploaded no later than the scheduled final exam time.  It must adhere to 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.

  3. On your RECAP day, a presentation of a rough cut of your group’s lesson will be shown to the class (and guests of class members). If you wish, it can include any material at all and will be behind an academic firewall, for only those present. 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. A final blog reflection (written or audio) on what was learned, what is still to be learned.

Additional Suggested Reading

Students should contribute bibliography to this list.


Monday, January 28: Self Control

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

Monday, February 4: Identifiable Victim Effect

  • Arthur Miller, The Crucible
  • Emmet Til, Wolf Whistle
  • The Lives of Others [Film]
  • Stieg Larsson,The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene [Film]
  • Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen, “How the Other Half Lives”

Monday, February 11: Relativity and Defaults

  • Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire, section on tulips (documentary is also 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 [Film]
  • Fitzcarraldo [Film]
  • Andy Crowson, The Value of Life
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
  • Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
  • Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun
  • Michael Chabon, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
  • Imitation of Life [Film]
  • Spike Lee’s Bamboozled [Film]
  • Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel
  • Joseph Mitchell, Joe Gould’s Secret
  • Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements [Film]
  • Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
  • Indecent Proposal [Film]
  • William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
  • Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
  • Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (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, Exchange Value (neglected short story in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)
  • William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, Chapter 7 – it contains the young Sutpen’s “innocent” commentary on the value of a rifle
  • Anzia Yezierska, Soap and Water
  • Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist
  • Morgan Spurlock, Supersize Me
  • George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • Doctor Who, Episode The Beast Below (11th Doctor, Series 5 in 2010, episode 2, #204) [Netflix]
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (also a film)
  • Scott Westerfeld, The Pretties

Monday, February 18: Obedience, Evil, and Resistance

  • Alan Moore, V for Vendetta (graphic novel, also a film)
  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • Children of Men [Film]
  • Battle Royale or Batori Rowaiaru, 2000 [Film]
  • “5o Sci-Fi Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read” recommended and annotated by sci-fi writer China Mieville

Monday, March 4: Race, Prejudice and Political Correctness

  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
  • Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen
  • George Lipsitz, Possessive Investment in Whiteness
  • Marlon Riggs’s Ethnic Notions [Film]
  • Rudyard Kipling, White Man’s Burden
  • GATTACA [Film]

Monday, March 18: Social Proof

Monday, April 1: Gender and Success

Monday,  April 8: Dishonesty

  • Ocean’s 11 [Film]
  • Wall Street [Film]
  • Emma Donahue, Room
  • William Shakespear, Othello
  • Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  • Easy A [Film]
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off [Film]
  • Life is Beautiful [Film]
  • A Face in the Crowd (Andy Griffith, 1957) [Film]
  • The Thieving Hand, 1908 [Film]:






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