Surprise Endings: Social Science and Literature [Undergraduate]


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.

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