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Harvard China History course started yesterday


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I took the first lesson yesterday. Seems OK. Problem will probably be one of being patient with the pace, since it assumes zero knowledge of China. Starts from scratch.


It's free and you can probably still sign up if it looks to be of interest. Offered through EdX: https://www.edx.org/course-list/allschools/allsubjects/allcourses


I took the Coursera course this Summer and Fall entitled "A New History for a New China, 1700 to 2000: New Data and New Methods." It was offered by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Poorly organized and poorly taught; but still had some interesting material. Overall worthwhile, though it could have easily been so much better.


The Harvard course so far seems to be better done. In fairness, it is taught by two professors who have offered the material many times before, whereas the Hong Kong course was on its maiden run, breaking a new trail.

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At first the catalog was vague, but now it has been clarified that this course will last a little over one year. Supposedly, it's the longest course to ever be offered by any of the MOOC organizations. 


Thus far the lecturers have presented a broad range of material, and its clear they know what they are talking about. The two professors, Peter K. Bol and William C. Kirby, know their stuff. They take turns presenting material, and at times have a dialogue between themselves for the benefit of the viewers/students. An effective format.


The video lectures come with subtitles that can be turned on or off, and with a running transcript (English) off to one side. They have chosen to use Traditional Hanzi, which may make sense academically, but is difficult for me personally, since I'm a Simplified guy.


The graphics, in particular the maps, are quite helpful and well prepared. The quizzes aren't difficult, but sometimes the instructions aren't clear what they want the student to do and points are deducted for minor things that don't really matter.


The discussion forums aren't quite as goofy and off the wall as those in the course I took before. They tend to be more on-topic and less of the overly broad "By the way, I think it would be cool to learn Chinese while I take this course. How should I do that?" There are fewer totally clueless questions and most of the posters seem better informed about China of today. Quite a few have spent time in China, either as tourists or for work.


So, all in all, it has been enjoyable thus far. I've found it interesting to follow along and be exposed to an orderly method of learning about Chinese history and culture. Being self taught in the field, I have wound up with the typical "Swiss Cheese" grasp of these things: Know a lot about this, but never even heard about that.


Might be of interest to see where course students are from. You can do that by means of the map on this page: https://www.zeemaps.com/map?group=725706

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  • 4 weeks later...

Sounds pretty decent. The courses I've tried (nothing Chinese related) all seemed pretty weak. Putting videos of rabbit-in-headlights lecturers and some Powerpoints online isn't exactly making good use of the Internet. 


How's the course going?

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Thanks for asking, Roddy.


The course is turning out to be more informative and demanding than I had expected. It's much more than just a glossy overview of history and culture. It is genuinely informative, and I'm having to sweat to keep up and I don't max all the quizzes.


My attendance has been spotty since I'm in the process of getting back to Kunming. Rushed around Thanksgiving week visiting family and long-time friends. Then hopped a flight out of Dallas early the next Monday morning to Los Angeles. From there, flew to Hong Kong, which is where I am at the moment recuperating from the 15 hours and 40 minutes trans-Pacific hop.


After a few days of exploring Taicheng/Taishan and the nearby Kaiping Diaolous 开平碉楼 across the border in Guangdong, will fly back to Kunming out of Guangzhou. This Taishan is not the Holy Mountain in Shandong 泰山, but is 台山 where lots of overseas Chinese have their roots.


In doing my trip research, I remembered in passing that this was one of the quiz questions that eliminated a bright young contestant in the All-China televised handwriting contest 手写比赛 that was so popular a couple months ago. I watched that episode live without dreaming it would ever have real meaning for my daily life. 


Travel has made it difficult to find time to do my course work in a timely manner (as well as making it difficult to find time to contribute here.)

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The MC or host 主持人 who was saying the words which the kids had to write gave them several pairs of place names that sounded similar. One pair was the 泰山 in 山东 and the 台山 in 广东。


Here is some more about that series of broadcasts. They really were lots of fun, and might be of use for some of your students. Some of the place names differed from others only in their tone.



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  • 2 weeks later...

Now that I'm back in pocket in Kunming and no longer on the long trail from America to the Far East, I've resumed spending more time on this China history course.


One thing that I like a lot is that the two professors teaching it (Professors Bol and Kirby) bring in experts from other departments from time to time as guest lecturers. We have also had "field trips" to the Peabody Museum there at Harvard to see some artifacts up close and get a visual idea of how they demonstrate this or that particular characteristic.


This week the guest lecturer is Professor Michael Puett, who is something of a rock star in his own right. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-are-hundreds-of-harvard-students-studying-ancient-chinese-philosophy/280356/


He's lecturing on Zhuangzi in an optional module this week. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wOtPOo_vlM


I appreciate that the main professors, Bol and Kirby, are not jealously guarding their turf, but instead are willing to expose us to other scholars who know more about certain aspects of the subjects under discussion. Makes the overall course richer, in my opinion.

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You're welcome. He has an odd speaking voice and delivery style, but what he has to say is golden.


He's applying some ancient Chinese philosophical concepts to practical issues of today's everyday life. Can't help thinking the lecture might be useful to some younger members who are trying to figure out life goals, career options and such.

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  • 1 month later...

Finished the Qin and this week entered the Han. The course continues to be demanding but rewarding. Real easy to fall behind when traveling, since it requires a robust internet connection.


They use maps well in making the various dynasty shifts clear, and they provide a wealth of outside reading. Even skimming them quickly takes a substantial amount of time.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Just completed the second module today. Thus far we have covered two such modules since the course began in October of last year:


1. The Political and Intellectual Foundations of China -- This covered neolithic times, iron and bronze age, roughly up through Confucius.

2. The Creation and End of a Centralized Empire -- This discussed the Han and its dissolution during Medieval times, plus dealt with the arrival of Buddhism in China.


These modules are roughly, but not strictly, chronological in nature. We do cover the history of the main dynasties, conflicts, invasions, border shifts and so on. But discussion also proceeds along other lines, such as exploring the ideas of great thinkers.


Next week we will begin a consideration of the Tang and aristocratic culture. The course remains challenging and is taught to a high level. Professor Bol continues to bring in experts from other specialty areas to shed light on topics under discussion. We have had guests who are experts in ancient Chinese literature, art, music, religion, philosophy, anthropology and so on. We continue to make frequent field trips to Harvard's Sackler Museum.


The audio-visual materials are engaging. The exercises and quizzes are well constructed.


This course differs from many MOOC offerings in several ways. The most obvious difference is that it is a long course. It is slated to run 15 months, and be comprised of 9 or 10 large modules, each with its own final exam. Discussion contributions and participation in class projects is required. A fair amount of outside reading is assigned.


In summary, it continues to be worthwhile.







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  • 3 months later...

Course update:


The fifth minicourse ended on Tuesday. It went through the Mongolian conquest that resulted in the Yuan, and it wound up with the Ming and how China was becoming more economically connected to other parts of the world. Talked about the importance of silver and the voyages of Admiral Zheng He.


Today the sixth course began, and it will cover the rise of the Manchus and the Qing. A guest lecturer is on board for this section, Professor Mark Forest Elliott, younger, but also from Harvard. Apparently he specializes in this period.


The course is about half way through the planned total of ten modules. Professor Peter Bol did most of the lectures on ancient China, and Professor Bill Kirby will take over after the Qing, covering modern China.


Quality continues to be good overall and the necessary time investment has been worth it to me. One can still join and take earlier modules, but I'm not sure you can do the exams and assignments for credit at this point.


The HarvardX team put out a plea for funds, which was a little unusual for an MOOC offering. They said this huge course had cost more than they had budgeted and they would appreciate cash donations.

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Add: They have done some innovative things, such as adding Chinese captions to all the English-language lectures.




The large audience is international, including lots of learners in China. Video material are provided both on YouTube and Youku. One can opt either to just audit the course or do it for certificate credit, which involves writing assignments and exams. (I'm doing the latter.)

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Oh my gosh, Gato. It's Professor Mark Elliott who is lecturing right now. He's taken the reins from Professor Peter Bol and will do the whole Qing and Manchu minicourse, then will turn things over to Professor Bill Kirby, who will take charge of the Modern China modules.


I've gone back to my earlier post and fixed his name. Profound apologies for the brain fart.

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