Understanding China: Data Analytics Approach

Warning: VERY LONG POST and it is a REVIEW on the mentioned course (more info).

Hi readers, this post might be associated with a kind of advertisement but here is my full review on this course called Understanding China 1700-2000: Data Analytics Approach by Prof. James Z. Lee of HKUST that was offered as part of HKUST Summer Global Seminar (code: SHSS 3001) as well as in coursera. I took the on-site course in HKUST this summer. In fact today marked the last day of class so enjoy the pizza while fresh 🙂

They called it flipped classroom; Intensive three weeks course with total 9 face to face classes, 8 team assignments and several lecture videos accompanied with long supplement reading list; some English and a couple in Chinese. It was not a crowded class with around 30 students, Prof. Lee as lead professor and couple shadow teachers; could be a bit too large for thorough discussion but acceptable. The dynamic of the students is also one thing to mention, maybe 1/4 HKUST students, 5/12 students from Mainland universities and the rest 1/3 are Hong Kong high school students, so the age ranged from maybe 15-22. This is important because the team members were picked by the instructor such that there is a good mix of each categories, or in other words we were obliged to work with people from different background. This work includes five 15 minutes presentations and three 1000 words essay and we have to submit each every other days, i.e. Monday’s assignment shall be submitted on Tuesday, Wednesday’s assignment’s deadline is Thursday, Friday assignments due on Saturday. Each presenting/writing group worked on different but correlated topics thus allowed wide range of discussion. But since in a way we have less than 48 hours to work on the assignments (but you will see that this was not necessarily true), sometimes the scope is arguably narrow.

Screenshot of my notes during the last two weeks.

My Approach
To give you a better understanding before judging, these are some things that were available to me before/right after the intensive weeks started.
1. Syllabus — consisted of detailed lecture topics, assignments’ topics for each class
2. Lecture videos — all of them are available simultaneously
3. Assigned/suggested readings
And later on the team members. Lastly, I am also working in the later half of the day every weekdays thus time is scarce.
My approach was to do weekend lecture marathon or (if you prefer) weekend binge watching, just substitute the C-drama with lecture videos…. I have better listening memory than reading memory, so I just need to listen to the lecture videos (rewind when needed) while I need to take notes/highlight the reading material. Confession time, skimming academic work was time costly, so I normally just google the keywords fist and copy pasted interesting information to my google drive with the link thus I can refer back to it whenever; academic works come second. This is one way to stretch that assignment time constraint, since we knew the questions beforehand, it is possible to pile up materials and even make the whole assignments in one weekend, of course it is also subject to team mates. But anyway, I found this is an ideal learning style for me because I can freely pursue things that I find interesting, using the assigned question as a stepping zone. I did everything in the weekend, organized it so that I could retrieved these information in an instant through the weekdays.

Overall Impressions
As might have been implied, in general I really fancy this class. I love the classroom model and I learnt new knowledge about China and general social science issues, and undeniably trained my soft skills. To be fair, my initial reasons of taking this course was partly because the only other option was this course called China in Film: Modern Chinese Culture and Identities, no judging but I had a feeling that I’m not lovin’ it and partly because the class time aligned beautifully above my work shifts; a little part is because of the word ‘data’ in the title — I just love data. Anyway, since I never have been fond of anything related to humanities and with that mountain of reading materials, I was ready to have to worst and harshest three weeks in my summer. Harsh yes (not harshest) but worst? Nah, it was a very fruitful three weeks where I deepened my understanding towards the future outlook of social science research in China. Though I am still unconvinced with some proposed theories which therefor make me confused but I will safe this to the later part of this post.

About Flipped Classroom (try to Google it if you are not sure of this teaching model)
It was my second flipped classroom experience and I had always liked it. No more dozing off in 9am lecture, instead an efficient weekend lecture marathon when I am most alert. I can also fast forward and rewind the video as necessary but most importantly, I can refer back to first class lecture even now when I had finished the course. Frankly, I didn’t watch ALL videos thoroughly, some really did not trigger any of my interest while others I might go back and forth couple times just make sure I saved the right information or to check the new understanding/idea that dawned to me after watching the later part of the videos. Overall, positive feeling about this model, efficient and applicable to independent students.

About the Intensiveness
People often say: Time is money; and I am one of the firm believer of this saying. Having tight deadline and being chased by time energized me with thrill. This might sound a bit exaggerated but I am not. Hard to explain, generally it was like when we started to run, the first tens of seconds was rather painful but once the adrenaline pumps in you became so excited. This course was so short; it started off a bit messy due to team arrangement problem but after things settled down the excitement crashed in. Before I knew it, it was over. So maybe if this is a semester long course it will not be as stimulating but the fact that everything is packed in just three weeks really change the whole picture. Another positive feeling here.

About the Assigned Team
My group was consisted of me (final year business student), two female Mainland’s students, a person from HKUST and one high school girl. From the previous sentence only, can be seen that I am not familiar with them at all, even after working together for eight assignments. OK, so I believe that the core of teamwork is discussion. Disagreements are bound to happen thus it is critical to state one’s opinion and convinced others to agree on the presented arguments; no wrong, no right, just who are more persuasive. So my team mates, not sure if it is due to the unfamiliarity or just nature, they did not talk much and easily convinced. When the idea they brought up was challenged, they waver too soon. To them I might not be a good team mate either because I demand a lot and challenged almost everything that did not align to my understanding (sorry team mates, I am just sincerely curious and I don’t want to explain what I don’t believe). We did not really do topic division because the greedy me wants to know everything but they did not have the initiatives either. Additionally, our working pace are very different, my “time is money” is not theirs, so frankly it was VERY FRUSTRATING.
However, later on with adaptability and stress management, we managed to survive. I told them why I am such a pushover and finally everyone opened up (after the second assignments or so). Then we started to organized ourselves better, normally I do the structure, outline and everything that considered as first step then they do the content, then I questioned everything that I don’t understand and when our understanding coincide we move on to writing/presentation. So, here is the downside of having team working in a super intensive course, while it is possible to adapt very quickly but due to the time tension, some people might just ended-up left out (happened to my group). We also did not get to know each other well enough to further take the discussions outside the assigned questions. So short timing could do a good favor in terms of excitement while on the other hand might kill the essence of having teamwork (because we just do our part and no discussion encouraged in process). Overall, negative experience.

About the Topics
The topic list could be seen from coursera (link above) but to summarize, the course mainly talked about the history of China, gender, marriage, culture, new findings from the recent quantitative data sets, rich and poor, inequality, so on and so forth. Since I am majoring in economics, I am most interested in the wealth inequality part. Here is where we talked about Piketty’s book (2014) that took a new approach toward wealth inequality. Reach out to me please if we share the same interest. My least favorite is the analysis of data from one province in China, Shuangcheng. It is certainly a breakthrough since it utilized data to tell the story of the past and I can tell the scholar really did a great job on it. The thing I doubt is the data itself how representative is the data and how true is it? I read a lot about data manipulation in China, especially in the communist era thus it just make me skeptical about mostly everything. Addressing this concern in class was not much help because I know the answer is we hold on to the data we have at the moment and let the future scholar proved/disproved things when additional data is retrieved. So, while I am not convinced with some of the topics but what certain is I learnt a lot of Chinese history, even beyond the assigned questions because everything just seems to be correlated one another, and it is. Besides, with the presence of shadow teachers, the class discussion on the topic rose one level higher and generate interesting perspective and new knowledge. Overall, positive again~

That was way beyond 1000 words and I know I should stop now. Just want to recite that this is really a good class, and I sincerely recommend it. One thing that I don’t know yet is the grading, which I know is important, but I just hope for the best.

Happy graduation to me!


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