MO3337 Spring 2015

China’s Revolutions, 1850-1989


This was the second time the course was taught. There is a lot still rough around the edges. The second version of the handbook improves significantly on the previous one in terms of guidelines. Many readings were changed and ChinaX videos and some documentaries were included almost every week for some visual lecture-style content.

In terms of assessment, the long essay was made longer (to 5,000 words) and one of the short essays were removed, with the choice being between a prospectus (for the long essay, modelled on a conference abstract) or a book review (on something that will help students along the path to the long essay). The take-home open book exam shifted from 24 hours to 12 hours after there was concern that some students might actually try to work a full 24 hours despite instructions that suggested the exam should take around 4 hours plus some additional time for reviewing notes. Students with special circumstances that make a long continuous period of concentration difficult are also disadvantaged by the longer period. Presentations are no longer done as a group and more closely tied to the week’s topic.

I provided some class time early in our semester with our China admissions and Chinese language instructor, introducing campus opportunities related to China and Chinese language, along with a brief introduction to pronouncing Chinese words/names.

I included several sessions in class throughout the semester for groups to discuss their progress on the long essay and explore the arguments and approaches of other students.

A timeline and a long primary source list was added to the handbook, along will links embedded into the PDF for various resources. Each week’s information now includes a bullet-pointed overview of how students should prepare, extended further reading, an outline of how the class will go, and some discussion questions.

Class time is still divided roughly into around 15-20 minutes supplemental lecture/outline by myself divided through the 2 hour period, punctuated by small group work discussing themes and issues related to the readings or broader questions posed by myself. Occasional classroom debates are held, and occasionally students feed thoughts into a collective Gdoc online before a broader plenum - especially when students are generally unresponsive to questions as in cases when they are less well prepared.

The reading continues to range from 100-250 pages a week for the required readings, plus about 30 minutes of videos or other preparation. I have tried to reduce the numbers somewhat as we approach the long essay deadline to accommodate more time for research.

Collaborative notes in a class Gdoc, including access to notes from last year is encouraged, but with one or two exceptions students generally have not contributed much to these.

Permission was secured from two essay authors from the previous year who did very well to share their (anonymized) essay with students in future. These are not simply given to the students, we use them as a basic starting point to discuss what was strong, and how these strengths represent diverse rather than a monolithic model of how to write an essay. I find this helps them establish what kinds of expectations there are for the long essay which, for third year students, is often the first time they have had to write anything this long.

Student Feedback

Student feedback was very favourable overall. The only significantly lower mark (average 2.88, around middle of the feedback scale) was for the speed of my feedback which was deserved, as I didn’t not always return things as promptly as I should have.

A majority of students claim to have worked 10-15 hours a week in preparation for the class with a smaller number saying they spent 15-20 hours a week. I think somewhere in the 10-20 hour range is appropriate for what we expect in our honours modules.

Some individual feedback notes:

  • The fact I don’t set essay questions but let students develop their own essay project was singled out by several students as a plus
  • The use of group work in class was praised
  • The quality of classroom discussion is praised
  • “Konrad’s enthusiasm is infectious” (Yay!)

Some criticism was received as well:

  • Several students felt there was too much reading was assigned and sometimes not everything that was assigned came up in the class discussion. Sometimes far too much time was spent focused on a single primary source or reading to the exclusion of other interesting texts.
  • One student would like to have seen more lecturing from the instructor

Thoughts on feedback:

I’m really pleased with the feedback this semester. I will continue to tweak the reading but I feel the work load is close to what I think we can expect from our students. The criticism of the balance of attention in class to various topics/themes/sources is fair and something I need to work on. I’m not sure I feel more lecturing is appropriate. In fact, if anything, I must continue to resist the need for it. I realise I may lecture relatively little in our honours module compared to the norm as I understand it, but I feel pretty strongly that these honours modules are small enough for a seminar environment, and can benefit more from discussion, debate, and group work than from lectures from me. I’ll reflect on this more and it may weigh into the way I tweak the assigned reading.

What Worked

  • The long essay process is a challenging one for the students. They are used to having essay questions set for them, and for these to be answers to questions rather than thought of as independent arguments not necessarily directly answering some historical question. I feel like the current approach of combining an opportunity to write one or two prospectuses that clearly lay out the topic, a proposed argument, some sources, and the relevance give me a great opportunity to weigh in on student progress and for students to think early on in the process of how to frame a project. The in-class opportunities to discuss progress also seems to be appreciated. Finally, I’ve been impressed with what students can produce when the bar is set quite high: expecting most students to do empirical work with primary sources, or well thought out historiographical pieces.
  • The small group work in class seems to be working well to keep students engaged
  • The free-writing in a google doc worked very well, and I will be using this more. It is especially helpful to kick off group or full class discussion, and also kick-starts the collaborative notes document.
  • We had an auditing student from another one of my classes and several students who had taken my class before. It helped to have them share their tips for essay writing and research. I was also able to show the students one essay (with permission) that did very well last semester. I am happy to say that I can add two more very strong essays to this set that students can consult in future.
  • Having the students watch a few of the ChinaX video clips (as long as they continue to be available on YouTube) really helped give the students something other than more reading for some of the general background info on the periods we were discussing. I hope they will continue to be live in future.
  • The map and province quiz, along with the crash course in pronunciation I think were all worth it.

What Needs Work

  • The readings from several weeks are still not good enough. I will continue to tweak these in future.
  • The balance and amount of reading needs to be tweaked, especially in the weeks where students can be expected to be doing heavy work for the long essay and their other module
  • Class time needs to be better balanced. I need to be better at keeping myself from going off track and spending too much time on one sub-topic or source.
  • I need to work on feedback turnaround speed.
  • I want to have better notes for myself for better organised and planned small group work from week to week and continue to improve the weekly preparation and outline info in the student handbook.
  • I’d like to compile a list of previous student paper topics, along with some one paragraph student comments on challenges - and get permission of students to share what sources they used for their essay.
  • I’d like to create a broader bibliography for students - or perhaps just beef up the further readings for each week, with some extra topics to help them get a window in for their long essay given our library’s limited holdings.

Other Ideas

  • I want to bring in the “pair writing” exercise that we experimented with in another module I co-taught with a colleague. This was remarkably effective in focusing two students on each other’s ideas in a regulated writing exercise dedicated to developing long essay ideas.
  • The long essay for this module is a great challenge for the students and a lot rides on it. I want to spend more time talking to the students about the variety of ways in which articles are written. Without taking too much more valuable time from other tasks, I am thinking of ways we can use our existing readings to make the students more aware of the structure and strategies of argumentation used by historians so that they can keep these in mind when they write their own essays. Unfortunately, some of our readings fall short of being stellar models of writing quality, even if their arguments and content are rich and valuable.