Peter Bol and the Digital Era for History Research and Education | HCFocus

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Harvard China Focus interview with Professor Bol

Professor Peter Bol received his Ph.D. in Chinese History from Princeton University in 1980. He was a former Dean of Education Development at Harvard University and is currently a tenured professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Since 2014, Professor Bol has been teaching and is responsible for HarvardX and ChinaX series courses online.

Harvard China Focus:Thank you for participating in our Harvard China Focus Interview. First of all, can you tell us exactly how exactly you started your research in Chinese Studies? Do you think the significance of Chinese studies has changed since you first started?

Professor Bol: Well, I started when I was a high school student in the 1960s before the U.S. recognized China. I have been designing and teaching Chinese Studies related courses since 1983. Now, the U.S. recognizes China. China has entered a period of extraordinary economic growth that no one had envisioned in the 1960s, and certainly not during the Cultural Revolution, it was beyond imagination. So it has really been since Deng Xiaoping’s coup d’etat back in ’78. This has all begun so that it has really operated in two different worlds.

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Professor Bol on HarvardX

Harvard China Focus: Do you think any current or historical events in relation to China have shaped the way that you design your curriculum for the Harvard China Studies courses you teach?

Professor Bol: For historians of course, the past is, is what we study and what we talk about. So what happens is that how you teach history depends upon your own analysis of the kinds of things you’re interested in. So when I say one of the major changes in the way we study Chinese history has been the fusion of social and cultural history, to look at the past, to look at the ways in which China has gone through successive transformations over the last two and a half thousand years.

Harvard China Focus: Next let's talk about your work with the HarvardX courses, specifically with ChinaX. There is a massive enrollment of about 46,000 people for the ChinaX course. Why do you think so many people around the world want to learn about China right now?

Professor Bol: To begin with, it is a course that’s taught by Professor Bill Kirby and myself. It is a very well taught course, which also is the longest MOOC that has ever been done as far as we can tell. It also brings, in fact, many other faculty from Harvard. It’s not just us. I think the fact that there is such a detailed introduction to Chinese history online, from Harvard, and with so many people involved, it was such good production quality. It is something that people have found attractive and word of mouth spreads. In addition, it is so long that people keep do a little bit now and then next year do a little bit more.

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Figure / Stephanie Mitchell, The Harvard Gazette

Harvard China Focus: Why did you decide that it would be especially valuable to have a course like ChinaX be one of these initial massive open online courses for HarvardX?

Professor Bol: Since the early 1990s, we have been making use of digital technology in our websites. We actually have had an interactive website long allow that allowed you to look at different parts of China different maps, various architecture, music, etc. When HarvardX appeared in the scene, we said to the university, “Look, if you’ll pay for it, and make the investment, we’ll be glad to do one of these courses and develop it lots of ways and then to flip our classroom and have the online lectures and quizzes be part of the class so that we use our class time with students for much more interactive engagement with students.”

Harvard China Focus: Have you seen the shift in your teaching methodology pay off?

Professor Bol: I think in terms of student learning, it may have paid off. In terms of the amount of student work that’s required to do it, it has gone way up. One of the things we have seen over the last 30 years is that the amount of work students do outside of class has, according to their own self reporting, been steadily declining. In addition, the amount of reading students do has also been declining. So as students back off from doing homework and course preparation, and when you actually introduce materials that do add more time, they either get used to it or they don’t.

Harvard China Focus: What has been your favorite course to teach at Harvard and why?

Professor Bol: Well, you see, I don’t teach courses, I teach students about China and Chinese history. There are many, many topics. I have a whole series of courses that I teach over time. Any course that get students are engaged and involved is the best course.

Harvard China Focus: Next, let's talk about some of your academic collaborations with overseas universities such as Fudan University and Peking University. How has those collaboration process been like and have there been any challenges? What exactly inspired the collaboration?

Professor Bol: In 2000, we had the opportunity to create a geographic information system for Chinese history. There are a lot of people who were interested in doing it at the time, and what we’re doing on historical or contemporary GIS. What we thought was if we could bring everybody together, we probably could find a funder who could support it. Therefore, the Institute for Historical Geography at Fudan University, which I’d done an eight volume series of historical maps for China, was interested in this. Our goal was to create a year by year account of the changes in the Chinese administrative structure which hold the field administration in modern day terms of the province, prefecture, and county. Now, the idea behind that was that since names and locations change, if you have a historical record data has place references. You want to see how to visualize that spatially, visualize that across the country, then you actually have to know where those places are. So this was an attempt to create what we call common fundamental GIS that everybody could use to know where historical places were.

Harvard China Focus: Can you tell us about the historical biographical database?

Professor Bol:Biographical Database began in 2005 with around 20,000 people. They left us or left me, with the late Robert Hartwell, who had been interested in how we put biographical data about people in a database. He was mainly interested in the 11th and 12th century, which happens to be a period I work on as well. That is this: you have a relational database that is a database.

Most of us think of a database as, for example, a spreadsheet with rows and columns. A relational database says we are going to have multiple spreadsheets with many kinds of information, so we are gonna code that information and break the information of parts into databases that can be coded. So this is going to allow us to do queries. Let me give you an example of a query. Suppose you ask, let me find all the people in the database who came from a certain place between year one and year. Tell me how many of these people passed the civil service examinations. Now let’s figure out how many of them were related to each other by marriage. So you get into very complex queries, about people’s kinship relations, social relations, careers. So a relational database like this is a biographical relational database, modeling the lives of people. Now, it’s, of course, dependent upon what you have in the historical record, right? We use fairly sophisticated computational techniques to gather data. So we’ve gone from 20,000 people to 420,000 people. When we do this, one way of thinking this is something like this. So the parallel draws between language and people.

Harvard China Focus: I plan to study sociology.

Professor Bol:An important topic in sociology is social networking, so what we want to do now is you want to gather digital text, searchable text, and we want to run computer commands to them that we write with Python code and command, but it’s got a regular expression. We want to go through all these texts and tag the data or extract the data from the text, and then code it and put it in the biographical database. So that’s our major work, but the parallel between language and people goes like this: when you speak about an area, for example, sociology, or let’s say, for me Chinese history, there’s a world of language. That’s not so discreet or clustered as concepts around this subject and so you couldn’t speak about this subject, unless you had some command of that vocabulary, and knew how to manipulate it so that other people could understand you, right? So if we were to take all the texts that were written in Chinese history, we could actually run a computer program on them that would take all these texts, and figure out the topics. This is called topic modeling or structured topic modeling — the topics that these texts talk about, in other words, the clusters of words that are that tend to come together.

Now because of their patterns of expression, there’s vocabulary. So the same thing is true of people, as a person, you live in a certain network, but you live in a certain environment of a college student. Right? There are certain things you would do that are quite predictable and so we could model and get a sense of your life. We could model, in that sense, everyone’s life and figure out the different sorts of things people did. Now, that means that when we look at some point we put into context the cluster of things about that topic and their own mind, so we have two points of view. When you look at somebody’s life, we look at it in terms of their own life history, but also in the context of the patterns of behavior, and the networks of people at the time. This is what makes a person’s life meaningful. Therefore a relational database is a way of doing exactly that, but with people. There is a sociologist that said once said that there is a great deal of truth. This is a clever saying. He says in the beginning, at first individuals create networks, but the long run networks create individuals, right? Yeah, there’s some truth to that.

Harvard China Focus: Going along with that, what have been some of the most interesting or significant applications of these databases.

Professor Bol:We designed the databases not to tell people what research they should do, but to make it possible for them to do any kind of research that they wanted. The databases are freely available for everybody. We know for example that 3000 or 4000 people a month look at their biographical database. Several thousands look at the historical GIS and things related to this and what they do with it is up to them. We have references on the website to articles people have written. They have been able to track various kinds of changes and patterns of social relationships in the way people live their lives, marriages over time, and regional distribution. This allows us to look and see the people who pass the civil service examination, where did families come from, where they were from.

Harvard China Focus: Is there any particular topic or project you are currently working on that you are particularly excited about or you are interested in researching further?

Professor Bol:I am doing two things at the moment. I am finishing a book on local cultural and intellectual history from the 12th century into the 16th century, which looks at the ways in which literary communities got established locally. It also looks into ways of learning that they engage in. It is a book called “Localizing Learning” which focuses on seeing learning take place at the local level. I am also editing an issue of a journal devoted to digital scholarship in the study of history

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Figure / Stephanie Mitchell, The Harvard Gazette

Professor Peter Bol received his Ph.D. in Chinese History from Princeton University in 1980. He was a former Dean of Education Development at Harvard University and is currently a tenured professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Since 2014, Professor Bao has been teaching and is responsible for HarvardX and ChinaX series courses online.

Interviewer | Chelsea Guo

Editor | Salena Chua

Typography | Hannah Liu, Nancy Hu

Founded in 1997, Harvard College China Forum is North America’s leading and longest-running student-run conference on China.

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