I taught an undergraduate course in Social Demography this summer at Shanghai Jiaotong University. The university introduced a short summer semester this year. As I understand it, at least part of the reason was to give undergraduates more opportunity to take courses with faculty like myself who have visiting appointments, and are only there during the summer. The short semester was one month long, and immediately followed the end of the spring semester.
I just received the summary of student evaluations from the short course I taught at Shanghai Jiaotong University this summer. I embedded the spreadsheet below. I don’t know how they compare with other courses there. At first glance, they don’t seem disastrous, which is always a relief. I was pleased that even though the students seemed to think the homework load rather heavy, they didn’t seem hate on me as an instructor.
There were some crossed wires so some students enrolled without knowing that I would be teaching in English. I had provided a course description and syllabus that included specification of English as the language of instruction, but as far as I can understand, that was not widely disseminated to students when they were making their choices for the short semester. I did try to summarize main points in Chinese when people’s expressions suggested an unusual level of confusion. I do admire the students with limited English who stuck with it and plugged away and ended up doing reasonably well. I suppose I could have lectured in Chinese, but it probably would have been painful for the students to listen to my Chinese. More importantly, many of them plan to go abroad for graduate school, so I thought that they might prefer a relatively short and painless taste of what an English language course would be like.
I was really impressed with the students. Shanghai Jiaotong University is one of the best science and engineering schools in China. It attracts very smart and ambitious students.
In terms of engagement, the students were much like a typical undergraduate class at UCLA. One-quarter to one-third of the class routinely sat at the front of the room, were very engaged, listened attentively, raised questions and expressed opinions. Perhaps another one-third tended to sit in the middle room, and paid attention and took notes, but didn’t participate much in discussion. And of course, just like UCLA or probably any other university, there were the students who sat in the back of the class, had their laptops open and connected to the campus internet, and I suppose were on social networks or playing Minecraft or World of Warcraft. I can’t be too harsh on such students since when I was an undergraduate at Caltech, I was one of them. We didn’t have laptops to bring to class, or internet connectivity, so when I attended lecture, I usually sat in the back and doodled.
For the final project, the students had to use the IPUMS site to do a basis analysis of some aspect of American population. Since there were only four weeks the projects couldn’t be as ambitious as some of the projects that my undergraduates at UCLA attempt. That said, most of the students produced reasonably competent analyses on a subject of their choice, mostly consisting of tabulations. Some ambitious students attempted regression analysis, and one team of economics students downloaded data and estimated quantile regressions to model wages. Another student who was a physics undergraduate compiled marriage statistics from IPUMs, and then wrote code in Matlab to estimate a non-linear regression to fit Coale and McNeil’s marrigae model to contemporary American marriage patterns. I couldn’t really follow the explanation after the student introduced tensors, but it looked pretty good.
The most popular topics for the student projects were marriage and divorce patterns, especially by education, and educational and occupational attainment of immigrants, especially Chinese-Americans. In discussion and in written work, the students generally displayed a relatively mature and sophisticated understanding of contemporary American society. Probably they were most surprised by the regional divides in socioeconomic and demographic outcomes, and the probably not unrelated regional divides in religious, political, and social orientations. To the extent the students had anything wrong, it was that they assumed that the entire country was very liberal and open-minded in terms of social attitudes, and weren’t really aware of how socially conservative very large swathes of the country actually are.
I was pleased by how many of the students told me they were not only from outside Shanghai, but from small towns or rural areas in the interior provinces. I ran into some of them after the last class and many of them were about to embark on two or three day hard-sleeper train rides to return home. As is the case at UCLA, many students were first-generation college students, or from otherwise humble origins. It was a nice reminder of one of the distinguishing features of Caltech, and indeed the UC schools, which among top research universities are all distinguished by their relative (emphasis here on relative!) accessibility to students from modest origins.