Tuesday, May 31, 2005

More test runs on Xinhua data ...

Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I can create a new proposal, after my Spratly's idea fell apart.

This morning I conducted some more test runs on the Xinhua data from the 1980s and 1990s. It seems there are enough references to certain other terms for me to build a more solid analysis.

Interesting trends appear when I did a count of the frequency of references to "Taiwan" in Xinhua stories. In the early 1980s, there were only a few hundred refs per year, but this spiked in the late 1980s (corresponding with the re-opening of personal contacts between the two sides) and mid to late 1990s. By 1999, about 2000 stories per year mentioned Taiwan in the lead paragraph. This could warrant further study.

I also did some frequency counts on stories with "motherland" and "China". I had to include "China" because it turns out that there are a lot of stories about other countries that mention "motherland". There are a few hundred stories per year that mention both terms, spiking in 1989 (the year of the Tiananmen massacre) and the late 1990s (Hong Kong handover pre-1997) and something else in 1999, when more than 800 stories were published mentioning the two terms. Interesting ...

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Discouraging preliminary research results

Until tonight, my general research question had been leaning to using the Xinhua News Agency as a lens to examine PRC policy in the South China Sea (previously, it had been using XNA as a lens to measure references to "historical nationalism," described in my post of a few days ago).

However, tonight I did a basic search of China's most pressing territorial claim in the South China Sea, the Spratlys islands (refered to in Xinhua as Nansha Islands or Nansha Qundao). The islands are barely mentioned from 1980 to 2000. In most years there are only a handful of references, and even in key years, such as 1988, when China and Vietnam fought a naval battle in the Spratlys, there are only a few dozen refs, out of tens of thousands of total stories.

A few refs in a computer-assisted content analysis is not enough for me to base a thesis on. At most, I might use this data as a footnote, but it certainly isn't enough to make any deep conclusions about PRC policy. As for why XNA has so few mentions, I can only speculate that it (and by extension, the government) is trying to play down its interest in the area, even though the Spratlys are clearly a major strategic interest of China.

So what now? Should I reconsider expanding my methodology to include historical nationalism, or other "nationalism indicators" (Olympics, references to "motherland", etc.)? Or turn the study around, and instead of centering my research question on Chinese policy, center it on Xinhua itself?

This is something I will be thinking about a lot in the next few days. I'll let you know the results of my study.

Original Research Proposal, and Critical Thinking

Looking over my original proposal, to see how it's structured, and to see what can be re-used for my revised proposal. It turns out, not much. While I am focussing on the same general subject area, China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, my new proposal asks a different research question, examines a time period two decades later, and uses a different methodology. I'll be able to use some of the earlier readings, and some of the operationalization section, but otherwise it's pretty much a complete rewrite.

Looking at my notebook from the proseminar, I see that I picked out a great quote on critical thinking from one of our readings:

The heart of critical thinking is a willingness to face objections to one's own beliefs ... A willingness to adopt a skeptical attitude not only toward authority and toward views opposed to our own, but also toward common sense.

Current Issues and Enduring Questions, p. 4

Critical thinking is clearly the foundation of academic research, yet often is overlooked by Harvard departments when they organize symposia and invite Chinese officials to campus. See my essay about this.

Planning for my thesis proposal, part II

Following up yesterday's post on Planning for my thesis proposal, part I.

It occured to me that doing a computer-assisted content analysis of Chinese media to study Chinese nationalism might be an interesting area of research. An ideal candidate for such a study would be the state-run Xinhua News Agency. I am familiar with how news agencies work, having worked for Taiwan's Central News Agency as a copy editor, as well as using news wire copy from CNA, Xinhua, AP, Reuters, and other sources when I worked as a newswriter for the China Television Company and a reporter and editor for the China News newspaper.

But how could I use Xinhua wire service copy? I did quite a bit of research on content analysis methods and tools in the winter. Although there are lots of computer tools to aid in content analysis, there didn't seem to be one that suited my needs, which were shaping up to involve importing large amounts of Xinhua news items into a database and analyzing the content for meaning or frequency counts of specific terms. There are tools to look at content in these ways, but there didn't seem to be any way to make batch imports from existing databases. This is a major issue, because in a given year Xinhua releases thousands of news items, and to manually import each one and analyze it would be too time consuming. I could use sampling methods, but I was concerned that random samples would miss certain trends associated with specific events tied to time periods (for instance, anniversaries of deaths or uprisings, mentions of new research on Chinese unity, etc.). Additionally, there was the issue of finding tools that I could use at home ... I have a Mac, and most tools are for PC or DOS environments.

I began to consider how I might use a web-based search engine on a database like Factiva or LexisNexis to examine Chinese media coverage, and tie it into nationalism and policies related to nationalism in China.

I thought that a good first step would be to do a test run in a real academic situation (i.e., a class). I needed to take another history class, and a good class on Chinese history was coming up. In the spring of 2005 I signed up for Professor Kuhn's class on overseas Chinese (Chinese Emigration in Modern Times). I had taken Professor Kuhn's class two years earlier on China in Modern Times, and very much enjoyed his expertise and teaching methods. I knew that a research paper would be required, and this would be a good way to test out my new methodology.

For the paper, I ended up doing a study of PRC policies regarding overseas Chinese communities in Vietnam and Cambodia in the late 1970s. Via a website operated by Harvard Libraries, it was possible for me to conduct computerized searches on the LexisNexis academic database, which contained Xinhua English news items going back to January 1, 1977. I also learned how to use Microsoft Excel to enter my raw data (consisting of Lexis Nexis searches on certain terms in Xinhua coverage from the late 1970s), calculate relative percentages, and create charts of the data.

As for research in Xinhua itself, I found that while historians often use Chinese media as individual primary sources, they seldom conduct content analyses (computer-assited or otherwise) on media sources in aggregate. However, the study of mass media and journalism frequently uses computer-assisted CA techniques, and I found that there are a handful of Chinese scholars living in Hohg Kong and the US who have done a great deal of research in English on Chinese journalism, the history of Chinese media, and content analyses of Chinese media. This was a great help in building up a theoretical background for my own research, as well as providing valuable information about the history of the Xinhua News Agency.

In the introduction of my final paper, I noted that a computer-assisted content analysis would be instrumental in backing up my theories about China's differing overseas policies in these two Southeast Asian countries:

Manual and automated content analysis of media sources has been a staple of media studies and international relations for decades. The study of history, however, tends to view mass media in a different light. Old media content is often evaluated as individual primary sources — a news article about the Titanic, an essay by Zhou Enlai, a runaway slave advertisement by Thomas Jefferson — but are seldom examined in aggregate. This is beginning to change, as news media are distributed electronically. Print media content is often stored in databases, and after a few decades passes from the realm of current affairs into the realm of historical artifacts. These electronic records are easily searchable, and can be parsed with software tools that can reveal patterns not readily apparent in selective manual sampling of old media.

It is my belief that a structured, computer-assisted analysis of the electronic archives of the Xinhua General Overseas News Service from the late 1970s can help us better understand China’s emerging overseas Chinese policy, and the extent to which it was upheld in dealings with Kampuchea and Vietnam. My content analysis of Xinhua will be augmented by more traditional historical methods of research, including references to individual Xinhua news items. I will also cite scholarly literature on the PRC’s overseas Chinese policy, trilateral relations between China, Vietnam, and Kampuchea, and the nature of Chinese mass media and Xinhua’s English wire service.

I haven't received my corrected paper back from Prof. Kuhn, by he did give some feedback when I presented my methodology in class and in his office. Firstly, he noted that a content analysis such as mine would require additional research on PRC policies that aren't readily discerned by my computer-assisted methods. He specifically pointed to readings on power politics vis a vis the USSR and the US. He also stressed that my search methods on the database of XNA sources had to be careful regarding counts of terms which might have more than one English translation (for intance, is hua qiao commonly referred to as Overseas Chinese, or Overseas Compatriots, or Ethnic Chinese?) and controlling for certain terms where a single Xinhua story might mention both countries.

Interestingly, he also noted that my study was the first he had seen using "Scientific" methods to study Chinese history.

In my next post, I'll talk more about what I learned from my initial foray into computer-assisted content analysis, and how I am incorporating these techniques into my thesis proposal.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Planning for my thesis proposal, part I

I believe every student who passes the ALM proseminar Graduate Research Methods and Scholarly Writing in Social Sciences: History and Government comes away with a submittable thesis proposal.

But, as professors Joe and Doug Bond noted at the end of my proseminar in early 2004, only 50% of those who attempt the thesis actually use their proseminar proposal. Others change the focus of their studies and have to write a new one from scratch.

Since I was accepted into the ALM program, I assumed that I would be in the latter group. Although I thought my title, Defining a Territorial Sea: China’s South China Sea Policy in the 1950s and its 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea, was interesting and worth studying, I thought something was missing. What special insight was I bringing to the study of China's territorial claims in the Spratly and Paracel islands? This topic has been heavily researched and dissected in the past 10 years. What could I contributed to the debate?

Last summer, as I began actively planning out my ALM strategy, I began to consider my own professional area of expertise, journalism and mass media. I wondered if I should change the topic to some area of Chinese policy which might be reflected and potentially measured in the Chinese mass media. At the time, I was taking the elective Archaeology of the Silk Road with Professor Irene Good. The subject of my final paper was Historical Nationalism: How Interpretation of China’s Past
is Used to Build Unity in the Present
. It basically looked at how documentary and physical evidence from the past is used to build nationalistic sentiment today. One example: I pointed out how the Great Wall of China, despite its original purpose to keep barbarians out, is now cited in China as proof of long-standing unity among the Chinese people -- people from many parts of the country, including those who are now considered "national minorities", helped direct its construction.

After the class ended, I thought I could expand my methodology and perform a computer-assisted content analysis of China's official mass media, measuring instances of what I called in my archaeology paper "historical nationalism":

I believe that historical nationalism exists in two distinct forms in China. One form constantly reminds citizenry of China’s exploitation at the hands of various Western countries and Japan, which invaded and partitioned China in the 19th and 20th centuries. China was not only able to repel foreign imperialists, but was, thanks to the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party, able to restore the dignity of the Chinese people. This oft-repeated story of victimization and triumph over adversity has helped define the Chinese nation-state to its people.

Another form of historical nationalism in China deals with the remains of past eras, such as documents, buildings, artifacts, and human remains. Key relics of the past are presented in a way that boosts a sense of common identity among China’s 1.3 billion citizens, and creates support for the Chinese nation.

Last fall I didn't take any class, as my wife had our second child in early September. But I did keep up my pre-study for the ALM, reading many books on nationalism and Chinese media. I also boned up on computer-assisted content analysis, which was a focus of the proseminar taught by the Bond brothers. Although all research includes analysis of content, in the past 30 or 40 years the term "content analysis" has taken on an additional meaning: the systematic review of source content that reveals patterns of meaning, intent, or effect. The key word in this phrase is "systematic"; the idea is to consistently apply a set of rules to the analysis to reveal accurate data and minimize researcher bias.

More later ... my son is waking up from a nap!

Followup to thefacebook.com

More news about thefacebook.com ... yesterday I wrote how it's viewed as a serious rival to Friendster. Today it turns out that thefacebook.com has received $12 million+ in venture backing. Not bad, considering it was only started a year or two ago by two Harvard undergrads!

The article also describes why thefacebook.com is so addictive, although there are some interesting comments from detractors ... for instance, it fosters cliques and is just a temporary fad for young people.

But those 4 million thefacebook.com members will turn into old people some day ... and some are already kind of old. At Harvard, it's open to alums and grad students.

Back to school after 40 years

The Globe has a story about a man from Weymouth who went back to Weymouth High to finish his HS degree after a 40-year break. He even went to this year's Weymouth High prom with his wife.

How many times have you run into students at the Extension School who decide to start or complete a college or graduate degree after many decades? In practically every one of my classes there have been people in their 60s or 70s who are taking classes for credit. Maybe they already have a degree from when they were younger, but a lot of them never had the chance, started and never finished. One of my classmates in Modern Chinese Emigration, a small business owner from Dorchester, decided to go to College after her kids had grown up. She got her ALB and now she is on her ALM -- obviously someone who loves learning and cares deeply about history.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Thefacebook.com: bigger than Friendster?

The LA Times reports that thefacebook.com, an online "social network" started by Harvard undergraduates, is considered one of the primary competitors to Friendster. If you haven't signed up to thefacebook.com already, you should -- there's not much of an Extension presence on the site and there needs to be. You will need a Harvard fas email address to register on thefacebook. If you are a matriculated ALM student (or ALB?) you can get an FAS email address by going here.

Fighting thesis procrastination

Last night, after the kids went to sleep, I had two choices: start work on a business idea I have, or start work on my thesis proposal.

It would have been so easy to choose the former. I am enthusiastic about this business concept, and it's a good idea to harness that enthusiasm to get the product off the ground.

And it would have been so easy to put off the proposal. I just finished a class and need a break from studying. I have the whole summer to work on the proposal. I already have a pretty good idea of what I want to do.

But in the end I forced myself to work on the proposal. It's so easy to put off work on one's thesis, especially when you're not in a structured class environment and are not required to follow a schedule. But the longer you wait, invariably other things come up -- business, new personal interests, and other distractions -- and before you know it, the five-year deadline for completing your degree is just around the corner and you are still ABT. I've seen it happen to friends, and I don't want it to happen to me. I've worked so long and so hard to get this far to get lazy and risk not finishing.

And there's really no excuse for me to procrastinate ... I know what I want to study, I have a methodology, and I have done most of my initial research. Now it's a matter of putting pen to paper (or digits to the keyboard) and cranking out a proposal, and honing it to something that will form the basis of my thesis.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Harvard Blogs Motherlode!

Just found out that the Law School has an extensive blogging site, at http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/. I'll have to check this out soon. There must be hundreds of Harvard-hosted blogs, plus a few dozen external blogs. I'll have to explore this further over the next few weeks ...

Harvard, Apple, and Beijing

This week's Boston Globe column by Alex Beam talks about Apple Computer's attempt to cow Think Secret, a website run by Harvard College undergraduate Nicholas Ciarelli, into submission. Think Secret has published "leaks" about upcoming Apple product releases, and Apple doesn't like this. It thinks Ciarelli doesn't deserve first amendment protection, even though Think Secret is devoted to Mac-related news and Ciarelli is a staff reporter for the Harvard Crimson.

The column is particularly critical of the non-response to the Think Secret case by the Harvard Nieman Foundation, which trains mid-career journalists in their craft. A few weeks ago, the Nieman Foundation was shamed into de-inviting a group of officials from the People's Republic of China who wanted some pointers on how to handle the hordes of nosy Western journalists expected for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. A lot of Nieman alums rightly pointed out that the Foundation's mission was related to training journalists to be better at what they do, not getting involved in public relations (what many in journalism business refer to, along with ad sales, as the "dark side").

Beam asks:

Maybe it's time for the Niemans to stop playing footsie with the butchers of Beijing and start standing up to the control freaks of Cupertino.

This column, and Nieman's Think Secret and Beijing responses, interest me on several levels. I am a journalist, a Mac enthusiast, and a Harvard student researching Chinese history and Chinese media. Academia has a role to educate, as well as research the many "whys" of our existence. In the social sciences, this often means asking hard questions or raising uncomfortable hypotheses. Yet when it comes to questioning corporate or governmental interests, the head of the Nieman Foundation (and many other Harvard academic departments) are more likely to take a friendly, non-confrontational approach when dealing with governments and corporations. Instead of organizing panels on human rights or corporate misconduct, certain Harvard departments are more likely to invite CEOs and high-ranking officials to receptions, fundraisers, and friendly pseudo-academic programs like the Nieman event described above.

There are exceptions, of course. KSG holds regular Q&A sessions with well-known politicians and government officials from around the world, and they often have to answer uncomfortable or revealing questions from the crowd.

But when it comes to China, the KSG Q&A sessions are the exception. Many Harvard departments -- and administrators -- maintain a cozy, non-confrontational relationship with Chinese officials, as evidenced by the Nieman invitation, which was co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, and the Harvard University Asia Center. In my opinion, this is the result of several factors:

1) The nature of the administration that runs Harvard and some of Harvard's professional schools. Larry Summers is a former U.S. Treasury Secretary, and is closely aligned with the Democratic Party. Bill Kirby (FAS Dean) is a Chinese history professor. Both Summers and Kirby, as well as other Harvard deans, frequently host visits by PRC leaders, senior ministers, and professors. Hosting a human rights conference critical of Chinese treatment of dissidents, journalists, Tibetans, etc. would jeopardize that level of contact, and potentially sour Harvard's image in that country, not to mention among current Harvard students who are sensitive to "Western" criticism of China.

2) Academics engaged in China studies who organize or participate in forums overtly critical of human rights practices risk losing access to sources in China, or not being invited back by otherwise friendly colleagues in China. This could have huge implications for one's research and career.

I would be curious to know what other people think of this issue. It would also be interesting to get some feedback about what happened to China scholars at Cornell, following Cornell's invitation to former Taiwanese President and "splittist" Lee Teng-hui in 1995. Did this have a chilling effect?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Commuter realities and the Extension community

One of the realities of being an Extension School student is the difficulty of participating in the Extension School and Harvard communities. Meeting with classmates outside of class is hard to coordinate -- unless you live in or near Cambridge, day jobs, family responsibilities, and long commutes make it hard to meet at the library or a cafe. I live in Waltham and work in Framingham, have two small kids and a nine-to-five job, so a casual trip to Harvard Square is almost out of the question. It's also a shame that I am unable to take advantage of the great on-campus academic and entertainment opportunities listed in the Harvard Gazette. But I shouldn't complain -- I had one fellow grad student in a class two years ago who was a full-time lawyer and commuted to class from Maine! No way was he stopping at the Church Street Starbucks for a cup of joe, or visiting the Harvard Film Archive unless he was already in town for class.

And in fact, that is how a lot of us keep or attempt to keep our ties to community -- by networking before or after class, either in the classroom, outside of Sever Hall, or in the Old Yard. Those hurried, before-class B.S. sessions are a classic Extension School experience -- asking others how they're coming along with their research, what other classes and teachers are worth looking into, what their "real" jobs are during the day, and exchanging email addresses to catch up online.

After-class discussions are also a possibility, but often get cut short because another class is waiting for the room, or folks have to race to the T to make their bus or train connections. Additionally, some people need to go to the library to do research, and after class is perfect, because you are already on campus and the libraries stay open late.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Congratulations EXT grads

Before I forget, congratulations to all of the ALM, ALB, and certificate students graduating in June. It's been a long, tough journey, but you should be proud of your accomplishments.

Seven down, two to go

As I mentioned in my first post, I am a third-year student at the Extension School. But the Extension School doesn't measure progress by the number of semesters I've been enrolled; rather it's by classes taken. For the ALM degree, nine classes are required, and of the nine a certain number must be in-field classes, classes taught by Harvard professors, electives, seminars, writing-intensive classes, etc. Click on the ALM link in the sidebar to find out the details. I just completed my seventh class, Chinese Emigration in Modern Times, and am awaiting the results. Grades will be released on June 8, but Professor Kuhn should mail back my research paper before then. I am pretty confident I did well, and I am curious to see what Professor Kuhn thinks of the methodology I used, because I plan to use a similar methodology for my thesis. More on that later ...

Sunday, May 22, 2005

First post

Welcome to a blog about my academic journey at Harvard. I am a third-year student at the Harvard Extension School, which is Harvard's most established and wide-ranging continuing education program within the Department of Continuing Education, which is in turn a part of the faculty of Arts and Sciences. I am enrolled in the graduate ALM program, majoring in history.

In the next few months I will start my thesis. This is the heart of the ALM program, and the most difficult -- many Extension students have completed all of their coursework but never get around to writing their thesis. I am confident I will start mine, as I have a pretty good idea of what I want to research for my thesis. I hope this blog, besides letting others know more about the Harvard Extension School, will help me stay motivated over the next year. It will also serve a record of my thoughts as I develop my research, prepare my thesis proposal, and start the actual work related to carrying out historical research.

I will also talk about Harvard Extension School classes. I don't have much coursework to complete, but will frequently refer back to old professors, books, assignments, et cetera.

Email me at ilamont at fas.harvard.edu if you have any questions!