Two riders from the Genesee Valley Hunt (the oldest Foxhunt in North America) on a misty fall morning.  Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins.  Author's personal collection.
Two riders from the Genesee Valley Hunt (the oldest Foxhunt in North America) on a misty fall morning. Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins. Author’s personal collection.

Introduction: Technology, Disruption and Education

The current renaissance in the academic study of the martial could not have come at a better time.  In fact, it is probably a powerful confluence of forces, both theoretical, political and technological that are making the our current progress possible.  This is especially true for students of Chinese martial studies.  The unprecedented growth of the Chinese economy over the last two decades has led to a steady increase of interest in its culture and history.  Globalization has not only brought us closer through immigration and trade, but it has also provided powerful new tools that can benefit students of cross-cultural studies.

Many of the most obvious of these innovations are linked to the rapid advances in communications technology.  The growth of the internet has led to an almost unimaginable drop in the cost of all sorts of communications.  This has had far reaching effects on a number of industries.  Certain services that were just not cost-effective previously (such as Amazon’s book selling strategy) have exploded.  Other products, typically those that relied on geographic proximity and a dedicated customer base (independent book stores), have fared less well.

This example should serve to remind us of the fundamental nature of any change in market prices.  Every time a price for some good or service moves (either up or down) there will be a certain group of individuals who win, and another market segment that loses.  Adam Smith tells us that in a perfect market we can be mathematically sure that the winners will win more than the losers forfeit.  In other words, innovation and trade make the economy as a whole bigger.  But that might be cold comfort if you were a clerk at an independent bookstore who just lost your job.

The academy itself is currently feeling the sting of a number of these “disruptive” technological innovations.  Fundamental shifts in the book market mean that university presses are publishing and selling fewer titles every year.  Likewise libraries (facing budget cuts) are purchasing fewer journals.  Neither of these trends bode particularly well for young academics still hoping to establish themselves in a field.

We may also be on the cusp of some radical changes in how teaching happens.  In the previous era instruction was by definition a local industry.  A classroom required students and a capable instructor.  Needless to say, there were limits on how far students were willing to travel, or how many papers a professor could grade.  But the internet is changing all of that.

With the advent of cheap streaming video it is now possible to record a single set of lectures, textbooks, lab notes and other course materials and then make them available to students all over the world.  A weak application of this technology has been around for a decade now in the form of increasingly common on-line degree programs.  These have typically been aimed at professional students and have been somewhat technical in nature.  But at heart this was still an individual professor and a limited number of students who were paying quite a bit of money for whatever instruction they received.

This familiar dynamic is starting to shift.  Increasingly top ranked universities (Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cornell ect…) are starting to enter this field.  They have a different game plan.  Instead of simply offering online sections of existing classes (usually taught by a graduate student or adjunct) they are simply digitally recording their most popular classes and making them available on the internet for free to anyone who wishes to enroll in them.

Generally speaking these classes do not offer “college credit” (though there are a couple of notable exceptions).  But in many cases the universities are now offering students the chance to turn in course work and to receive “certificates of completion.”  These programs are currently just getting underway, but it does not take a crystal ball to understand how this has the potential to fundamentally upset the existing university system.

The economic savings that come by teaching students remotely are substantial and many departments are under considerable pressure to offer more of these sorts of courses (either the traditional on-line classes, or the pre-recorded variety).  I suspect that the basic monetary constraints on higher education, and student demands for greater flexibility, mean that in not too many years this sort of instruction will become the norm.

As a teacher I am not sure how I feel about this.  I like my lectures, and suspect that they would do rather well as a podcast.  Yet actual personal interaction with faculty members and mentors is a vital part of the educational experience.  It was my relationships with my professors, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, that made me the scholar that I am today. 

At this point in time I don’t remember most of what they said in lectures, but I remember the things that I learned as I worked for them and with them on various projects.  The great shortcoming the various electronic educational plans that I see now is that they simply give up on the very possibility of this sort of interaction.  Yet it is precisely that which creates the scholars and innovators of tomorrow.


Sheep in the Genesee Valley.  Source:  Photo by Benjamin Judkins.  Author's Personal Collection.
Sheep in the Genesee Valley. Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins. Author’s Personal Collection.

Sifting an Embarrassment of Riches

Nevertheless,  every market–shift creates patterns of winners and losers.  And all academics have two hats to wear.  We teach students and do research.  I am not sure that a broader shift to on-line instruction will be great for either professors or students.  But these same trends are excellent if one wishes to conduct more sophisticated research into Chinese martial studies.

This is not a field that any of us studied in graduate school.  As we have previously discussed, martial studies is a deeply interdisciplinary research area.  We constantly find ourselves being asked to employ new research tools, or to make new comparisons.  In short, many of the most interesting questions in the field require one of two things, either a co-author who is already an expert in an area that we are lacking in, or the resources to acquire these research skills for ourselves.

The current trend of making university courses available to the public for free over the internet radically reduces the price of this second option.  If a project requires an understanding of the major debates in film studies, an introduction to ethnographic methods, or a quick brush up on Ming and Qing dynasty Chinese history, it is now possible to get exactly that at no cost.  Best of all the lectures and class material can be viewed when most convenient for you, and not the scheduling office.

Resources like this can be a mixed blessing.  There is enough stuff out there that one can get lost in the possibilities.  Nor is it easy to judge the quality of the instruction and discussion in a field that you are not familiar with.  Nevertheless, these courses offer anyone an incredible opportunity to both keep their skills up to date and expand their intellectual horizons.

I suspect that the more background one already has in a given area, the more useful a little understanding of a related field is likely to be.  It is easier to make the jump from political science to Asian studies than it is from physics to history.  But that’s basically the way most interdisciplinary research projects work anyway.  They are often attempts to apply the research methods of one related field to the research questions of another.

The remainder of this post introduces three different web portals that offer free access to university classes taught at some of the most elite academic institutions.  Each of these programs differs in terms of the number of courses offered, degree of formality and class format.  Each of them also offers a number of classes that could be of great interest to students of martial studies generally, so it will be necessary for readers to explore each of them to determine which best fits your needs.

To assist in this process I have highlighted a number of course that might be helpful to a students of Chinese martial studies.  I tried to select courses that had lots of interesting media content (on-line video lectures, podcasts, interactions with teaching assistants, free digital text books) just to showcase the sorts of stuff that is out there.  Not all classes offer all of these tools.  And many of the most specialized classes are the simplest (lecture note, reading lists and exams).  Once you have familiarized yourself with these systems you can then look for classes matching your own particular interests.

Or should you?  There is a common tendency among students to assume that if you want to know more about a subject you should only take a class that directly addresses that topic.  So if you are researching the Chinese martial arts you might be most interested in classes on military history.  But maybe what you really need is something that will improve the way you think about history in general.  Maybe a class on historical research methods?  Or possibly you need a class on imperialism and 19th century trade to actually make sense of the history that you are reading. 

So don’t be afraid to cast a wide net.  Introducing new theories or approaches brings value to the field.  And besides, it’s not like you have to pay anything for these courses.  Feel free to experiment.


Dew on cobweb.  Genesee Valley.  Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins.  Author's Personal Collection.
Dew on cobweb. Genesee Valley. Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins. Author’s Personal Collection.


MIT OpenCourseWare

One of the most popular portals for free on-line courses is MIT’s OpenCourseWare program.  The quality of the instruction offered in these courses is universally good, thought not all of the classes offer the same level of on-line access.  Some classes have video lectures and on-line text books.  Others simply offer exams and reading lists.  Make sure you are comfortable with the format of a given class before signing up for it.

The most popular courses at MIT (not surprisingly) all fall into the science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.  These courses often get the most resources and are the most likely to have video-lectures.  But be sure to check out their other offerings.  MIT hosts some courses in the humanities and the social sciences that might be useful to a student of martial studies.  Their language courses are also very extensive with excellent supporting resources.  This might be a good alternative if you do not want to cough up $500 for a couple of levels of Rosetta Stone.


Chinese Language: Chinese I-V, Including electronic text books and lab material.

“OpenCourseWare now offers a complete sequence of four Chinese language courses, covering beginning to intermediate levels of instruction at MIT. They can be used not just as the basis for taught courses, but also for self-instruction and elementary-to-intermediate review.

The four Chinese subjects provide the following materials: an online textbook in four parts, J. K. Wheatley’s Learning Chinese: A Foundation Course in Mandarin; audio files of the main conversational and narrative material in this book; and syllabi and day-by-day schedules for each term.”


Asia in the Modern World: Images & Representations.

“Asia in the Modern World: Images and Representations examines visual representations of Asia, interpreting them from both historical and modern contexts. This course is based around using the Visualizing Cultures website. Case studies focus on Japan and China from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.”

-Features of this course include selected video lectures (about half a dozen in total, including a special lecture on early photography in East Asia).


Seminar in Historical Methods

“This course is designed to acquaint students with a variety of approaches to the past used by historians writing in the twentieth century. The books we read have all made significant contributions to their respective sub-fields and have been selected to give as wide a coverage in both field and methodology as possible in one semester’s worth of reading. We examine how historians conceive of their object of study, how they use primary sources as a basis for their accounts, how they structure the narrative and analytic discussion of their topic, and what are the advantages and drawbacks of their various approaches.”

-Features both examples of student work and selected video lectures.


A horse jump designed to let foxhunters safely cross a barbwire fence.  Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins.  Author's Personal Collection.
A horse jump designed to let foxhunters safely cross a barbwire fence. Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins. Author’s Personal Collection.


Edex: Online Consortium of Harvard, MIT, Berkley, Cornell and others (including Institutions in China).

One of the most important up and coming courseware portals is Edex.  This is an on-line consortium of a number of universities dedicated to creating a unique, highly uniform educational experience.  While Edex currently offers fewer classes than some other portals, most of their offerings feature multi-media tools that are sometimes hard to find through other providers.  The structure of these courses is more uniform than what you might see in other places, and there is a clear effort to professionalize the world of free courseware.  Interested students can even check out a demo to see how their classes work.

Edex is also starting to offer certificates of completion for a number of their classes.  Students do not need to apply for these, and anyone is free to audit a course.  However the program can also provide three levels of certification.  The most basic one is free and just states that someone completed the course.  A slightly more secure certification depends on identity verification and is only available for some courses (it also cost of a fee).  Lastly Edex is starting to put together certifications stating that a student has completed a certain predetermined sequence of courses (sort of like a major or minor).  These can be helpful when applying for a job, but they also cost something (which varies by class).  However, none of these more expensive options are actually being offered for any of the classes that I thought were the most interesting.  Nor are they really relevant to our current discussion.


History of Chinese Architecture Part 1

“China’s architectural history spans thousands of years. In this course, we will explore the ancient cities of Chang’an of Han, Luoyang of Northern Wei, Chang’an and Luoyang of Sui and Tang, Kaifeng of Song and Dadu of Yuan, and delve into the history of the awe-inspiring ancient buildings that still grace the landscape of these bustling cities. The course will cover construction and aesthetics of these imperial palaces, religious structures, pagodas, tombs and gardens. We will study the basis of Chinese architecture, the wood framed building, as well as the brick and stone construction of many Buddhist pagodas and tombs. The course will culminate in an examination of the Summer Palace in Beijing, the ancient royal garden at the Chengde Mountain Resort, and the private gardens of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Two seminal textbooks on the Song and Qing dynasties are included in the course in electronic form.”


China: China’s past, present, and future: through history and geography, economy and ecology, philosophies and politics, literature and art.

“Modern China presents a dual image: a society transforming itself through economic development and infrastructure investment that aspires to global leadership; and the world’s largest and oldest bureaucratic state, with multiple traditions in its cultural, economic, and political life. The modern society and state that is emerging in China will bear the indelible imprint of China’s historical experience, of its patterns of philosophy and religion, and of its social and political thought and practice. Understanding China in the 21st century is inseparable from understanding China’s history as a great world civilization.”


The Study of Folklore (Chinese Language Course, taught in Mandarin)

“This eleven-week course will provide students with the basic knowledge of folklore, including its history, classification, function, and value. Coursework will include videos, readings, and an assignment of collecting 20 items of folklore. There will also be a final exam.”

*While the system says there are no prerequisites for this class that is not quite true.  A high degree of Chinese language fluency is necessary.


Age of Globalization: Identify the historical and cultural systems driving globalization and changing societies around the world.

“Globalization is a fascinating spectacle that can be understood as global systems of competition and connectivity. These man-made systems provide transport, communication, governance, and entertainment on a global scale. International crime networks are outgrowths of the same systems. Topics include national identity, language diversity, the global labor market, popular culture, sports and climate change.

However, an increase in integration has not brought increased equality. Globalization creates winners and losers among countries and global corporations, making competition the beating heart of the globalization process.

The globalization process exemplifies connectivity. Globalization is unimaginable without the unprecedented electronic networks that project dominant cultural products into every society on earth.

Learn how to identify and analyze global systems and better understand how the world works.”



Open Education Database

The Open Education Database is the last of the portals that I would like to introduce in this post.  In many ways its the most exciting as it offers the largest number of classes and covers the most varied topics.  Like Edex also promotes classes from a number of institutions.  Yet this diversity comes at a cost.  The quality and structure of the classes offered by OED varies greatly.  Some of these have carefully recorded video-lectures or podcasts, where as others are basically lecture notes or just reading lists.  It is up to potential students to make sure they are familiar with the sort of class that they will be getting.

Since the OED works with a large number of schools it sometimes offers more than one version of a given class.  This may be especially important for students seeking language instruction.  If you are having trouble finding a language course that will work for you the OED might have a couple of additional options that you can consider.


China: Traditions and Transformations

“Modern China presents a dual image: a society transforming itself through economic development and social revolution; and the world’s largest and oldest bureaucratic state, coping with longstanding problems of economic and political management.

Both images bear the indelible imprint of China’s historical experience, of its patterns of philosophy and religion, and of its social and political thought.

In this free Chinese studies online course, these themes are discussed to understand China in the modern world and as a great world civilization that developed along lines different from those of the Mediterranean.”

-This course is offered through the Harvard On-line Extension.  It features a complete set of video lectures.


East Asian Thought in a Comparative Perspective

This is a series of nine three hour lectures/podcasts presented by Professor Victor Magagna of UC San Diego.


First Year Chinese I-II (Taught through the Utah State University)

In case you are looking for a different set of language classes here are some to consider.  It looks like you will need to buy a text book or two, but the course includes a number of video lectures, writing assignments and additional electronic texts.


Hacking Hakka

A quick linguistic introduction to the Hakka Dialect.  This might be very useful to anyone interested in Southern Mantis, White Eyebrow Chuka Shaolin or Hakka Kuen.


Perspectives on China

Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar explores the history, politics and future of China through video captured during public presentations and audio from course lectures.

Three riders, seperated from the hunt in the Genesee Valley.  Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins.  Author's Personal Collection.
Three riders, separated from the hunt in the Genesee Valley. Source: Photo by Benjamin Judkins. Author’s Personal Collection.


Fall is when we normally think about going back to school.  Some of us have managed to never leave.  But no matter what your current career track, its never too late to think about doing a little “continuing education.”  This is especially important if you are interested in the academic study of the martial arts.  With the new types of open courseware that are currently becoming available, it has never been easier to brush up on your language skills or to acquire new research tools.

The eclectic and interdisciplinary nature of martial studies makes this an even more pressing concern.  I think that my own background in the social sciences generally serves me well, but I can easily list half a dozen other subjects that I wish I was more familiar with.  We are right at the beginning of what could be a major transformation in the way that university instruction is packaged and delivered.  This is a subject that will require careful thought and the occasional revisit.  After all, new classes are becoming available every semester.  The challenge will be to capture the value of these innovations without loosing what we already have.