Primary sources are what historians and other scholars study when they try to make sense of the past. But interpreting such sources is rarely as straightforward as we would like, and the sources are not mere mirrors of the world that historians want to understand. We are obliged, therefore, to use our critical thinking skills, particularly our interpretive skills. To interpret primary sources we ask questions of the them, considering the contexts of their production and uncovering the their inherent biases to decipher what they do and don’t reveal to us about the past. Finally, we employ our skills at logical argumentation to convince others of the validity of our interpretations.
Start by reading or viewing the primary source you chose and beginning the analysis of its meaning by making notes on your answers to the questions below:
- What kind of primary source is it?
- Who is the author or creator (if known)?
- Can you tell why was it written or created?
- Can you tell who the intended audience was?
- What is the primary source’s tone? What words and phrases (and/or scenes and visual perspectives) convey it?
- What are the author’s or creator’s values and assumptions? Is there visible bias?
- What information does it relate? Did the author or creator have first-hand knowledge of the subject or did s/he report what others saw and heard?
- What issues does it address?
- What is your overall assessment of the primary source and its usefulness/significance for the historical study of your topic?
Note that some questions may not be answerable, some may be relatively unimportant, and others will be central to your analysis. It all depends on the document and the kind of analysis you wish to make.
Once you have begun analyzing the primary source by answering the questions above, use your answers to those questions to help determine how to interpret the primary source. Your task is not to argue with or endorse its ideas. Try to maintain an impartial tone. To complete the assignment successfully you need to read the source carefully and analyze its contents. We will practice these analytical skills in the discussion boards and here are some steps to follow as you put your ideas into writing this essay.
Start your essay with an explanation of the task before you. Tell the reader what kind of source it is (image, legal code, literary text, travelogue, memoir, architecture, etc.). Express its stated or implied thesis or main point and try to surmise from clues in the text (tone, topics, values, etc.) the source’s purpose. Provide a historical context for the document. Your goal is to present an accurate and concise sketch that places the primary source in its historical context and gives an appropriate factual and thematic background to the specific points you will discuss in the next part of the essay.
That explanation of the source and its historical context might be handled in a few concise sentences or it might require a couple of paragraphs. Either way, the bulk of the paper should center on what you take to be the main takeaway from the document. What key issue does the document raise? What kind of information does it provide? Your explanation about what we can learn from the artifact is your thesis, and your job is to demonstrate the validity of that thesis with specific references to the source.
Analyze the values and assumptions the source contains. You will have to make some inferences from the source since values and assumptions are more often hidden and implicit rather than open and explicit. They are the unspoken foundations on which a source rests, and they often give it its meaning. Be sure to present those pieces of evidence upon which you make your assessment.
Note that what we can learn from a document is often not what the document purports to be about. A tax record might reveal much about a given culture’s social structure. A travelogue might reveal more about the traveler’s culture than it does about the land he or she is visiting. A description of factory workers might reveal attitudes toward education or marriage or technology or gender or any number of other topics. You will have to use your interpretive skills to find meaning in documents that may be implicit rather than explicit.
Be sure to give specific examples to support your claims. Express your ideas as clearly and forcefully as possible and be sure that similar ideas are grouped together around a central issue for each paragraph. Just as each paper should center on a single main point or thesis, so should each paragraph develop a single idea or topic. Make sure that your ideas flow easily from one paragraph to another in a logical, sequential manner, and make that logic apparent by means of clear transitions.
Your conclusion should pull your ideas together and flow naturally from the body of the essay. At the end of the essay, summarize your main points, underscore your thesis, explain the significance of the primary source, and leave the reader with an idea to ponder.
Remember, always keep the coherence of your essay in mind. Every statement should have a clear relationship to what came before it and what comes after it. Proofread carefully for spelling and grammatical errors and try to leave the reader with a striking final image or impression.
Your essay will receive a grade based on how well it follows the assignment, how thoroughly it accounts for the relevant questions above, how well it identifies and differentiates the various elements of the primary source (e.g., tone from value and value from assumption, etc.), how clearly it expresses your ideas, and how well it is written and organized.
Your essay should focus on your interpretation of the primary source you have chosen. If you rely on information from the textbook, a documentary, posted lecture, or other assigned material, you are obliged to cite it appropriately, but you can only use sources from the course. No sources from outside the course are allowed. Make sure that the ideas and words in your essay are your own. All paraphrases and quotations must have full citations. Refer to the Course Syllabus for information on Plagiarism.
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