Tips for Success: When reading primary sources, keep in mind all these authors are writing because they feel some sense of crisis so your first step should be to identify this crisis; second, identify the author’s concepts and categories the argument uses to describe the world, then identify the relation of these terms to each other–often this will be a hierarchy with one concept driving the others. (In the interpretation of historical sources, it is rare that an opinion depends solely on factual details). Reading for categories is difficult because the author may not always explicitly announce them—or may even consciously hide them.
Analyze the source on its own terms. This means avoiding anachronism, projecting our present into the past, and teleology, which means seeing the present as the inevitable result of the past—this slights real historical struggles and reduces past actors to merely “keeping appointments.” Every human society, past and present, has its own values and ways of thinking—often different from our own.
Our case is further complicated by studying non-Western nations, where it is often inappropriate to project our “common sense” onto the motivations of the historical actors. When Oshio Heihachirô rebelled in 1837, his banners did not read “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” but rather, “Sincerity—Truthfulness.” You must learn to read analytically to identify these terms and then determine what those terms meant to him, not you. (This is called a historically specific definition. It is also the reason dictionary definitions will be useless.)
Evaluate the work. Give your thoughts on the pros and cons of the text’s arguments. Does it have any factual errors? False assumptions? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? What issues does it address and what issues does its language ignore?
Exercise critical judgment about what you read and hear. “Critical judgment” does not mean being negative. Rather, it means that you should always force yourself to reflect on the weight and role of history in the present. Without this moment of the reflection, we’re just telling stories..
Interpret the source as evidence in an argument about what happened in the past. History is imagination disciplined by evidence and cogent explication. Historians want to know not only what happened, but how and, if possible, why.
It is not enough to merely identify bias. You must show how and why the argument itself—the categories or logic—is racist or progressive or fascist or Marxist, etc
Create “historical knowledge.” Themes and concepts like “modernity,” “nationalism,” and “colonialism” or, as we shall see, even “famine” are developed through historical investigation in a way that they would not be in fields like economics or law.
To reach these goals, you will have to engage in active learning. You will not only be asked to read and understand, but to apply those skills to analyzing, interpreting, and, finally, evaluating both primary and secondary sources. You will have to demonstrate these skills by critiquing primary and secondary sources and expressing your interpretation clearly in writing.
This method requires that you make a temporarily sympathetic reading of the text. Since we are going to be reading texts that are sometimes in favor of war, colonialism, racism, or sexism, this temporary moment can be offensive to many readers. In these cases it is important to keep in mind the difference between being descriptive and being prescriptive. We need this temporary sympathy if we wish to offer a more complete and convincing critique of not only the author’s conclusion, but also the categories, structure, and assumptions. If in class discussions or lectures you are ever unclear if we are being descriptive or prescriptive please stop and ask.
We will always use Chicago/Turabian style citations in this class. You can find info on how to do this many places in print and on line—one of which is here.