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Before embarking on the study of history, understanding how to “do” history can be useful. To most people, the definition of history is simple – it is what happened in the past. However, it is really not that simple. Since we cannot revisit the past (except if you are Dr. Who), the main task of the historian is to interpret the artifacts that have been left behind. These artifacts from the past are what historians call “primary sources.” Primary sources are the raw materials of history–original documents and material objects which were created in the past. You have probably experienced primary sources in your own life. For example, many of you have visited museums, and the objects found in a museum are primary source objects – things created by those people living in the past. Another example is a book that may have been assigned in a class like one from Shakespeare or Jane Austen; those too are considered primary sources because they are written by authors from the past.

When historians write about the past, they interpret the meaning of those objects. Interpretations of history are known as “secondary sources” and you have also encountered these in your life. A textbook, for example, is a secondary source because it was written by a historian living today. Other examples of secondary sources (which again, are interpretations of the past) include most history books at Barnes and Noble, documentaries on TV, and even movies (think of Twelve Years a Slave). One of the problems that historians face is the biased nature of sources. It is important to consider who created the object, why they created it, and what message was it intended to convey. Even historians can be biased based on their personal beliefs (politics, religion, race, gender, etc.). A good historian attempts to understand these biases and write accounts that are based on sound logic and supported with evidence (sorry fans of Ancient Aliens, that show doesn’t meet the threshold).

The goal of this assignment is twofold. First, you will learn more about the nature of reading primary source documents and interpreting them. Then you will apply what you have learned by choosing a primary source to analyze. By the time you are done, you will hopefully have a better understanding of what historians do!

Initial Post:

1. For Part 1, read the article Reading Primary Sources and choose 3 key themes from the document that you find most interesting. Spend one paragraph discussing each theme (for a total of 3 paragraphs). In each paragraph, you should clearly identify the theme you have chosen in the first sentence, spend several sentences explaining the theme and providing examples from the article to illustrate your theme, and conclude with 1-2 sentences discussing why you think that particular theme is significant for understanding history. Each paragraph should thus be at least 6-7 sentences in length.

2. For Part 2, you will become a historian by applying what you have learned. For this part, you will analyze one of the primary sources you should have already read from unit 1 and from the textbook. Your answer in Part 2 should clearly reflect what you learned about analyzing sources in Part 1. Full points will not be awarded for answers that merely identify or summarize the primary source. Rather, they should (as the article notes), “identify it, contextualize it, explore it, analyze it, and evaluate it.”
Students whose last names begin with A-H will analyze “The Aztecs Predict the Coming of the Spanish.pdf”
Students whose last names begin with I-Q will analyze the first entry of “Christopher Columbus’ Journal ”
Students whose last names begin with R-Z will analyze “Leo Africanus – Description of Timbuktu ”
First, describe the document you have been assigned and explain why it should be considered a primary source. Then, using what you learned from the article, analyze the significance of the document for historians. What can this document teach us about the past?

Please include both Part 1 and Part 2 in the same posting (do not create separate postings for each). You can post both parts directly onto the discussion board by clicking on “Start a New Thread” and typing in the box. Please make sure that you carefully proof your answer for any typos and other writing issues.

Response to classmate:

Once you have posted your assignment, I want you to look at the postings of other students to see how they have interpreted their sources. Respond to two of your classmates. You should respond to people who analyzed different images than you. In other words, if you analyzed the Aztecs, then you will respond to one person who analyzed Christopher Columbus and one who analyzed Timbuktu. Your response should focus on how different primary source images can teach us about the past.

Note about your quotations:

Remember that you need to cite your source when you quote from a reading. Reminder: Quotations should not be more than 10-15% of your paper. They are not to take the place of your own ideas or thoughts; they help support your ideas and thoughts. For these readings, use these in-text citations and these full citations at the end of your postings. Please see the Citation Help.pdf for guidelines for citing sources.


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