When you analyze a primary source, you are undertaking the most important job of the historian. There is no better way to understand events in the past than by examining the sources--whether journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or autobiographies--that people from that period left behind.
Each historian, including you, will approach a source with a different set of experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently. Remember that there is no one right interpretation. However, if you do not do a careful and thorough job, you might arrive at a wrong interpretation.
In order to analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself, and the era from which it comes. You can base your information about the time period on the readings you do in class and on lectures. On your own you need to think about the document itself. The following questions may be helpful to you as you begin to analyze the sources:
1. Look at the physical nature of your source. This is particularly important and powerful if you are dealing with an original source (i.e., an actual old letter, rather than a transcribed and published version of the same letter). What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?
2. Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author's message or argument? What was he/she trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?
3. How does the author try to get the message across? What methods does he/she use?
4. What do you know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
5. Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?
6. What can a careful reading of the text (even if it is an object) tell you? How does the language work? What are the important metaphors or symbols? What can the author's choice of words tell you? What about the silences--what does the author choose NOT to talk about?
Now you can evaluate the source as historical evidence.
1. Is it prescriptive--telling you what people thought should happen--or descriptive--telling you what people thought did happen?
2. Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?
3. Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or of "ordinary" people? From whose perspective?
4. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?
5. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?
6. If we have read other historians' interpretations of this source or sources like this one, how does your analysis fit with theirs? In your opinion, does this source support or challenge their argument?
Remember, you cannot address each and every one of these questions in your presentation or in your paper, and I wouldn't want you to. You need to be selective.
--Molly Ladd-Taylor, Annette Igra, Rachel Seidman, and others
I. Specific Essay Requirements
- A. Length: This essay should be about 3 pages long (between 450-750 words). It may be longer, if you need more space to develop your ideas.
- B. Format: The essay should be written to conform with the following
- 1. Introduction: A brief description of the historical period or of the issue which the essay will address.
- 2. Thesis: Your "Answer" expressed in 1 or 2 sentences. This is what you will try to prove in the body of the essay.
- 3. Evidence: The essay should consist of one or more of the following
- evidential paragraphs. The purpose of such paragraphs is to support the thesis.
- a. Topic Sentence: a sentence that gives a reason why the thesis is
- correct. The "Reasons" from your Argument Sketch.
- b. Evidence: the inferences you have drawn from the primary sources supplemented by information drawn from the textbooks, other secondary readings, class discussions or other sources that support the topic sentence.
- [c. Transition: if applicable, a sentence that both concludes the
- paragraph and introduces the next evidential paragraph.]
- 4. Conclusion: A restatement of the argument which restates your thesis, refined in light of the evidence you have presented.
Note: Attached is a sample Basic Argumentative Essay for your reference. This should be looked upon as one way of organizing the essay.
II. EvaluationA chart similar to the one below will be attached to your essay. On it I will place an "x" on the part of the chart which, in my judgment, best reflects your essay. I will total the points from the chart. This will give you a "Raw Score." I will then convert that raw score into the total points earned based on how many points the essay is worth.
A (4 Points)
B (3 Points)
C (2 Points)
D (1 Point)
F (0 Points)
Insightful thesis which creatively addresses the question, supported by a sound argument backed by evidence
Clear thesis which addresses the question, supported by a prima facia argument. Evidence for some points may be weak.
Although the paper meets the requirements of the assignment, the thesis may be vague or, at times, the paper may not support the thesis.
The paper does not argue a thesis; instead it tends to summarize information. The paper may not fully address the assignment.
The paper does not address the assigned topic. The paper has no discernible thesis.
The paper has a clear, effective organization. Transitions effectively direct the course of the argument. Each paragraph argues a clear point and has logically ordered sentences.
Generally, the paper is effectively organized, but a point of argument may be misplaced. A paragraph may digress from its proposed topic. Transitions are present but occasionally may be lacking or ineffective.
The paper shows weaknesses in paragraph unity or organization. Topic sentences may be weak or missing. Transitions may not be effective.
Organization is suspect. The writer does not effectively structure the paragraphs.
The paper lacks paragraph unity and/or an overall coherent structure.
Use of Sources.
The essay shows critical insight into both primary and secondary sources and uses those sources to convincingly support the argument.
The essay shows an understanding of both the primary and secondary sources and uses them effectively to support the argument.
While the essay demonstrates some understanding of the sources, the sources are not used effectively in supporting the argument
While primary and secondary sources are mentioned, the sources do not support the argument or are misunderstood.
The essay does not refer to either primary or secondary sources.
The paper's prose is clear and meets the expectations of standard written English. It shows evidence of an advanced stylistic level.
The paper is free of sentence-level errors, but may not be stylistically advanced.
The paper's prose is clear, but may suffer from infrequent sentence-level errors.
Frequent writing errors mar the effectiveness of the paper.
Writing errors affect much of the essay.
The essay shows a superior understanding of the historical theme.
The essay shows a good understanding of the historical theme.
The essay shows some understanding of the historical theme.
The essay does not demonstrate an under-standing of the theme
The essay misunderstands the theme.
Raw Score: ________ Possible Points : ________ Total Points Earned: ________
Please remember that evaluating an essay is not an exact science and that I can, and do, make mistakes. Please do not hesitate to talk to me if you have a question about your grade or would like to have a better idea how to improve.
Analytic Primary Source Essay
Anon E. Mouse
Maintaining Imperial Power
The ancient Near East began to undergo a radical social evolution beginning around 3000-2000 B.C. During that period of time, many individual city-states began to unite under common leadership. The formation of empires was rooted in the needs for military security, natural resources and access to trade and commerce. Creating an empire presented a unique challenge to those attempting the task. However, maintaining power and controlling the new empires provided its own problems. [Thesis:] To resolve these issues, ancient empires used various means to control their holdings and citizens including; codified laws, military force, and religious empowerment.
Although common in contemporary societies, a formal code of law was not a part of most empires. In fact, many societies found alternative ways of maintaining internal harmony. However, there are examples of some early forms of codified law being used to guide behavior and administer justice. The Hebrews, had a set of laws given to them by their god as described in the book of Exodus Chapter 20. The Babylonians also had a set of laws given to them by their god. "The Code of Hammurabi" outlines not only what type of behavior is acceptable, but also the required punishment for each offense. In these situations, the people of the societies were given an exact definition of acceptable versus non-acceptable behavior. [Topic Sentence and First Point of the Argument:] The principle of justice was a useful way of regulating society. [Transition:] Often, however, additional support was needed.
[Topic Sentence and Second Point of the Argument:] Military force proved to be an effective tool for both keeping intruders out of and subduing the people within the empire. The Assyrians, whose empire lasted from approximately 800-612 B.C. depended almost entirely on military force. In the "Inscription of Tiglathpileser I" the Assyrian ruler describes himself as....... the terrible, destroying flame, which like the rush of the storm sweeps over the enemy's country; who ... has no adversary." In the picture, "The Assyrian Army Attacks a City" warriors and weapons dominate the scene. Likewise the Egyptians relied very heavily upon military might to control the people. In "The Palette of Narmer" we can clearly see the figure of the Pharaoh pounding a stake into the skull of another figure. We also see two figures running away, probably in fear. The degree to which military force was used varies from empire to empire. It is likely that most, if not all, relied upon it at one time o another. However, a much more universal approach to managing the masses did not involve aggression.
[Topic Sentence and Third Point of the Argument:] Religious authority was probably was the most widely used method for controlling an empire. Not only could religion be used to establish the initial authority of the government, but it could be used as a powerful force to keep people in line with the ruling class. Every one of the great empires used religion as its power base. The Egyptians believed their rulers to be half-god and half-human. In "Hymns to the Pharaohs" the new pharaoh Rameses IV is described as, "The son of Re." The Egyptians also used the pyramids to express their belief in the supernatural nature of their rulers. An example of another empire using religion is, "Inscription of Tiglathpileser I" in which the Assyrian king claims to have received his power directly from the god Ashur. Although the Persians did not perceive themselves to be gods, they certainly felt their power to rule originated with divine empowerment. "Inscriptions of Cyrus and Darius I" talks about the relationship with the creator god Ahuramazda and both the king and his son. In one passage, a direct transfer of power is apparent between god and mortal: "A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth ... who made Darius king." The remaining great empire, Babylon, also found moral authority in religion. "The Code of Hammurabi" shows the god Shamash, (god of justice) conversing with the ruler and presumably imparting to him the wisdom and power to enforce the legal code. Thus religious empowerment played a significant role in the success of an empire.
[Conclusion:] The creation of empires represented a major step in the evolution of societies. It is likely that many needs and factors combined to push civilizations towards forming united civilizations. Just as the underlying needs and reasons for creating an empire differed, so too did the methods for maintaining its authority. [Restatement of the Thesis:] The ancient empires used codified laws, military force, and religious authority to establish their governments and keep their power. Religious authority was the most common method used. In fact, it was used in some form by each one of the great empires. With such a widespread application, religious authority was probably the most effective way to control an empire.
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