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Interpreting the Past

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 tasks 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 Austin; 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 historians 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).

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The goal of this assignment is twofold. First, you will read a document entitled Reading Primary Sources where you will learn more about the nature of reading primary source documents and interpreting them. The second goal is to apply what you have learned by choosing an image to analyze and convey your findings to the rest of the class. By the time you are done, hopefully you will have a better understanding of what historians do!

Read the following source for this discussion:

-Reading Primary Sources

There are two parts to this assignment:

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. Choose any historical image relevant to our time frame (1500-1865) that you think is interesting, significant, hilarious – choose whatever you’d like as long as it is an image dealing with our class. It can be an image of a historical person, an event, a document – whatever you can find that interests you and conveys some sense of history. The only limitation is to make sure that the image is in good taste – nothing too crude or with profanity. But you can include graphic images from wars, social conflict, etc. — these images are not crude but rather a sad reflection on the human experience. Once you have chosen this image, spend one paragraph (at least 6-7 sentences) interpreting it for the class by explaining what the image conveys and why it is significant.

Please include both Part 1 and Part 2 in the same posting (do not create separate postings for each). You can create a Word document for the assignment and upload it to the discussion board as an attachment, or you can just 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.



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