History homework help

| April 8, 2019

A word on facts, evidence, hypotheses, and sources

As we begin our discussion of the raw materials of history, our sources, I want you to think back to Boot Camp and the materials on thinking historically.  (If you did not read them then, or cannot remember, go back and do so now – before proceeding).

History is a discipline that uses fact-based inquiry and formulates hypotheses. Critical thinking is part and parcel to everything we do as historians and students of history. Simply memorizing lists of people and events is not history.  Historians want to explain why things happened; how things happened; and even why they happened the way they did and not some other way.  It takes a lot of training to become an academic (or professional) historian, but every one of you can hone your analytical skills and start to look at facts and evidence with a more critical eye to understand larger trends and contexts (remember the 5 Cs?).  This is a marketable skill.  Many companies seek out undergraduate history majors because they have proven critical thinking and analysis skills.  In this course, I will teach you the basics of these skills and start you off on the path to be a junior historian.

Before discussing the various types of sources and evidence available to us, I want you to

skim read (a quick perusal to pick up the key points, the gist of the material) this excerpt (click here)


on a murder in the Pyrenees in 1301.  It is by John H. Arnold and taken from his book, History: A Very Short Introduction. In this excerpt, he lays out the historian’s craft and where sources of information can lead us and the types of information we can ask of our evidence. 

There are two types of sources that historians use, primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary Sources are documents and other items that are created at the time under study.  So the inquisition registers mentioned in the Arnold piece are primary sources. A newscast from 1969 reporting on the reaction to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon is a primary source for the study NASA’s impact on American society. A law passed by the British Parliament ending slavery is a primary document.  A diary of a British traveler in the American West is a primary document. A letter between a soldier and a loved one at home is a primary document.  A piece of artwork produced in the 1700s or other material artifacts of the past are primary sources.  So the key is that  anything produced at the time under study  can be a primary source.

Once you understand the definition of a primary source, secondary sources are easy to understand.  A secondary source is anything produced at a later date about the time under study.  So all books by historians are secondary sources, textbooks are secondary sources, documentaries about past events are secondary sources.

The tricky part is understanding that some secondary sources may contain primary sources.  For example, if someone compiles a set of documents, annotates the documents, and provides an introductory essay about the collection we have a mixed set of sources.  The documents themselves are primary and we need to give credit to the original author from the time under study. The annotations and introductory essay by the compiler (or editor, or translator) is secondary.  You must never confuse an editor, compiler, or translator with the author of the original work from the historical past.

Historians base the majority of their original work on primary sources.  But we don’t discount what other academics/historians have said.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time we look at a particular era.  Therefore historians always provide their sources for others to use, like a breadcrumb trail, to follow their analysis, to verify their facts and evidence, and to engage in historical debate over the whys and hows and so whats of the past.  When I get a new academic book by a historian, I will often read the footnotes or endnotes before reading the content, since it is through the sources and notes that historians engage with each other and peer review the interpretations of other historians.

It is perfectly acceptable to utilize the interpretations of another historian in your own work as long as you give the first historian full credit (citation) and you use your own words when you work the ideas into your own analysis. In this way you are being influenced by past historians but are adding new interpretations and analysis to his/her work.  You do not merely regurgitate (paraphrase) because you have added no original analysis. But secondary sources should not form the bulk of any analysis.

Peer-review is key to history. All works by academic historians are reviewed by peers and the comments can be brutal.  Before a journal article or monograph is published, the draft has gone through at least one round, and likely more, of peer review.  Other historians specializing in the same narrow field review to make sure that the analysis is supported by facts, appropriate evidence and sources, and that there are no glaring faults in logic or presentation of argument. It is not opinion, only the results of fact-based inquiry get published.  Which is not to say that all historians always agree on everything.  We don’t. But we respect fact-based and logical arguments that do not leave out key pieces of evidence. Historians then argue (and boy, do we love to argue) about differing interpretations of events.  Over time a synthesis develops, things all historians can agree on about a particular event or interpretation. These syntheses will become your textbooks.  I might have a disagreement here or there about something in a text, but I generally agree with most American history texts.

So, in summary,  when you write a piece of historical analysis in this class, it needs to be based on evidence and primary sources.  You can pull ideas, properly cited, from secondary sources in creating your own original analysis.

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