• History 41: The American Colonies Swarthmore College Spring '99

  • Document Analysis Assignments

    The purpose of the document analysis papers are to allow students to learn, practice, and showcase their skills in original historical interpretation. These essays are designed to resemble brief pieces or vignettes of the kind of larger articles and books that we will read by historians in this course.

    There are many different ways to interpret a primary source document, and a multitude of ways to be creative in the process. In some instances, this might involve telling a story; in other cases it might involve a commentary on the language employed in the document; and in other cases that interpretation might emerge from an attempt to assess motivation, intent, or purpose. Never will simply describing what happened be sufficient as an historical interpretation of a document.

    In short, historians are always trying to discover both the meaning and the significance of a piece of historical evidence. Since that evidence usually consists of written documents, these document analysis papers should also seek to find a balance between exposing meaning and significance of the evidence. By meaning, we are trying to reconstitute what that document might have meant (or how it might have been understood) by the historical actors in that era. By significance, we attempt to relate how that evidence contributes to a particular interpretation of past. Therefore, a good document analysis paper will focus upon both the text itself (with attention to the specifics and nuances of language used) and the context (the broader picture of the history of that period that informs the document). It is this dual approach that separates the methods of historians from those of other disciplines, such as literary criticism or positivist social science (sociology or political science).

    Students should draw upon the assigned readings to provide the necessary context for the document they are analyzing. Additional supplemental readings can also be examined to assist in writing the essay. Good historians are always making connections, or finding relationships between the historical evidence they discover and the literature of historians which they read.

    First Document Analysis Paper:

    The first document analysis paper will be based upon one of the documents assigned for weeks 1 through 4 and available online from the web syllabus. The essay should be approximately 600 words (or 3 pages) in length. Each student can choose the document that he or she wishes to write about. The paper is due before class on February 12.

    Second Document Analysis Paper:

    The second document analysis paper will be based upon a short document that each student will find on his or her own. A handout of available published sources for such documents will distributed in class. The Friends Historical Society within McCabe Library, the Quaker Collection at Haverford College Library, and numerous Philadelphia area archives and libraries might also be the location for finding a relevant document. Students will be evaluated based upon their effort and creativity in selecting a document, and the quality of the historical interpretation that they write about the document. The paper is due before class on April 2.

    Third Document Analysis Paper:

    The final document analysis essay will be written about a book-length original source from the colonial era. A list of possible books are available at the end of the syllabus. Students will apply the same skills of interrogating and interpreting a document for this assignment, but the depth of the analysis and breadth of the historiographical context should be more substantive in this longer paper. Since one cannot expect to analyze every aspect of a book-length document within the 2,500 word limit, students will be expected to focus on a theme or topic, and development a coherent thesis in this paper. The paper is due before class on April 30.

    Book-Length Primary Sources: (A preliminary list)


    [Back to History 41 Syllabus]