Short Essay Document Analysis (Fall 2008)

“Sources lie, but they’re all we have.” — Jonathan Dresner

The most fundamental part of doing history is reading primary, or original, sources and using them to understand what you are studying. The fundamental question in each assignment is: what questions does this document help me answer if I read it correctly?

To critically analyze a document requires that you pay attention to

  • Authorship: who the author is and what they are trying to accomplish
  • Context: what’s happening when and where this is written?
  • Content: what the author says and how they say it
  • Response: who was the intended audience (and also unintended audiences) and how those audiences (might have) responded
  • Historical Use: What’s interesting about this document, person, time? what questions does this evidence help to answer?

For each of these papers you will do a critical reading of the assigned document. As it says in the syllabus: “Critical” does not mean “attacking” but “analytical”: putting material in historical and cultural context, drawing appropriate inferences and and deductions from the evidence of the text, and raising relevant questions for futher inquiry.

Try to limit summary to a very small portion of the essay, and don’t spend a lot of time rehashing textbook context: cite it, but assume that your reader has, or can, read the material you cite. The most important part of the analysis for these assignments is the last one: how might an historian use these materials?

Due 9/10 (W), Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq: “Süleyman the Lawgiver”

Due 9/22 (M), Christopher Columbus, journal excerpt and letter

Due 10/6 (F): Tokugawa Shogunate, The Laws for the Military House, 1615

Due 10/17 (W): Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, 1791

Due 10/29 (W): Henrik Ibsen, from A Doll’s House, Act Three

Due 11/10: Revision of any previous paper


  • Length: 500-1000 words. If you use standard double-spaced pages, that’s 2-4 pages. I do not penalize for shorter essays, if it really answers the questions well; I do not penalize for longer essays, if it really is on topic and substantive. I do penalize for missing important questions and for excessive verbiage.
  • No Title Page. Include your name, the course, and the assignment at the top. You may also include a title for your essay.
  • Double-spacing is not required. Reasonable font, however, is: something standard and readable and a nice size. Normal margins are also a must: 1-1.5 inches.
  • Don’t try to make the paper look longer or shorter by playing with font and margins.
  • Spellcheck and grammarcheck your work. Don’t assume the computer is right, however: read it over yourself (reading out loud often helps). I don’t take off points for grammatical or spelling errors unless they are so numerous as to distract from the message of the paper. That doesn’t mean that I enjoy reading papers with errors, or that I won’t mark them when I notice them.

Plagiarism and citations

Plagiarism is the use of the words or ideas of another without proper attribution and will not be tolerated. For details see the plagiarism page on the website, or ask. If you cite material from the textbook, you only need to note page number; for outside sources you must include bibliographic information, either in a note or in a works cited section. You shouldn’t need outside sources to answer these questions, however. The emphasis is on learning to read and use the primary sources assigned.


The grade will be based primarily on the quality of the historical arguments that you make: the use of evidence, the attention to context. You don’t need to summarize the work — this is too short of a paper for that — but you do need to give the reader a clear idea of what it says and what it means. Secondary to the quality of your analysis is the clarity of the presentation: how easy is it for the reader to follow your line of argument and be persuaded by your evidence?

“The historian should be fearless and incorruptible;
a man of independence, loving frankness and truth;
one who, as the poet says, calls a fig a fig and a spade a spade.
He should yield to neither hatred nor affection,
but should be unsparing and unpitying.
He should be neither shy nor deprecating, but an impartial judge,
giving each side all it deserves but no more.
He should know in his writings no country and no city;
he should bow to no authority and acknowledge no king.
He should never consider what this or that man will think,
but should state the facts as they really occurred.”
Greek writer Lucian of Samosata (ca. 125-ca.180 CE),
How History Should Be Written

3 comments to Short Essay Document Analysis (Fall 2008)

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