Document Assignments (Hist 102, Spring 2009)

World History From 1500

Document Analysis (updated 2/19, 2/27)

“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, Context, Content, Responses and Historical Use. You may, at your discretion, add a separate section for discussing the credibility and reliability of the author and document, or you may discuss that in the other sections.


  • Who the author is, their status or personal situation.
  • The cultural and social background of the author(s)
  • This is a good place to start talking about possible biases.


  • What’s happening when and where this is written?
  • Is this a response to something specific?
  • Broader historical and geographic issues.
  • Is the author and the event normal for this time or not?
  • Why is this event important?


  • What the author says and how they say it
  • What they are trying to accomplish.
  • Summarize all the important points of the document
  • Tone, themes, biases, shortcomings, etc.


  • Who was the intended audience (or audiences)
  • How those audiences responded (evidence, or an educated guess)? What would they learn from this?
  • How might other people – unintended audiences – respond?
  • Evidence about what happened next: was this taken seriously?
  • Did it change the way people behaved?
  • What happened to the author and the subject of the document?

Historical Use:

  • What’s interesting about this document, person, time?
  • What questions does this evidence help to answer?
  • What the document itself tells us about the event.
  • What use is this document to us, now?
  • What questions would historians have that this could answer?
  • Would historians have to watch out for biases or errors, and why?
  • What you think the answers to these questions might be.

For each document you will write a short answer (up to 500 words each) for each of the categories above – authorship, context, content, response, historical use – drawing on the document, the explanations and introductions on the CD ROM and the textbook. Don’t just copy the material: you need to be able to paraphrase basic information in your own words and you need to be able to put evidence from different sources together in a coherent argument.

Length: There is a limit of 500 words per section: That means a limit of 2500 words for each assignment.  You should be making more than just one point in each section. The sections don’t have to be similar lengths, either.

Evidence: When you make a claim about motives, responses, effects, etc., you should be able to show the evidence that supports your conclusions. It might be a passage from the reading, a page from the textbook, or something you already knew from high school, but you have to show your reader how you got from the document to the conclusion. As a corrollary, if you’re going to use textbook material, paraphrase it – put it in your own words – instead of copying (which is plagiarism).

Due 1/30 (F), Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq: “Süleyman the Lawgiver” (Chapter 16)

Due 2/9 (M), Christopher Columbus, journal excerpt and letter (Chapter 18)

For the subsequent assignments, I’ve arranged the schedule so that we read and discuss the reading in the class period before the assignment is due.




2/20 (F) Tokugawa Shogunate, The Laws for the Military House, 1615 Due 2/23 (M)
3/6 (F) Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, 1791 Due 3/9 (M)
3/25 (W) Henrik Ibsen, from A Doll’s House, Act Three Due 3/27 (F)
4/3 (F) John Stuart Mill, excerpts from On Liberty Due 4/6 (M)
4/20 (M) Benito Mussolini, “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism” Due 4/22 (W)
4/29 (W) UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948 Due  5/1 (F)


The point of asking these questions is to come to some conclusion which is supported by the evidence. The grade will be based primarily on the completeness of the basic answers (authorship, context, content) and the quality of the historical arguments that you make – use of evidence, thoughtfulness — in the more complex sections (response, historical use).


  • No Title Page. Include your name, the course and section, and the assignment at the top.
  • Mark each section with the appropriate label — authorship, context, content, response, historical use – and keep each section under 500 words.
  • Double-spacing is not required or recommended. 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, and using outside sources instead of course materials will result in penalties. The emphasis is on learning to read and use the primary sources assigned.

“Experiencers of the past are incapable of knowing the past that historians know, and mythologizers of the past, although sharing with historians the advantage of afterknowledge, are uninterested in knowing the past as its makers have experienced it. … no one of the three approaches to the past … has logical — or epistemological — priority over the other two. Historical reconstruction, direct experience, and mythologization are, after all, all operations that every one of us performs every day of his or her life. Although professsional historians spend a good bit of their time doing battle with the mythologized past or rendering the experienced past intelligble and meaningful in ways that were not available to the experiencers themselves, for most human beings experience and myth have an emotional power and importance — we may indeed call it a kind of subjective truth — that historians ignore at their peril.” — Paul Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, 1997, xiv-xv.