Essay #2 Results

The grade distribution for the second essay was actually worse than the first, though there were a few more higher-end grades this time. A few thoughts:

  • The document analysis questions are starting places, not a checklist for your final essay. You should think about these questions before you write your essay, and the more interesting answers might well form the core question/thesis of your essay.
  • This is not a book report: summary is not the point. Discussing evidence which does not relate to your thesis detracts from your grade, not enhances it.
  • I can tell the difference between a simplistic question of fact and an interesting question of interpretation and analysis; you don’t get a lot of credit for asking questions that can be answered by a simple reading of the plain text.
  • Never assume that a document is telling the truth: always be prepared to explain why you trust it, particularly when there’s reason not to.
  • “If they hadn’t discovered…. we’d never have ….” is a terrible argument in most cases. If, for example, Columbus hadn’t discovered the Americas, someone else would have, probably within a few dozen years. If Newton hadn’t explained gravity, someone else would have, probably Leibniz. Sometimes a delay of a few decades really matters (the atomic bomb is one obvious example) but sometimes it really doesn’t.

Since I’m spending considerable class time (Friday and Monday) on the historical context of the document for the next assignment (due next Friday), I’m going to keep the due date as is. I’m sorry that I won’t be available for office hours Tuesday or Wednesday, due to the Jewish New Year, but I will be checking email fairly regularly, and I will have office hours on Thursday, 10-12.

To give you a better idea, a model for your papers, I’m including below the text of the best paper from this time around. It’s not perfect (and I corrected a few spelling/grammar issues, just to keep things clear) but it has a strong thesis, a good command of the relevant evidence, makes judicious use of the textbook for supporting context and is interesting, to boot. I don’t recommend mimicking or copying, but it is a good example of the kind of thinking and writing which I want to see a lot more of.

Columbus Journal and Letter

When setting out on a voyage new and exciting experiences will always arise. For Christopher Columbus, his journey was to take in to the Indies; a nations lush in riches ranging from spices to silk to gold. Columbus set out to find a faster more efficient route to China and India. Little did he know that he would discover a whole new world. It is hard to believe that after exploring and being in trade with Asia for hundreds of years that the characteristics of Americas would seem odd. For Columbus’ journal all of the signs of a different land are quite obvious. It may be that it is known that America is a completely different continent that Asia, but just by interactions and exploration that it would be unmistakably different.

Columbus’ first hint that he was not in the Indies was the landscape. The terrain that he describes is lush in fruit, flowers, and other distinct tropical vegetation. Yes the islands of Eastern Asia are tropical but the plants of the land are of a complete different species. It would be like comparing the plains of the United States to those of Africa. There are similarities between these regions, but overall biology is completely different.

The main reason that Columbus should have realized that something was off when he came to the islands is how the Indians reacted to his presence. Europeans had been sailing to India for hundreds of years so their civilization had become acquainted with the “white man”. Why would a nation that had been trading with Europeans think that they had sailed from heaven? More than anything, why would they seem so timid and scared? The way that the American Indians responded to Columbus and his crew is completely atypical of those of Asian Indians. Asians would welcome the European presence for the reason of trade. The offerings that the Europeans gave would be welcomed and they would understand the means of trade. The islanders did not seem to grasp the concept of accepting Columbus’ merchandise.

The Indians civilization also should have seemed unusual to the Spaniards. They lived in small tribes with no large organized nation. There seemed to be no one ruler that held power over all of the inhabitants. Both India and China both were known to be ruled by strong dynasties. They were also known for elaborate large cities and monuments. Not only was the organization of the people quite different than that of Asia, but also the traditions were very unique. The natives did not wear clothes compared to the elaborate robes that the Asians wore. Their religions were also on the opposite in of the spectrum for Hinduism and Buddhism that is practiced in the Indies.

Weapons and armor from the Indies is very distinct. It can easily be recognized by the unique sword structure and almost dress looking body armor. This is the polar opposite of what the American Indians had. The weapons that they actually possessed where made of wood and stone, not metal. They had bow and arrows, not swords. And they predominantly used their weapons for hunting, not warfare.

There are great differences between American Indians and Asian Indians, so it is hard to see how Columbus could not make the distinction. In the late 1400s no one knew that the Americas existed, most people still believe that the world is flat [JFD – no, and this is something which I noted in the margin and in my comments], so in this way it would be hard to believe in a new world. But it seems that people would have questioned the actuality of the new land being Asia long before it was found out. Columbus was a smart man that just happened to become famous for a complete mistake. Not taking away credit from him, but between him and his crew why did someone not recognized that the language, culture, religion, and landscape was completely different from that of the Indies. It may be that it is the 21st century and it just seems apparent now, but how could more questions of the islands being a new land not arise from all the of distinct characteristic of America compared to those of Asia?