More thoughts on the document assignments

the average score was a C-, roughly. I’ll put another sample at the bottom of this post.

I’m going to give some general comments here, and then go section by section. If you got an A or B, then you need to pay more attention to my comments on your paper than to this general statement. If you got a C, then a lot of this probably applies to you. If you got a D or F, then you need to take this very seriously: this is your blueprint to improve. Here is the original assignment, for reference.

Length: There is a limit of 500 words per section: most of you aren’t going over 500 words for the whole assignment. You just can’t cover the range of topics and interesting issues that quickly: you’re missing critical stuff. You can, and should, be making more than just one point in each section. The sections don’t have to be similar lengths, either: I’m looking for answers, not balance.

Evidence: When you make a claim about motives, responses, effects, etc., they should be based on some kind of reality, and 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).

Trust: You can’t trust documents. Not without evidence. Just because it says something in a document doesn’t make it necessarily true. Writing your answers as if the document is entirely truthful is a recipe for gross historical error.

Specific Parts of the Assignment

  • Authorship: You should focus more on the cultural and social background of the author(s), and less on the situation they found themselves in (that goes later). This is a good place to start talking about possible biases.
  • Context: This is not a good place to put a summary of the document introduction, or to begin summarizing the document. You need to take a broad view of what’s going on: the situation the author is in, but also the broader historical and geographic issues. These will often come up again in the Historical Use section. Why is this event important?
  • Content: While it’s true that some parts of the document are more interesting than others, this is the section where you prove to me that you’ve read the material and understand it, at least the basics. You should summarize all the important points of the document, and then you can go on to talk about the tone, themes, biases, shortcomings, etc.
  • Response: The first thing to look for when writing this section is 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? Oftentimes you’ll want to use the textbook — Fernandez-Armesto’s The World — in addition to thinking about what the document says about audience and impact.
  • Historical Use: Don’t tell me why the event was important, but what the document itself tells us about the event. Don’t tell me what the document told the contemporaries of the author, either: that goes in the Response section. What use is this document to us, now? As I said before: what you learned is a good starting place, but it’s not a stopping place; what questions would historians have that this could answer? Would historians have to watch out for biases or errors, and why? Finally, while raising questions is all very well and good, you should be willing to talk a bit about what you think the answers to these questions might be.

Finally, I apologize for my handwriting. I do my best, but it’s never been all that good. If you have any questions about what my markings or comments mean, or just want to talk about the assignments, please ask: bring the paper to my office hours (MWF 10-11, 1-2; TuTh 10-12) and I’ll be happy to help. Here’s the sample. It’s not a perfect paper: the last section in particular is a little weak. But it’s very good and gets right most of what I was noting above.

Document Analysis #2 Sample
The author of the journal entry and the letter was Christopher Columbus. Columbus was a sailor/explorer for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in the late 1400s. He was trying to find a way to the Indies using a route to the west instead of going South around Africa or going to the east.

The journal entry and the letter both are written in 1492 and 1493. At this time, the countries across Europe, especially Spain, Portugal, and other countries with large land claims and powerful ruling classes were looking to get a leg up in trade with Southeast Asia. The kingdom that held the most power through trade was likely to hold the most riches because it could trade the goods from Southeast Asia to the rest of Europe and make a huge profit. Columbus had gone to the rulers of Portugal with his idea to sail west to India and was ignored, so he went to Spain where it took him eight years to get his plan approved, funded, and negotiated. He was traveling to the west to find a faster route to India and bring back the goods, spices, and riches from the other countries to increase the power of the Spanish Crown. The information that Columbus writes down in his journal is intended to show the Spanish rulers how he supported their power and agenda in converting the peoples he found to Christianity and how he would create new maps and charts of the lands he saw and waters that he crossed with due diligence. The letter that was written at the end of the voyage was intended to be a summation of what he had seen on his voyage and of all the riches, land, slaves, and possibilities that were available to the Spanish in what he thought was the Indies.

In the journal entry, Columbus is mainly focusing on showing the King and Queen of Spain how much he is dedicated to their cause of spreading the Christian faith to those who are still worshiping idols in the area of India and the “Great Khan” who has been seeking the Christian faith from Rome. He appreciates the graciousness of the rulers that gave him the title of High Admiral of the Sea and the title of Viceroy to all the lands that he was to claim for Spain. Columbus gives the impression of working tirelessly for the good of the Crown to convert as many people as possible and to making charts and maps of the ocean he crosses and lands he finds. He then tells how he will write down everything that he sees and encounters to report to the King and Queen. In this journal entry he appears to simply be appeasing Ferdinand and Isabella by showing how they are morally just and faithfully following their Christian duty to reform all the peoples Columbus would encounter. He writes with a tone similar to one that is used when trying to earn great favor with a superior.
The letter written by Columbus back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella talks about all of the riches he has found in the islands, but he also talks about the natives of the islands that he encounters. Columbus talks of how kind and how peaceful the people of Espanola and Spanola truly are. He speaks of how they give more than is necessary when trading for goods brought by the Spanish and how they are truly helpful once they get over the initial shock of seeing the sailors come ashore. This giving also gives the appearance of the islanders being senseless brutes to the Spanish, allowing them to take advantage of them if necessary. In the letter, he does mention how they forcefully took some of the people of an island to share each other’s language, but it leaves open the possibility that there could have been more force involved then mentioned in the rest of the letter. When the talk of riches comes to the forefront, the wealth that was available on the islands of the Caribbean, or what was thought at the time the Indies, was immeasurable. Columbus describes the endless amounts of gold, spices, and other metals that were located throughout the islands. He even states in his letter that you would have to see all of the riches, wondrous resources, and the potential for the land that was discovered on this voyage. The writing shows the tone of superiority that is present among the sailors when they come to the islands, especially as Columbus talks of their lack of weapons or potential for defending themselves from imminent harm and that it would not take many men in order to subdue the islanders if force had been needed.

The journal entry by Columbus was most likely intended for his own personal reading or only for people to read after he had passed away. The entry would be likely to cause little conflict for any who read it because it only told of what his mission was in sailing to the west and how he would record everything that he saw on his voyage.
In writing back to the King and Queen of Spain in such a fashion, Columbus was trying to make a statement about the success of his voyage to the west and the future successes that they were sure to have in the conquered lands. His letter filled with descriptions of gold, metals, fruits, spices, and natives who were ideal for the process conversion to Christianity was sure to be met with elation. The conquest of these islands for the Spanish would be a huge boost for their power in Europe and throughout the world, so the news of wealth and power was great for the people of Spain and the intended audience. If for some reason, this letter had caused news to spread to the Portuguese or another kingdom of the success of the venture westward, it could bring a panic to their royalty because they missed out on the opportunity to expand their reign and increase their already vast wealth. This could have caused the other kingdoms to send explorers of their own to across the Atlantic, which would cause conflict with Spain in the future.

Historical Use:
I believe this document was very useful to the Spanish when it was written and is very important to people to this day. When the Spanish received news of the riches that lay across the Atlantic Ocean, they began a rush to retrieve the resources that were plentiful to build their wealth and power. After that initial journey by Columbus, the Spanish and others sent countless fleets down even further past the initial islands in order to strip the lands and people of all the riches that they possessed in order to build up their own kingdoms at the expense of the natives. Columbus nicked the tip of the iceberg when he discovered the islands to the west, but that discovery led to the discovery of a whole new world that contained valuable resources, knowledge, and land that led to what the world is today.
While it can be perceived that the letter shows of a great discovery, it also led to the destruction of countless individuals and cultures that considered those discovered lands their homes. Those people were controlled, killed, or were changed forever by their discovery on that far away and previously unknown land. The way Columbus describes his mostly peaceful ways toward the natives is also somewhat questionable. It is known that many of the explorers were kind to the people of the lands when they first were looking for riches or resources, but after their services were no longer needed, bad things happened to those people. So I still question whether or not Columbus was truly that kind to the people of those islands.
Finally, the document gives a look at what the people and lands were like in the past compared to what they are today. The plentiful resources and beauty of the lands that are described are not truly that way in the present day. They have been stripped of many of the mentioned resources and the people that inhabit those islands are certainly not the same as the ones that were encountered by Columbus due to slavery and other measures. But it is nice to get that serene picture from the past of the beauty of the islands as they once were.

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