This is a primary source-based critical thinking exercise. It is not a research paper, a summary or a report. The goal of this 5-page paper assignment is to help you develop and apply the kind of critical thinking tools and techniques that scholars in a broad range of humanities and social science disciplines use to understand the world around them. It calls on you to develop your skills of analysis, synthesis, thesis, and argument by focusing on just a handful of historical documents that are provided to you on Blackboard. This may sound odd from a history professor, but I do not want you to depend on sources outside the class materials. Why? Because; this assignment is intended to make you think carefully about a few documents and about the connections between them. It is intended to make you focus on developing a strong and defendable thesis from a limited amount of evidence. Historians never have all the evidence they desire to prove their thesis. They have to move ahead with always a limited set of facts and sources. (The same is true for lawyers, policy makers, business managers, parents, and presidents.) I do not want a paper that shows off your ability to round up mounds of information. In this stage of technological development, that is not the challenge confronting educated minds. Rather, the challenge lies in constructing defensible theses and making sensible claims from available information. Therefore, I have artificially limited the information sources available in order to stop most students’ propensity to gather more and more information, and then dump it all into a chronology or biography of the chosen topic with little effort to formulate their own ideas, theses, or arguments. Your destiny is greater than that.
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We will go over this in more detail in discussion sections, but critical thinking in history begins with a careful analysis of primary sources. To understand and appreciate the meaning, bias, and value of a document or other form of historical evidence, we must, as implied by the term “analysis”, take it apart and examine its components. Though termed in different ways by various historians, this means carefully considering the author of the document, the audience for the document, the context of which the document appeared, and the purpose of the document – in addition, the actual content of the text. Doing so with a collection of evidence (the documents we have analyzed) on a related topic or theme then allows us to begin to critically synthesize our materials. This is where one can gain insights through comparing and contrasting, by looking at change over time and considering cause and effect. The conclusions reached after careful consideration in the analysis and synthesis stages form the basis of a thesis. This should be something beyond the obvious, trivial, or mundane. For more on this, read Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, Chapter 4 (Posted on Blackboard). While a basic classroom science lab report may suffice in proving yet again that gravity accelerates an object at a given rate, insights in the humanities are more diverse and must be effectively stated and supported. Thus, a clear argument is important. An educated argument is not a rant, as one is often subjected to in popular media. It is a careful, logical presentation of the relevant evidence (derived during the analysis and synthesis stages of investigation) that support the thesis. A good argument also demonstrates consideration of other possible interpretations, theses, or arguments that might sensibly emerge from the evidence, but asserts why the thesis is correct, significant, or is at least a useful addition to the topic.
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Some step-by-step advice on the process of developing your paper:
- Begin by identifying a general topic that interests you. This cannot be your thesis because you will not know your thesis until much further into your project. You are free to develop your own paper topic based on what you find interesting in the class readings and documents. Your topic should be broad enough to encompass a range of historical documents and should lend itself to a strong thesis statement and argument. While not absolutely necessary, you are encouraged to consult with me or my T.A. about your topic idea and document choices before you begin writing. See further below for some suggestions about possible paper topics.
- Look for a set of documents that relate to that general topic in the collection of documents and not just the ones we read and discuss as a class. You must explore and incorporate additional documents from the U.S. Documents pdf file I have posted at the end of our documents page and/or others that I have placed in the occasional “extras” folders in individual weeks. Aim for collecting about 6-8 related documents total. (Do not use outside sources without first checking with me. Otherwise, I will presume plagiarism and fail you for the course.)
- Carefully read and analyze each of your chosen documents (author, audience, context, purpose), marking passages, adding margin notes, and taking notes on your thoughts as you read. If you cannot find sufficient information about a document’s author or context in the textbook, use the Internet to get some help or email me or my T.A. Begin synthesizing as described above. Here is where you begin to move toward your thesis, your answer to the dreaded “so what” question. Make some tentative notes.
- Begin the writing process with a “brain dump.” Set your notes, documents, and textbook aside. Get out a pad or multiple sheets of lined paper, a pencil or pen, and a timer. Set the timer (or the alarm on your cell phone) for 15 minutes and start it as your pen hits the paper. Begin writing everything that comes to your mind about your topic and documents. Don’t stop to edit, correct, or punctuate. Don’t worry about incomplete thoughts, just write them down and ignore grammar, structure, and paragraph breaks. No one will see this but you. Just keep writing and thinking about all the connections, contrasts, conflicts, transitions, etc. you see between documents and what they mean to your topic and interests. What connections do you see to broader historical questions about or the significance of your topic. Keep writing, even if you repeat yourself. If you run out of ideas, write questions about what you think you do not know or would like to know. When the timer goes off, stop. (Of course, if you are on a roll, keep going. But don’t turn it into anything formal.) This brain dump method helps capture your creative brain at work before you can distract yourself with endlessly revising your first sentence and wasting hours at the keyboard. (You will likely find this method useful for other classes and later professional situations.)
- Set your brain dump pages and all of your other materials aside for a day, which should include a sleep cycle. Your brain will be processing while you sleep, shower, exercise.
- The next day, don’t look at your brain dump. Instead, carefully reread your documents and your relevant textbook, lecture, and discussion materials. Seek answers to the questions you recall having during your brain dump. Look again at the document collection and see if there might be another, more appropriate document you should include in your analysis/synthesis. Make new notes and marginalia in your documents if new ideas come up (they likely will). Revisit your analysis of author, audience, context, and purpose of your documents. Then set your 15-minute timer and do a second brain dump.
- Set it all aside for another day and sleep cycle.
- The next day read through your two brain dumps. Among the grammatical mess, you will see your original insights and ideas. These will point you toward your thesis. Circle valuable ideas, passages, and fragments. From this seeming mess, you can now begin to apply the structure necessary to craft your thesis and to outline the argument or body of your paper.
- Now you can begin writing your paper. You can sketch an outline, but don’t be tied to it if your writing develops new ideas. Don’t forget to address possible counter arguments or other possible interpretations. When you have a complete draft, look at your topic sentences in each paragraph. They should relate the paragraph’s subtopic and discussion to your thesis. Look closely at your conclusion. You will likely have stated your thesis more clearly, more convincingly here, since you now have carefully presented your argument and evidence. If so, move that stronger thesis into your introduction and revise or tailor your paragraphs and topic sentences to align well with it.
- Set your almost finished paper aside for another day/sleep cycle. Read it fresh, or have a qualified friend read it for typos, unclear sentences, poor word choice, etc. This is the point at which to seek help from the Writing Center on structure, grammar, and style if you are uncertain of your skills in these areas. Most of what you will be writing about happened long ago, so default to past tense verbs, unless otherwise appropriate to the context of your sentence. Then, turn it in and relax in a manner of your choosing.
When grading your essays we will look for the following:
- A strong, clear thesis statement.
- A clear, logical argument supporting your thesis.
- Effective choice of documents and accurate interpretation and use of them to develop your argument and support your thesis.
- College-level writing skills (e.g., grammar, style, and presentation). Some helpful hints: avoid first person voice, avoid passive verb structures, use appropriate verb tense (if it was said, written, or occurred in the past, use past tense.)
- Read the grading rubric for more clarification, or ask me.
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