Approaching Sources

When approaching course readings, consider whether the source is a primary or secondary source. Primary sources are historical documents written during the time period they discuss. Secondary sources are documents written about historical events, but after the event took place. In other words, a document about the Civil War written in the 1860s is a primary source, while a document about the Civil War written in 2019 is a secondary source. Secondary sources typically use primary sources to understand and explain a historical event.

If the assigned reading is a primary source, consider the following questions:

  • Who is the author? What are their biases, viewpoints and intentions?
  • Who is the intended audience of the piece? In other words, who does the author imagine reading their work?
  • What kind of document is it? Is it a newspaper article? A research study? How does the document’s genre reflect the intentions of the author and the intended audience?
  • What kind of rhetorical strategies does the author use? What tone does the author strike?
  • What types of evidence does the document use? What kinds does it ignore?

If the assigned reading is a secondary source, consider the following questions:

  • What arguments and explanations are being offered?
  • What kind of evidence is used to make these arguments? What kind of evidence is ignored or left out?
  • Does the document use primary sources to make its arguments? If so, do you agree with the document’s interpretation of those primary sources? Are there alternate interpretations of the primary sources?

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