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What is History?

What is history?  And why bother to study it?

History is an academic discipline that examines how our world has changed over time and seeks to explain why these changes occur and how they have impacted us.  History helps us understand ourselves, our world, and why it is in the state it is in. 

The study of history involves both process and content.  As part of this class we will learn how to be historians and what it is that historians do.  This will involve working with primary sources, the tools that historians use to understand the past.  We will also explore how historians construct interpretations and analyses of the past.  We will learn to think critically about both these sources and what they can tell us about the past and about the explanations that historians produce.  It is important that we understand that interpretations of the past are not static.  Professional historians expect that newly discovered artifacts, information, and newly released documents will change and alter our perceptions of the past.


For a longer and more articulate discussion of why we should study history, click here.


Tips for Reading for History Classes

In trying to understand the past, historians rely on a variety of different types of evidence. Over the course of this quarter we will use examples of these sources to help us to understand and interpret American history. The two basic types of sources available to historians are:

Primary sources: These are sources produced by people who lived during a particular historic period that we as historians can use to tell us something about that era. These are the most important pieces of evidence available to historians and are the building blocks of historical analysis.  Examples include memoirs, letters, journals, paintings, photos, cartoons, movies, songs, government documents, newspapers and magazines, material culture, buildings and landscapes, etc.

Secondary sources: These are interpretations or analyses of history produced by historians (and others) using primary sources. Our textbook, for example, is a secondary source.

Tips for Reading Historical Sources:

When reading the material for class, think critically about it. As you read, consider some of the following issues and how they might shape how we interpret the material:

      Who produced the piece? Are they male or female? What social class do they come from? What is their ethnic/racial background? How might these factors have impacted the author’s approach?

      What are the author’s values and biases? How are these reflected in the source?

      What are they trying to achieve in producing this piece? How does this shape the source and how we should interpret it as historical evidence?

      What was the historical context in which the source was produced? How does this impact how we evaluate the reading?

      Who is the intended audience for the source? Does this influence how we should approach this document? How?

      If the reading is an interpretive or analytical piece, what is the author’s thesis or argument? How do they support this argument? Do you agree with their analysis? Explain why.

      How does this reading or primary source add to or contrast with what you’ve read elsewhere or heard in lecture?


A useful guide to evaluating different types of sources that historians use is available here.