Analyzing Primary Texts:
Dr. Butros' Guide to Happy
Paper Writing (and Grading!)

© 2011. P. A. Piccione

Most papers and essays for this class depend upon reading and analyzing original ancient or historical documents and inscriptions, i.e., primary sources. Through these texts, we read the ancients' own words and opinions, and we come to understand something of their minds--well, at least what we think they wanted us to understand of their minds. To get the most useful information out of primary sources and to utilize them successfully, one needs to approach them with sensitivity, critical judgement, some background knowledge, and without preconceptions or prejudgments. The following points are meant to be guidelines to the student who must employ primary texts in the writing of papers and essays for this course.

  1. Engage all Primary Texts Actively By Asking Questions of Them. Historians rarely accept primary texts at face value, because texts can often be made to reveal more information than their authors first intended, or than they, otherwise, would seem to at first glance. Besides, texts can actually mislead or distort the truth. The key is not to approach a text passively as though it were a television program or a radio broadcast (i.e., don't just sit back and experience what it has to say to you). One doesn't do history just by summarizing what some texts appear to say and then by opinionating on them. Interact with the text as though you were having a two-sided conversation with it. To do this, ask leading questions of your text. Start with simple ones and build to the complex, e.g.:
    1. Who wrote this text? When? Why? Where was it found?
    2. What was the author's purpose in preparing this text? How is that significant?
    3. Where was it meant to be read, recited, or viewed? Why might that be important?
    4. Who was meant to read or hear it; why are they significant?
    5. What would they have thought about it? What might have been their assumptions about the text?
    6. What are this text's historical, social, and cultural contexts?
    7. What are the consistencies and inconsistencies within the text?
    8. To what extent is this text consistent with other texts? What does that reveal about them or their purpose?
    9. If we compare and contrast the contents of this text with another, then
      what can we learn about its author, culture, or history?
    10. What are the implications of the answers to these questions for
      what we already know about this culture, author, etc.?

    Because primary texts are witnesses to the past, they give testimony about past events and people. Therefore, you should play the role of a trial attorney(!) and strive to cross-examine your documents (like a Perry Mason). Ask questions at every twist and turn of the narrative, and seek the answers. Use those answers to build your understanding of the past. In the end, you will realize that primary texts do not exist merely to tell you things, but they are actually opportunities for you to ask questions of the past.

  2. Understand a text as much for what it does NOT(!) say, as for what it does say. Be aware of the assumptions implicit in an historical text--not merely its obvious theme and purpose, but what you think might be its underlying purpose. No matter what you think, assume that a text has an ulterior purpose different from what is obvious and overt. Maybe you're right; maybe you're wrong, but having this attitude will start you off by asking questions. In this manner you will become critical and analytical in your treatment.

    definition of ulterior: "beyond what is expressed or evident; undisclosed; remote, far away"

  3. Avoid hyperbole in your analyses and explanations. Do not exaggerate the facts or ramifications of an issue. Never gush romantically or make broad unsupportable statements with the idea of strengthening your argument or making an impact. Exaggeration is often a sign that a writer knows little about the subject and is trying to cover it up, or else is trying to persuade without enough data.

  4. Do not always assume the obvious as you analyze a text (i.e., primary source), and do not jump to easy conclusions based on only limited information. Never accept texts at face value. Just as you understand that modern newspaper articles, television news broadcasts, and documentaries are slanted for political, social, or personal reasons, so also historical texts are subjective in some manner and to some extent, or they contain certain assumptions that are implicit in them. Be sensitive to the presence of assumptions in a document or ulterior meanings and contexts. Consciously ask yourself, "what assumptions is the author of the document making in his/her content?" Similarly, ask yourself, "what assumptions am I making about the document, the author, or the contents?" Then ask yourself if they are justifiable.

  5. Strive to be 3-dimensional in your logical thinking; avoid flat 2-dimensional thinking that overlooks nuances and motivations, assumes the obvious or simple cause-and effect-relationships. Quick and obvious knee-jerk reactions are indications of ignorance and even laziness. If you think you know what a text is about, question yourself with alternatives to understanding it. Likewise, be circumspect in your analyses. CIRCUMSPECTION means to see around all sides of an issue--the implications of each side, and how they interrelate. Consider all the identifiable circumstances around an issue before deciding and drawing conclusions. Be open about what is certain and what is uncertain. Look for NUANCES and subtle meanings or inferences, i.e., the shades of gray, since complex historical processes are rarely black and white, one way or the other, and the truth often lies in the gray areas. Therefore look for and include in your analyses exceptions or extenuating circumstances. What do they reveal about your data? Nuances and circumspection are the enemies of hyperbole and exaggeration, and you will be graded on how nuanced and circumspect you are in your analyses.

  6. In any text, pay strict attention to the details; they say a lot! They might even shed light on entire processes or explain the motivations inherent in a document. Don't overlook the small words.

  7. Do not make gross assumptions or fill in gaps from your own modern western perceptions and experiences--especially when dealing with pre-modern and non-western societies and histories. Being sensitive to the differences in other cultures can further the ways you think about them.

  8. Read other texts. An important rule of thumb is that inscriptions do not exist in a textual or cultural vacuum. Normally, you cannot make cogent historical inferences and interpretations from only a single text. To understand a primary text or topic satisfactorily, you might need to read other sources and consult other texts. Here you look for patterns, similarities, differences, and processes that can shed additional light on your inscription and its larger context.

  9. Be conscious of letting your interpretations conform to the facts, not vice-versa. Often, we unconsciously overlook or ignore details that would, otherwise, contradict our preconceived notions and theories. We see what we recognize, and we recognize what we know. Sometimes when we see something new, we unconsciously make it conform to what we already know and assume. Hence, we might recognize what is not actually there. Be mindful of this possibility. When dealing with new concepts and information, keep your mind open, and guard against inappropriate assumptions. Do not bend the facts--even unconsciously--to fit your assumptions or point of view.

  10. Never marry yourself to a particular idea or point of view. Be as objective with your ideas as you possibly can be. Do not over-identify personally with a particular interpretation, and never invest you self-worth in it (sadly, a trap into which too many historians fall!). Be willing to change your mind if presented with appropriate data; it does not signify weakness to change your interpretation after careful thought and consideration.

  11. In certain instances, it not wrong to say, "scholars do not know," or "it is unclear that". Sometimes, due to the nature of the historical record, certain things are unknowable or certain hypotheses or interpretations ultimately unprovable, especially in dealing with ancient Egypt and the Near East. In such cases, an historian should not feel guilty or awkward about not having a clear interpretation. You do your best to understand historical processes with the most amount of available relevant data.

  12. Don't be a cynic. When you look for a deeper purpose in a text's composition and point of view, do not push your objectivity to the point of cynicism and total distrust, unless you have clear reason. Do not be excessively judgmental in a negative manner. Be suspicious, but not overly so, unless you have cause. Like all historians, you must walk a fine line in your attitude toward the documents.

  13. Avoid reductionism. Reductionism is the reducing of complex processes or explanations to a single factor.

    definition of reductionism: "any method or theory of reducing data, processes, or statements to seeming equivalents that are less complex or developed."

    A reductionist would argue that the Egyptian Old Kingdom collapsed due to declining Nile River levels. Historical events have multiple causes, and any explanation that gives only one cause is simplistic and usually wrong. The same can be extended to human motivation. It is incorrect to say, for example, that the only reason that the Civil War was fought was to end slavery. People and processes are more complicated than that. However, one can argue that one factor (such as slavery) was the most important among others, and hence a defining issue. Then the burden would be to prove its importance over the other factors.

  14. Modernism is tricky and can be misleading. Modernism is the projecting of modern ideas or processes into the past, and when done without care, it can easily lead to wrong conclusions. Even still, it is valid to find parallels between the past and present, making things remote and foreign seem more real and familiar. With care, modern analogies can be used to clarify ancient processes, and students are encouraged to look for such parallels. However, they must be very careful and circumspect about how to choose these. The past and the present are not the same, and in seeking parallels, one could confuse the two. If you use modern analogies in your argumentation, be prepared to justify them or explain their limitations.

  15. Quote from primary texts to support your arguments and to illustrate your particular interpretation. While some modern history professors instead prefer short paraphrases of the texts, classicists, philologists, and Near Eastern specialists prefer to read the actual quotations and inscriptions. The reason for this methodological difference lies in the problematic nature of ancient and pre-Classical documents (e.g., fragmented texts, erratic translations, questionable proveniences, etc.). An argument cannot be deemed valid if the documentary evidence is not at least judged to be accurate and pertinent. Quote only as much of a text as is required to illustrate the point. Do not over-quote, especially to meet a paper's minimum page requirement. This practice is a very obvious ploy, and can result in a serious grade reduction.

    On the other hand, regarding secondary sources and the synthetical studies of other historians, you should limit direct quotations of these. These sources should be paraphrased (and their origins noted in the text), except for short quotations that are directly pertinent to the point you are making.

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