Reaction papers are brief reflections (2-3 pages, single-spaced) on one or more of the assigned readings for that week. Each paper must address the following three questions:
What is/are the historians research question(s)?
What sources did s/he use to investigate those questions?
What is the historians argument?
Comment also on why you found the argument either convincing or unconvincing. The reaction papers will help shape the class discussions on the dates they are due. If the paper is not ready to submit on the due date, you at least must be prepared to discuss a draft in class.
Research Questions and Sources: No historian approaches a subject as vast and complex as the past without having at least some ideas about what she wants to know. Otherwise, she would not know where to begin or what to look for. Research questions about the past are often influenced by the present because historians write for their contemporaries. In other words, research questions in history usually reflect contemporary values and concerns. But historians may not always be able to learn what they want to know about the past. This is because historians must rely largely on primary sources created not by themselves, but others. Diaries and letters are a good example. But so are newspapers, government documents, and institutional records. In most cases historians can find answer only to those research questions for which there are existing sources. But it is possible to create new sources; oral history interviews are the creation of a primary source. In recent years historians have also learned to use a broader array of existing primary sources, such as images and artifacts (e.g., photographs, tools, architecture).
Arguments: Good historians make arguments. They marshal evidence to support one or more generalizations. The success or failure of their work will depend on how well they do this, how well they turn their findings into an argument that their readers will find convincing. Some historians make arguments that are quite explicit. They state them up front and frequently revisit them. Others are more subtle. Their arguments must be inferred from the way in which these historians present their evidence. Historical narratives are often like this.