Reading and Note Taking, Writing Tutorial, American History – Robert Scafe


I’m Roberts Scafe and I’m a lecturer in expository writing
program here at the University of Oklahoma. In this tutorial I’m going to discuss
the very first step in the process of writing the essays for this class.
Reading and taking notes on the documents you’ll be writing about. Both the essays you write for this
class will be based mainly on primary texts that is, documents written by people at
the time of the events you’re studying. Unlike a history textbook for example,
primary sources don’t come with the road map of what important historical issues you’re
supposed to be noticing while you read them. So to get something out have primary sources, to discover the historical problems in them that are
worth writing about you have to read them in an especially attentive way. In
particular you want to read actively, taking notes and asking questions of the document as
you go. You have to read contextually considering where the
document came from and how that influences its meaning. And
most importantly you have to read interpretively going
beyond the surface meaning of the text to reveal the underlying themes and
assumptions that really make it a window into the
past. Let’s start with reading actively and taking notes. The first step toward
getting more out of your primary sources is to read with a pen in your hand. You
need to be ready to write down your immediate responses to what you’re
reading and to annotate the text in the margins
without stopping. At the very least your pen is a reminder
that your you’re not reading passively that your
thoughts about what you’re reading it will eventually make their way into your
own writing. But of course holding the pen is not
enough you also need to use it. So what
sorts of notes should you right when you annotate in
the margins? First, you want to an annotate
conversationally, in other words when you’re taking notes
on your document, imagine you’re actually talking back to the author.
Briefly rephrase or pose questions about what they’ve
written. “In other words” and “but” and “why” should always be on your mind when
you’re reading, prompting you to briefly record your
reactions. Veteran annotators also develop
symbols and systems shorthand that they use to
quickly note key ideas and connections in the text
for example you can use numbers to outline an author’s points when their listing. You can draw circles around key terms that the author repeats and you can connect these related terms:
with arrows and lines. Go ahead and experiment as you
develop your own habits of active annotation. There is one mistake to avoid however.
When you’re taking notes refrain from underlining or highlighting
large chunks of text. When you do that you’re basically
telling yourself “this is important and later all say something about why it’s
important”, in other words, underlining by itself can kinda excuse
you from thinking and these kinds of notes won’t be very
helpful to you, four weeks down the road, when you’re
writing your paper. So instead of simply underlining a
lengthy passage ask yourself why he thought it was
important and write a few words representing that
thought in the margins. Think of these brief annotations as
memory triggers destined to be read by yourself four
weeks later when you composing your final draft. So you write just what you need to your
future self so that you’ll remember what you were
thinking when you first read the document. One more caveat, you can’t always
annotate by using a pen to write in the margins
of course, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t or
should it actively take notes. You can use post-its to stick notes to a
book that you can’t mark-up and programs like Adobe Reader and Microsoft Word have comment functions that
allow you to annotate or insert comment bubbles using your
keyboard. Now that you know the virtues that
actively taking notes while you read, let’s look in more detail the kinds of
questions historians ask to tease meaning out of their primary sources. In order to
grasp the significance of a text in its time, you first have to
familiarize yourself with all the circumstances that gave birth to the document. Who
wrote it, when did they write it and where? Why did they write it and who is there
intended audience? Asking these questions before you read
the main body of the text is important, and not only so that you get the bibliographic information right. It’s
important because the circumstances surrounding the creation of the text give us the first clues about what it
meant, and how it influenced its own time. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re writing about the American
Women’s Movement in the nineteenth century and what are your sources is Elizabeth
Katie Stanton’s speech at the first women’s rights
convention, which was held at Seneca Falls in 1848. Now, like many of the primary sources
you’ll be using in this class Stanton’s speech has been edited and
introduced by a modern historian. The editor has done a lot of the work for you,
grouping the contextual information in italicized paragraph before the start Stanton’s in speech proper. Now, many other sources will have these
editors introductions and so don’t skip them. They’re full of
the information you’ll want to put the text in its original context.
So using our best active reading skills we’re gonna see what questions arise
from the context of this document. We learn, right off the bat, that Stanton
was not only a woman’s rights advocate; she was also an Abolitionist, indeed her
discovery that women were not allowed to speak at an English anti-slavery convention
seems to have been what sparked her interest in women’s rights in the first
place. So I’m gonna put a memory trigger here,
asking about how the Abolitionist Movement might have
influenced the women’s movement. We also learned that the Seneca Falls
Conference took place in 1848. So I’m going to pause to consider what I’ve
been learning in class about this period. So in 1848 this is the year the Mexican, American war ends. It’s also the tail end
up the so called, Second Great Awakening, a religious revival which saw rapid
growth of Evangelical Protestant churches.
Particularly due to female converts, and so seeing that the convention
included that quote “religious conditions of women”, among its concerns, I’m going to connect
that with my observations about the Second Great Awakening, perhaps we’ll have a theme
here. Finally, the editor informs us that the
convention was composed of three hundred women and
forty men. So a mainly female audience, that may
help to explain the arguments that stance and chose to
make in the speech and what she chose to leave out. Now that we familiarized ourself the context that the document, we’re ready
to start interpreting the main body of the text. If your text is making an explicit
argument as ours is, you certainly want to start by
identifying what the author is trying to accomplish. In our case, Stanton makes her purpose
very clear from the beginning. “We are assembled to protest against a
form of government existing without the consent of the
governed – to declare our right to be free, as man is free, to be represented in the
government which we are taxed to support”. But with many primary sources, most have
your interpretation won’t be about explicitly stated arguments like this
one. Instead it will be focused on themes or assumptions that emerged
implicitly in the texts. You can think of themes as “implied arguments”. Their important ideas that aren’t declared explicitly, but that
emerge from the authors repeated use of terms that are related
to one another. Sometimes it can be tricky to discover
these themes, but the key is recognizing that,
interpretation begins with a l”eap of faith”. To recognize that a pattern is emerging
in a text, you have to notice the first time the
author uses the idea, and you have to ask questions about what it
means. If you don’t permit yourself to guess, that this idea, may become important, you may never notice with it later
develops into a theme. Let’s put this into practice and examine
a theme that develops in Stanton’s case for
women’s rights. This is the fifth paragraph of Stanton’s
speech at Seneca Falls and immediately follows her
reiteration of quote “The great truth that no just
government can be formed without the gut consent of the governed.” Having echoed that political principle
Stanton suddenly switches gears, to speak about the moral situation up
the nation. “There seems now to be a kind of moral
stagnation in our midst” she declares, Philanthropists have done their utmost
to rouse the nation to a sense of its sins.” Now I’m gonna
circle sins here because it seems like a particularly
strong way to talk about the moral failings at the country. And I have a hunch it may become
important. Stanton’s sudden shift a moral and religious
themes was surprising and it’s always a good idea to remark
and ideas that surprise, or that seem out of place, at
first reading. Let’s see if our hunch pays off. “War, slavery, drunkenness, licentiousness,
gluttony, have been dragged naked before the
people and all their abominations and deformities, fully brought to light, yet with idiotic
laugh, we hug these monsters to our breasts, and rush on, to destruction. Here are
contextual pre-reading is going to pay off a bit, because it
prepared as to notice the Stanton’s not just talking about war in general, she’s referring to the
Mexican-American War of 1848. We probably would have learned a
lecture that many in the anti-slavery movement also
opposed the Mexican-American War and moreover that many of the
anti-slavery Crusaders also worked in the temperance movement against the evils of alcohol. So are
contextual thinking has prepared us to understand that Stanton sees war
slavery and drunkenness, not a separate problems but as having a
common source. What’s that source? Well, now that we’ve asked the question let’s read on. “Our churches are multiplying on all
sides, our missionary societies, Sunday schools and prayer meetings and
innumerable charitable and reform organizations are all in operation but still the title
vice is swelling, and threatens the
destruction of everything and the battlements of righteousness are
weak against the raging elements of sin and
death”. Wow, so Stanton’s repetition of sin here confirms
that we do have a pattern. A religious theme of sin and now it also
seems likely that Stanton is in a very
biblical way, pairing sin with death and destruction in a kinda ultimate battle between good
and evil. So I’m going to put another memory trigger
here so I won’t forget what I was thinking later on. Sin seems to be the common source of the nation’s problems and sin is related to a view of history as a
battle, between righteousness and sin, or death. Let’s see how these things play out. “Verily the world waits the coming of
some new element, some purifying power, some spirit
mercy and love. The voice of woman has been silenced in
the state, the church, and the home, but man cannot
fulfill his destiny alone, he cannot redeem his race unaided. There are deep and tender cords of
sympathy and love in the hearts of the downfall and
oppressed that woman can touch more skillfully
that man.” Again let’s isolate some of the
religious terms, now that we’ve identified this theme. Why
did she use these words, “the world awaits the coming some new
element, spirit, mercy, love,” and “redeem.” Well given that we’ve just
notice that Stanton and portrays American politics as a kind of cosmic
battle between sin and death we’re prepared to see the Stanton is
comparing women’s role in society and politics to the
Second Coming of the Christian savior at the end times.
Her use of the word “coming” hints at this
interpretation and also the language a “purification” and “redemption” seems to confirm it. And so she concludes, women if they’re allowed to fully participate in society and
politics, will be a powerful force of mercy and love that will help men redeem the nation
from its sins, and from the destruction that will
follow in their wake. So at this point, just by noticing how
these religious terms work together to support Stanton’s
argument we’ve done some great close reading. Now later as you start analyzing your notes
and writing your essay, themes like these national redemption or women’s Christian capacity for mercy, these themes will help you to create a
topic for your essay. You might ask for example, how women’s
roles in churches help them argue their political rights. You might ask conversely, how associating
women’s public role with Christian charity might have conditioned, or limited the
argument for full political equality. Again these are the sort of questions
that will emerge as you go over your notes and as you
work the evidence in the weeks after your initial reading
these texts. The point now is that such critical
questions presuppose that you’ve already taken the
trouble to attentively read and to identify
such themes in the first place. To summarize then there are three keys
to identifying important themes in your primary sources. First, reading actively, mark-up the tax with your thoughts and
your questions even when you’re not sure, yet whether
they’re right. Allow yourself to follow your hunches
or you’ll never notice the patterns of repeated language when they start to emerge. Two reading contextually, use contextual
materials like title pages, prefaces and those
editor’s introductions to answer the who, when, where, and why
questions. Putting the text in its own time will help you
connect your reading to the larger themes that you’re discovering your
course lectures, and in your readings for the class. And
finally reading interpretively. In addition to
noting what the author is saying explicitly, dig deeper to what they’re implying or
to what they’re assuming. Put this kind of close active reading
into practice from the very first weeks of this course and your future self will thank you for
all those memory triggers you so helpfully left in
the margins have your sources.

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