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Assignments (Term 1)
All your first-term assignments will be linked on this page. It will be updated by the second week of the course. Second-term assignments will be available by the beginning of that term.
In this full-year course, each of you will complete three assignments - two first term, and one second - and you have some choices.
First term, there are three (3) possible assignments to choose from - do two (2) only.
In Second term, there are two (2) possible assignments to choose from - do one (1) only.
They have different dues dates, are on different topics, using different forms, and to some extent will be produced in different ways. Any or all of these may determine which you chose.
Term 1's two assignments are worth 15 points (7.5 each) of your overall final grade.
Assignment 1 (due Friday, Oct 9th by 5 pm, EDT -- NEW: extended to Sat., Oct. 10 at the very end of the day) Wikipedia Analysis
Introduction: This assignment asks you to critically evaluate a Wikipedia entry on a major course topic. It’s an assignment that gets you to practice using and thinking about sources.
Wikipedia has become the go-to source for basic information on almost any topic. In this assignment, we want you to think critically about Wikipedia as a source for historical research. In particular, we want you to identify potential problems and strengths in Wikipedia pages, and we want you to compare some of your own primary and secondary readings on some major topics with what we find on Wikipedia. This allows you to think about differences between primary sources, traditional scholarship (secondary sources), and broadly disseminated knowledge (tertiary sources) such as Wikipedia.As historians, we always have to think about how we know things, how information is created, and what the sources of this information are. The advent of digital forms also demand that we think about how that information is circulated on the web versus in traditional publishing modes.
Go to one of the Wikipedia entries below and assess its content. These entries are ones that you are also required to read during one of the weekly Lessons. Look at what is presented in the entry. Do you see debate? Discussion? Look at the edit pages. Do these show debate/discussion? What does it mean that debate is buried and some kind of consensus is highlighted? You’ve read some scholarly material on these topics. How do these materials and the Wikipedia pages compare? Do they agree on the basic account of a subject? On the meaning of that subject?
In 3 double-spaced pages (roughly 750 words) using the historians’ tools we’ve been working with, and looking to the readings from the past few weeks, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of one of the four Wikipedia pages. To be clear, this assignment is not asking you to bash Wikipedia. We love Wikipedia, and use it regularly. But it’s still quite different than traditional scholarly writing and we try to be aware of what that means. Thus, while Wikipedia is undoubtedly valuable, we know there are limits to that value. Discuss the strengths and limits of one of the following four topics.
Required resources: Students are to choose one of the following four Wikipedia entries.
Estates of the realm
Great Chain of Being
British Agricultural revolution:
Due in the Assignment tool by the end of the day on 10 October.
(i) Submit only one attachment
(ii) Only use file types: Word (docx), PDF, HTML, RTF, or plain text.
(iii) Always include the file extension (.docx etc).
Assignment 2 - Critical Map Reading (due Friday November 6th, 5 p.m.)
We love maps, especially but not only historical maps. And while we love google maps and all the GIS-based tools we have at our fingertips these days, we also still own map books. Prof Samson still carries road atlases in his car because while Google offers great directions the broader map allows him to see more context, to have a physical sense of where we're going, where we are, where we should be, what’s nearby, how did we get lost?
Historical maps are packed with data. They give us a view of landscapes, territory, communication networks, political relationships – in short, views of the political and spatial organization of societies. The image above is a detail from the Cantino planisphere, a Portuguese map made in 1502 outlining Europe, Africa, and the then newly discovered islands of the Caribbean. The detail shows Elmino castle, a large Portuguese trading centre and military installation in what is today Ghana. The size of the castle is obviously not to scale, and may never have been meant to be. Its size and style suggests it was meant to symbolize Portuguese power in Africa. But this unusual representation raises the question of what's meant to be accurate and what's meant to be symbolic - and for that matter if there's a difference. At minimum it asks us to read this map critically and carefully.It's clear that maps can give us good hard data. But it's also true that we tend to assume that such data is objective: that these lines and objects marking places/spaces are real and beyond any substantial degree of interpretation. Over the past few years, historians and geographers have demonstrated that in fact maps are, like most texts, social constructs and thus can be read in different ways. They typically bear a relationship to power and are thus historically situated in particular political, economic, and social worlds. Maps, the geographer J.B Harley reminds us, make claims to truth, but they almost always betray that they are constructions designed to support claims to truth, more than simply "true" in any objective sense.
Maps are representations of space but because they often bear a powerful resemblance to concrete geographic features of the planet, we tend to think they are factual, or true. As we've seen, they do contain real concrete facts. But they also contain interpretations; the map makers often made choices in what to represent and how to represent it. This human process of interpreting and selecting data adds complexity to how we must understand maps as sources and ask the same critical questions we'd ask of any sources. Are maps biased? Of course they are, but so is all human-produced data. Almost all maps contain elements that are objective, as well as elements that are subjective. The trick is to read it carefully, and critically. How then do we "read" historical maps as data?
There's lots to look for. Some maps have a lot of textual data in addition to the basic details of names and locations. Look, for example, at this detail from John Mitchell's famous map of the territory Britain and France claimed in North America on the eve of the Seven Years War. Here we're looking at the tiny section of the map which includes the area east and north of Lake Huron. The map is exquisitely detailed, but also contains over 3000 words of text (not including place names!) referring to history, territorial claims, navigation routes, distances, and much else. Such information was useful, practical information for someone (one might ask for whom?); it was also felt to add credibility, additional proof of its careful and accurate research. But is the information accurate? This text points to a real event - the Mississauga people were defeated in a war with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) in the 17th century, but neither they nor any other peoples ever became "the eighth nation" of the Iroquois League. Does this matter? Does it matter that this information is only partly true, or misleading at best? Would it have mattered to an eighteenth-century observer? What inferences might such an observer have about this and similar information on the map? Think too about its production. Remember that maps are authored, like any text, and are usually intended for a particular audience.There were literally 100s of maps of North America available in this period. Why commission another one? Why one with this level of detail? Who would have wanted such a map? Why? Why was this map produced when it was produced? What about that moment made this information important?
Look, too, beyond the geographic features of the map itself. The legend, for example, often contains important information that can be helpful in understanding the map: what it records, where, when and by whom it was made. Legends are often inside more elaborate and artistic renditions that are called a cartouche. A cartouche is usually a frame or image designed both to add additional information - often the publication information or a legend - as well as artistic embellishments. Some are more ornamental than others, but all contain potentially useful information. One can often see themes being represented in the cartouche: a kind of key to thinking about the map. The planisphere on our header was one of the first to depict the North And South America in relation to Europe and Africa. At this point, only the Portuguese were actively venturing along the western coast of Africa and thus this map presents knowledge more or less completely new to other Europeans. It's also worth noting however that Portuguese explorers had travelled as far south as modern-day Ghana, but had gone no more than a mile or two inland - the rest is pure imagination. But these images shouldn't be dismissed as mere flights of fancy. They very often offer symbolic clues to how the mapmakers understood their subjects and the purposes of these maps.
The Newberry Library offers a nice overview of questions and important issues for when approaching historic maps as primary sources.
The assignment: Write an 800-word essay (approximately three double-spaced pages) on the following early modern maps of Africa. Devote roughly half of your text to a discussion of one of the maps, and the other half comparing that map with the other two. They were produced in different times and different places and probably for different purposes. Each sought to show an audience how to see Africa: how it was shaped, who its people were, how they lived and governed themselves, and so on. And yet they also made other claims of knowledge, ones rooted more in their authors and their authors' contexts than in Africa itself. What can these maps tell us about Africa? What can these maps tell us about the early modern Atlantic World?
Resist the urge to dismiss them as all being biased. They are, no doubt, but so are most sources. The real trick is to critically examine these texts so as to find as much useful information as possible. And what is useful information? Well, that depends on what question we're asking. If we're asking about the map's ability to convey accurate geographic information, then we head in one direction. If we're asking how the map tells more about the map makers and their societies, then that sends us in other directions. But if we think those questions are unrelated, then we may be missing a lot.
Here, as in your Forum entries, you will continue to practice the analysis of primary sources. Pay particular attention to the perspectives in each document. Just as historians have different interpretations of the same questions, so too did people in the past have different interpretations of their worlds. You can consider questions such as:
- When was the map made and by whom and for whom? i.e. who was the author? what economic or social or religious or political interests did that person serve?
- When did he or she create the source? Is there a broader historical context? (The Mitchell map above was made on the eve of the Seven Years War, after decades of political-military struggles over North America.)
- What is the source about and what did the author think about that subject?
- What information did the author wish to communicate?
You can probably think of other general questions that will help you to think about the perspective in any source.
Are you required to do any outside research?
Due Friday November 6th, 5 p.m.
John Senex, Africa: corrected from the observations of the Royal Society at London and Paris (London, 1725). Source: Library of Congress.
Aaron Arrowsmith, Africa: to the committee and members of the British association discovering the interior parts of Africa this map is with their permission most respectfully inscribed. London: A. Arrowsmith, 1802. Source: Library of Congress.
Emanuel Bowen, A new & accurate map of Negroland and the adjacent countries (London,1747).
Planning tip: in the weeks before this is due, we'll do lessons on European Expansion and Early Modern Africa, two topics that will both be useful for you in thinking about these maps and their construction. The story of these maps are very much related to their context in European expansion, Early Modern African politics, the slave trade, and the broader development of markets in the Atlantic World. And no need for bibliographies, footnotes, etc - you're not doing any additional research (just looking at these maps). If you make direct use of the Newberry Library piece noted above, or materials from the course, just say so.
Assignment 3 - Comparison of two historiographical interpretations (Friday, November 27th, 5 p.m.)
*** Details coming soon ***