Making sense of the course readings

Most of the readings used in the Core Humanities courses are primary sources, meaning they were created by people who lived during the time periods being studied. Try to understand them in their own terms - the ideas expressed by some of the authors may seem strange, silly, or even immoral to us today, but rather than dismissing them as irrelevant, think about the historical contexts in which they were written and how the writers' thoughts might have been shaped by their cultural, political and economic environments.

As you read each document, keep the following points in mind:

  • Identity: Who is the author? What is the author's background? Think, for example, about the time period when the author lived, whether the author is a man or a woman and his or her social status. How might such factors have shaped the way the author looks at the world?
  • Context: When was the document written and what was happening in the author's society at the time? How might the historical context have shaped the author's thinking?
  • Content: What are the main points the author makes? What is s/he trying to say?
  • Purpose: Why do you think the author wrote the document-for example, to persuade, to warn, to criticize, to amuse, to express a point of view?
  • Audience: For whom was it written - for example, a general audience, an educated and literate audience, working-class people, a particular ethnic group?
  • Style: Sometimes clues as to who the intended audience is may come from the author's writing style. What kinds of language and structure does the author use to present the information? Is it descriptive, flowery, simple, or complex? What kinds of thoughts and emotions are evoked by specific words and images? Why do you think the author wrote the piece in this particular way?
  • Connections: How is the document similar to or different from other readings you have encountered in your Core Humanities courses? Does it repeat, modify, expand upon, contradict or reject any ideas expressed in earlier readings? If so, in what way(s), and what do you think is the significance of the connection? What does this connection say about the way that ideas and values were transmitted and altered over time?

You will find some information to help you answer these questions in the introductions to the books and chapters in which the readings appear. Your instructors will provide additional information in lectures and discussions, so it's important to attend class. Some of the assigned readings, especially ones from earlier time periods, may be difficult to understand when you are reading them on your own. But remember, you are not alone. In class, your instructors will explain the texts and place them in historical context and you can always contact your professor or discussion leader if you need more help making sense of the readings.