Writing a Source Commentary

The bread and butter of studying history is the use of primary sources. So it’s no surprise that a common assignment in a History degree is to write a source commentary or analysis. So what does writing this sort of assignment entail?

Alternative assignments of this sort can be worrying, since they’re self-evidently rather different from a standard essay. However, whether a source analysis or a review assignment, there are some similarities with the usual essay. For one thing, you still need to put in the same amount of effort. These are not easy-option assignments and the most common reason for students being surprised by a low mark, especially early on in their studies, is simply not working as hard on this as they would for an equally-weighted essay. It’s also worth keeping in mind that you still need to back up each point you make with evidence. The difference is merely that your supporting evidence will mostly be drawn from one place – the source you’re writing about. However, you still need to read around each topic or issue you raise. For this reason you might read less than usual, but that wider reading is still important.

Some of the differences are simply because this is typically a shorter assignment. For example, the introduction and conclusion might be far more brief than for a standard essay. If you’re asked to write under 1,000 words, you really don’t have room for standalone opening and closing paragraphs. Instead, you want one or two sentences. The opening sentence needs to make it clear what source is under review. More than naming it, this means identifying the type of source it is. The closing sentence needs to wrap up the discussion by giving a clear answer to the question. Don’t be fooled – there is a question and that question is always ultimately the same. We’ll return to what exactly it is.

Over the course of your source commentary, there are five things you need to make sure you do. As ever, the advice of the tutor setting and/or marking your work trumps all else, but here’s my checklist:

1. Identify and summarise the source. So often, students jump straight over the basics to get to the important stuff. You do need to establish what your source is, when and why it was produced, by whom, and what form it takes – as well as the basic content, the central message and perhaps the structure of the source – to give you a platform for the following commentary. Skipping this will leave you on shaky ground.

2. Consider the particular type of source. There are particular challenges and opportunities offered by private or official writings, even when the author is the same. A campaign speech or the posthumously published diaries of the same politician, for example. Likewise, quantitative or visual sources need to be handled appropriately. There’s a wealth of methodological literature on many different source types, so make sure you’re aware of what the issues are with the source in front of you. And if you’ve been set something to read for seminars that addresses this, don’t miss the chance to bring it in.

3. Put your source in context. This means asking three questions, each of which will mean drawing upon your wider reading:

  • What do we need to know about the broader picture to make sense of this source? The author, the environment (political, social, cultural backdrop), the time and the key issues each have their own history. What would we struggle not knowing? These are the sorts of things you often find mentioned in a brief preface to a source extract in anthologies.
  • What does this source tell us about the broader picture? We piece together our wider understanding one source at a time. So what does this source add, that we might not be aware of or have evidence for otherwise.
  • How does this source compare to others? It’s not just secondary sources that give us our wider understanding, but other primary sources too. How might other primary sources you know of answer questions raised by this one, show a different side of the same happenings, corroborate or call into question what we see here?

4. Consider the limitations of the source. Rarely will the source be an outright forgery, but you should still question the validity, reliability and representativeness of the source. What can’t it tell you? This is where questions of bias might be brought in. However, I would advise against using the term bias. Labelling a source as biased may not be wrong but it is redundant, since every source is biased in some way. Saying so can often mask the need to ask how. Better to identify the perspective from which events are described.

5. Answer the questionHow useful is this source to historians? Although it might be implicit, this is always ultimately the question. Depending on the particular assignment, we might add: in relation to our particular issue. An easy mistake would be to offer some general thoughts on the source, perhaps doing all of the above, but not to really answer this question.

You might answer these questions in a number of different ways or orders, but they will usually fall broadly into the structure of description then commentary. The exact schema of your assignment will depend on the nature of the source. Remember, there is no one form for a primary source. We might often think of letters, official documents, photographs and maps – but it could literally be anything. An increased consideration of material culture in recent years has made this more true than ever. That said, not every historian will use every kind of source.

It would be unrealistic to expect one source to provide the answer to every question. If that was the case, historical research would be a lot quicker. Yet students often complain of exactly that. Remember, the question is not: Is this source useful to historians? Rather, it’s: In what ways is it useful? Everything around us will be of interest, it’s just a matter of matching up the right source with the right historian, asking the right question. In the future, this blog post will be of little use to the historian interested in explaining the outcome of the 2015 general election. However, for the historian seeking to understand how university students were taught History in the early twenty-first century, it fits.

I like to think of this as: If this is the answer, what’s the question? What sort of historian, trying to understand what about the past, would find this source useful? If you can answer that, the rest is process.

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12 Replies to “Writing a Source Commentary”

  1. I’ve recently had students use newspaper and periodical databases to select articles and write headnotes for a source book on a specific subject. This post would have helped them immensely with the headnotes.

  2. An excellent piece. Thank you. What I have found, working with the First World War letters of my grandfather and his brothers, was that they wrote very differently depending on who the letter was for (their mother, their sisters, each other) and there was a lot of self-censorship.

    Their letters are no more than glimpses of Army and Navy life. I have needed other sources to discover that their shipmates were burned beyond recognition at Jutland (“of course I’ve lost heaps of pals”) or where they were marching from and to (“I got interrupted by a job of work”) or that they were sitting next to a man killed by a shell (“I had the narrowest of close shaves”). Without the secondary sources and other primary sources, we don’t know what they hold back.

    1. Thanks. It sounds like you have a great family collection. Working through the challenges and opportunities of each point I quickly made could have filled many more blog posts. These are some nice examples of just why we need to read our sources critically and dig around them.

  3. Hello George, Great piece! I am going to use it in my teaching this year at the Univesity of Exeter.

    By the way, I have a question for you, and for the forum. In the History programmes at Exeter Uni, we have several source-centred modules from year 1 onwards. Every year, I open these modules (the ones I teach) with the question: “So, what is a primary source?” And every year, Year 1 students respond with conviction: “Primary sources are those sources that were produced at the time of the event, and secondary sources are those that were produced later, hence they are derivative, secondary, less important.” And then begins the process of explaining that while their definition of primary sources may be correct in some cases, being contemporary to the event is not a necessary quality of a primary source; also that secondary sources are not just post-dated and less important, they are professional analyses based on the data that primary sources provide. Eventually, students come around, but they are quite suspicious initially, which makes me think that I must be working against something they have been taught in high school. Do you think primary and secondary sources are defined differently for students in high school? Since I did not go to school in the UK, I just need to know, and many thanks in advance!

    1. Thanks Nandini (and sorry for the delay in replying). You raise some interesting questions.

      I find they arrive at uni with similar ideas about primary sources. I too try to explain the difference between primary and secondary sources with examples, but try to link it to an overarching theme in my study skills teaching – that the trick in so many cases is matching your sources with the question they can answer, and that not all historians are asking the same questions. So, my lecture notes on conscientious objectors might be used as a secondary source for historians of the First World War, but as a primary source for historians of education. The point is, the difference is functional – not so much about what the source is, but how it’s used.

      It’s starting to be a while now since I was taught in a UK school, and I’m sure things have changed a little, and of course not all UK uni students will have been to school in the UK. But there’s no harm in letting them provide a definition as a quick group exercise, then you know you’re starting from where they are. (I’m sure you do something like that already.) But I think it’s ok for them to be suspicious. It’s a hard thing to learn in abstract. If they’re paying enough attention to be suspicious then they’ll carry the idea with them into future classes and trips to the library when they’re handling primary/secondary sources after the class ends.

      Good luck with the new term!

    1. Usually you would be focusing on one source, perhaps two or three compared. More than that and the danger is you end up just writing a standard essay that draws heavily on primary sources.

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