MIT Visualizing Cultures

Throwing Off Asia – Lesson 01

Reading A Visual Primary Source

Handout 01-E | Printer-friendly Word doc

Interrogating a Source Document

1. Developing a mindset

a. Why are you reading this text? What do you want to get out of it?

b. Ask "what does this mean?" and "what does it do?"

c. Take nothing at face value.

d. Read against the text: that is, ask at every point "is there a different or opposite way of understanding?"

2. Reading behind the text

a. What did the author actually witness? When? How reliably? "I was there" vs. "I was alive at the time."

b. If the author was not a witness, what evidence, texts, testimony, points of view are used or omitted?

3. Reading around the text

a. When was it written? (Not just the date, but the era or "the climate of opinion.") How was that time different from now? From the time before it?

b. What occasioned the text? That is, not just "What was the occasion?" but "what brought it forth?"

c. What were the expectations of a text like this? Does it meet, defy, or exploit them?

d. Where was it written?

e. By whom was it written? (Not just the name, but what sort of person?) In what capacity was the person writing—officially as a representative of a group or as an individual?

f. Who published it? Was the version we read edited, revised, or translated?

4. The text itself

"What you see depends on where you see it from and what you see it with." (Clifford Geertz)

a. What is the explicit argument: what is the author trying to sell?

b. What is the implicit argument: what is being argued against?

c. To whom is it addressed? What are the assumptions about the reader, user, or audience? What is assumed about the audience’s assumptions? What had to be neutralized or overcome?

d. What authorities are used? Are they invoked to end the argument or to develop it actively? Who is the author’s guru? What explanations are appealed to?

e. What is left out, assumed, or unspoken? Are points consciously omitted or simply unneeded?

f. What do you know that the original audience did not? Vice-versa?

g. How is the text structured? What was its immediate impact, if any?

h. What was its long range impact, if any?

i. Whom did it affect, if anybody?

j. What is its impact on you? Are you convinced by the argument? Why or why not?

5. Inside the text

a. What do the words mean? Did they mean something different to the author or the original audience? Look them up—you’ll be surprised.

b. Do you see "tropes"—recurrent images, metaphors, or situations?

c. What is the "big story" the text is telling or fitting into? Is there a teleology? (cf "assumption" above)

Abbreviated from Timothy Cheek, "Source Interpretation" and Charles Hayworth, "Reading a Source."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology © 2008 Visualizing Cultures