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Sunday, August 31, 2014

East Asian and Pacific History and Culture Source Letter (Autumn 2014)

On this date on Round and Square's History 

[a] Text and illustration RF
East Asian and Pacific History and Culture
HIST 210 / ANTH 275
Autumn 2014

Preliminary Writing Assignment 
Sources: The Letter
By choosing the letter format for your first writing assignment, I am asking you to build upon the skills you have already begun to develop in analyzing (and providing examples for) translated primary sources from East Asia.  You have already reached a point where you have some experience with “sources,” and your job will be to explain them to an intelligent non-specialist.

Teach them, really.
Letters from “the field” (or our modified “archive” of East Asian historical works) are a good way to refine your thoughts about ethnographic and historical study, and they are a useful medium for beginning the intellectual “framing process” that will accelerate as we move through the next two-thirds of the course. 

The letter writing exercise is especially useful while studying primary source materials, as we are doing right now. The nonfiction writer John McPhee explains to his students that a letter is often precisely the solution to problems of interpretation or clarity—when in doubt, write to mother, he says. In this case, it is not a plea of “send money” that the letter contains, but a reworking, rethinking, and contextualization of your work. You need not limit yourself to kinfolk, but you need to think about who the recipient will be (ideally someone who will welcome a letter about “studying sources”).

You owe it to yourself to listen to this long interview with McPhee. At the very least, listen to the first two minutes. It is the very purpose behind this assignment.

Now start writing. Toward that end, you should pay attention to the following issues.

[c] I said, "start writing" RF
1. The letter needs to be “long enough” to get you deeply into several issues regarding source materials, particular approaches to studying them, and a few examples.  There is no absolute upper limit, but I am going to make a lower limit of 3,000 words (about ten pages). Even if you are a very efficient writer, you will need this much “space” to give your reader a good picture of your work. 3,000 words is just about right. Include a word count at the end of your paper (e.g. “3,245 words” or Word Count: 3,245).

2. I am asking you to connect with a very specific reader, and to explain “sources” in a level of detail that she will find satisfying.  You are the expert, and your “audience” is the person who will be reading your letter (I will, of course, be reading over her shoulder).  I have found that this kind of assignment helps students to explain even abstruse matters, because the personal relationship they have with their readers demands an attention to patient explanation that is often lacking in more “academic” forms of writing, in which they assume that a professor already knows what they are writing about.

3. You will be reading a book this week devoted to letter writing in early medieval China. It should help you to think about letter writing and "sources" (letters are among the richest of historical sources). Our class discussions of this book should guide you in the letter writing process, as well.

4. You may approach your materials from any angle that you like, but you will need to “cover” at least the following items, no matter what order you choose.

          a. You must discuss the “what is a source?” question. Provide your reader with 
              at least a few ways of thinking about it, including a working definition (your
              own) of "primary" and "secondary" sources.

          b. Give your reader a sense of what you have learned up to this point about 
              how to use source materials in thinking about historical issues. Use 
              examples, either from the course or your own work.

          c. You must discuss the book (Letters & Epistolary Culture in Early Medieval China)
               in at least a few paragraphs of your paper. It is filled with "source examples," so
               this should not be difficult.

          d. You must include at least one illustration in your letter. Think of the rhetorical role
               of illustrations in the New York Review of Books.
          e. Finally, give your reader some sense of what it is like to “learn through
              sources" by discussing the literary and historical dimensions of some of our
              texts. It might be useful to tell your reader about what you have learned about
              the kinds of themes you have studied in the deBary source reader.
4. The best way to approach the writing process is in three parts (this is a friendly suggestion). First, jot down some notes for each of the “sections” of your letter. Second, using those notes as a guide, write a rough draft of the whole letter. Third, revise, polish, and refine. 

Voilà you will have something not unlike what Alexis de Tocqueville might have written about understanding a complex, foreign culture that baffled and enticed him 180 years ago. While your letter won’t be as long as Democracy in America, it is likely—if it is done well—to be much like Tocqueville’s rich and evocative letters back to his family about encountering people, texts, and institutions in a strange land called the United States. 

You get the idea. If you don't, just raise your hand and ask me (or send me an e-mail message). I'll be happy to help.

Letters are due (in hard copy form) outside my door 
by 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 28.

Add the word count and your box number to all papers!
[e] And then you may rest RF

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