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Historians investigate the questions they choose to study in many ways. Their particular approach depends on their values and experiences, their academic training and their belief about which aspects of human nature and the human environment are most important to an understanding of their subject. Traditionally, his­torians have been divided into those who saw social, cultural, in­tellectual, political, diplomatic, economic, or psychological matters as central to answering the question being investigated. The social historian investigates the development of human groups and com­munities and their interaction with the larger society in which they

emerge. The cultural and intellectual historian deals with the meaning of ideas and attitudes and their effect upon social changes. The political historian focuses on the operation and acts of governments, parties, and institutions, whereas diplomatic histori­ans deal with relations between governments. The economic histo­rian studies developments in technology, production, consump­tion, and the division of wealth.

For the most part, scholars working in traditional fields of social, cultural, intellectual, political, diplomatic, and economic history gather their materials from the written record (both primary and secondary) and present their findings in the form of a narrative. As in a historical novel, this narrative tells the story of the important events, personalities, or changes that have been researched. The goal of this form of historical writing is to recreate a part of the past so that it will appear as real as it once did to those who lived through it and yet will explain the meaning of events from the vantage point of the present, when the outcome of the historical events has become more clear. One of the most common forms of narrative history is biography: the story of the life and times of an important person.

New Directions of Historical Research

In recent years, some historians have begun to explore differ­ent aspects of the past. Psychohistorians are examining the emo­tional development of individuals, families, and even groups. They attempt to explain some part of people’s actions and thoughts as the result of the inner workings of their minds and their emotional reactions to important social developments: wars, depressions, class and ethnic conflict, etc. Another new direction is the history of science. Here the focus is on the evolution of scientific knowledge, how such knowledge arises, and how it in­fluences society. Historical demography, the study of statistics concerning the numbers and distribution of populations and the social impact of population changes, is another new direction. Ethnohistory is a branch of cultural history that studies individual cultures (or the contact of different cultures) in order to trace the causes of cultural change.

Some of the new directions are reorientations of traditional fields of historical research. Thus, there are now the fields of “new” social history as well as “new” political and “new” eco­

nomic history. Scholars in these fields prefer to look beneath the broad developments studied by the more traditionally oriented historians to find hard evidence of group behavior: voting pat­terns, group memberships, religious affiliations, standards of liv­ing, etc. This evidence is used to establish a firm understanding of basic aspects of life in the past and to test the accuracy of assumptions made by scholars working with more impressionistic evidence: diaries, public speeches, novels, contemporary histo­ries, political events, etc.

Two of the “new” directions of research are in fact quite old: genealogy and local history. These fields have returned to impor­tance as people have become concerned with holding on to or redis­covering their personal, family, or neighborhood past. Genealogy is the study of the history of a family by tracing it back in time through each generation of ancestors. Local history examines the evolution of individual towns, communities, and neighborhoods.

New Methods of Historical Research

Many of the new directions of historical research have been influenced by other fields of knowledge: psychohistory by psy­chology, demography and the new social history by sociology, ethnohistory by anthropology, the new political history by politi­cal science, the new economic history by economics. While still adhering to the special focus of history—examining and explaining the past—historians working in these new areas often borrow ideas and methods of analyzing evidence from these other fields. These scholars make use of quantitative data—that is, information about the past such as election returns, price levels, and popula­tion statistics—to recreate a more precise picture of earlier times. Because quantitative data is uniform, it measures the same things—votes, prices, numbers of inhabitants—over time. Thus, comparisons can be made among statistics from different periods. The electoral support of a political party, the price of wheat, or the size of a town can be examined to see if it is rising or falling and at what rate.

If the uniformity of the data can be established (that is, if the numbers really do measure the same thing in each time period), then it can be subjected to mathematical analysis. Percentages, ratios, averages, the mean, median, and mode can be obtained. If the data set is large, the historian may subject it to more complex

analyses that explore patterns within the numbers and among sub­groups of them: the frequency distribution, the standard deviation, and the coefficient of variation. The more elaborate kinds of statis­tical analysis can determine not merely how fast prices are rising or where the majority of a party’s voters reside; they also can com­pare different kinds of changes—party registration with price lev­els, population decline with employment levels—in an attempt to describe the conditions under which certain changes occur. By noting those categories of numbers (variables) that move together, the historian can begin to explore the causes of the changes under examination.

Elaborate analysis of statistics and the examination of large bodies of data (millions of voters, prices, households) are made possible by the use of computers that count as well as track changes in and compare immense amounts of evidence. To make such analyses, the computer must be programmed—that is, pro­vided with detailed instructions on how to handle the data. It is vital that the information fed into the computer be uniform. Each unit must represent the same thing—votes, dollars worth of wheat, households, etc. Numbers representing the price of wheat per bushel cannot be entered into the computer in the same category as wheat per pound. These two sets of data are not uniform and cannot be compared. If you tell the computer to add apples and oranges, it will do so, but the result will have no meaning.

Schools of Historical Interpretation

Historical investigation can lead to very different results depend­ing upon the aspect of human nature or society emphasized and the kind of information obtained. Even greater differences can result from historical investigations that employ different philoso­phies of history.

A philosophy of history is an explanation not only of the most important causes of specific events but of the broadest develop­ments in human affairs. It explains the forces of history, what moves them, and in what direction they are headed. The dominant philosophy of history of a particular age is that which most closely reflects the beliefs and values of that age. Most of the historians writing at that time will write from the perspective of that philoso­phy of history.

We will look now at some of the principal philosophies of his­

tory, those which have prevailed over long periods of Western civilization.

Perhaps the oldest philosophy of history is the Cyclical School. According to this view, events reoccur periodically. This school holds the belief, in short, that history repeats itself. The essential forces of nature and of human nature are changeless, causing past patterns of events to repeat themselves endlessly. As the saying goes, “There is nothing new under the sun. ” This view of history was dominant from ancient times until the rise of Christianity.

A central message of early Christianity was the uniqueness of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In societies influenced by the Christian Church—and especially in Europe in the Middle Ages—the new concept of divine intervention to overthrow the past weakened the cyclical view.1 The resulting philosophy of his­tory, the Providential School, held that the course of history was determined by God. The ebb and flow of historical events repre­sent struggles between forces of good and evil. These struggles are protracted, but the eventual victory of good is foreseen.

This particular idea of the Providential School—that history is characterized not by ceaseless repetition but by direction and pur­pose—became an element in the thinking of the more secular age after the eighteenth century. In this new age of scientific inquiry and material advancement, there arose the Progressive School, whose central belief was that human history illustrates not endless cycles but continual progress. According to this school, the situa­tion of humanity is constantly improving. Moreover, this improve­ment results not from divine providence but from the efforts of human beings themselves. Each generation builds upon the learn­ing and improvements of those preceding it and, in doing so, reaches a higher stage of civilization. This idea of history as contin­ual progress is still very powerful today.2 Currently, many varia­tions of the progressive philosophy share the field of historical investigation. Should you be interested in this subject, your in­structor will be able to introduce you to the field of historiography (the study of the methods and interpretations of historians) and to the works of philosophers of history themselves.

'An earlier development of this new view is found in the Old Testament.

2One of the most influential of the progress theories is the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx.

What You Can Do with History

It is said that experience is the best teacher. Still, our learning would be very narrow if we profited only from our own experi­ences. Through the reading of history, we make other people’s experiences our own. In this way, we touch other times and places and add to our lifetime’s knowledge that gained by others.

If history is the greatest teacher, what can we do with the knowl­edge we draw from it? In what practical ways does knowledge of the past help us to accomplish the work we do? Perhaps you wait on customers at McDonald’s or are the manager of a bank. Will knowledge acquired in history courses be of direct value to you? Probably not. You can serve burgers and fries satisfactorily without knowing that the Safavid empire of the sixteenth century was lo­cated in Persia. You can run a bank without knowledge of the philosophy of John Locke. However, while the bank manager can run the bank without particular historical knowledge, he or she cannot do so without writing reports summarizing the financial transactions of the bank over time. To write such reports, the manager must have mastered the skills of historical research. Though reports to the bank’s president deal only with the past week’s or month’s transactions at the branch rather than with past years or centuries, the manager must gather evidence, analyze and summarize it, and draw conclusions about it, just as would the historian whose subject is the hundred-year history of the bank.

History is not merely a course you take in college; it is a way of thinking about the present, one that attempts to make sense of the complexity of contemporary events by examining what lies behind them. Such an examination is intellectual (its goal is to broaden understanding in general), but it can be practical as well. If busi­ness at the branch bank falls off sharply in June, what is the man­ager to do? Does this mean that the branch should be closed? If the manager had no records of the bank’s past performance, the question could not be answered. However, all businesses look at themselves over time and employ researchers and analysts to do so. Thus the manager has reports on the level of business done by the bank in years past. A study of these reports (similar to the primary evidence of the historian) makes it clear that business always drops in June because a major depositor, a nearby factory, shuts down then for retooling. The lesson is a simple one: no business can operate intelligently without an understanding of its

own history. In a sense, the office workers in business, govern­ment, and institutions operate as historical record-producers and record-keepers. When decisions about policy or future production and investment are made, these records are pulled together in research reports that examine the past experience of the firm (or department or institution) in order to judge the likely result of these decisions.

While ability to recreate the past is an important ingredient in enabling the bank manager to do a good job, there are many careers in which knowledge of historical research techniques is an essential requirement. Government agencies, large corporations, libraries, museums, labor unions, historical parks, monuments, and restorations all take knowledge of the past so seriously that they employ staffs of historians and archivists whose sole task is to conduct research, organize records, recreate historic buildings and events, and write histories. The fields of public and corporate history, museum and archival management, and historic restora­tion are only some of the areas that directly employ the skills you acquire when studying history in school.

When you learn how to read history, how to research the past, and how to write a summary of your findings, you are mastering career skills as surely as if you were taking a course in real-estate law or restaurant management. The ability to see the present in relationship to the past is a skill needed not only by academic and public historians, archivists, historical novelists, and documentary producers; it is an essential preparation for almost any career. Understanding the past can be its own reward, but it pays off in other ways as well. In fact, people who think that history is irrele­vant run the risk of history making that judgment of them.2

chapter How to Read a History Assignment and Take Notes in Class

How to Read a History Assignment

Reading history can be a satisfying experience, but to enjoy the landscape you must first know where you are; that is, you must have a general sense of the subject and of the manner in which it is being presented. If you begin reading before you get your bear­ings, you may become lost in a forest of unfamiliar facts and inter­pretations. Before beginning any reading assignment, look over the entire book. Read the preface or introduction. This should tell you something about the author and his or her purpose in writing the work. Then read the table of contents to get a sense of the way in which the author has organized the subject. Next, skim the chapters themselves, reading subheadings and glancing at illustra­tions and graphed material. If you have the time, preread the book or sections of it (especially the introductory and concluding chap­ters) rapidly before reading the full work.

After you have scouted the ground, you will be ready to read. By this time, you should be familiar with the topic of the book (what generally it is all about), the background of the author (politi­cian, journalist, historian, eyewitness, novelist, etc.), when it was written (a hundred-year-old classic, the newest book on the sub­ject), how it is organized (chronologically, topically), and, most important of all, its thesis and conclusions. The thesis of a book is the principal point on the subject that the author wishes to make: that the geography of Spain was a principal factor in that nation’s failure to industrialize in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; that disagreement on moral issues between J. Robert Oppen- heimer and Edward Teller delayed development of the hydrogen bomb. Most authors set out their thesis in a preface or introduc­tion. If you understand the principal point the author is trying to make, then the organization and conclusions of the work will be­come clear to you. The author will be organizing evidence and drawing conclusions to support the thesis. By the way, if the thesis is not clear or the evidence is not supportive of it, then it is not a good history of its subject no matter how many facts it contains. The ability to spot such weaknesses and describe them is part of learning history too. (See pages 48-52 on “Book Reviews.”)

The most common history assignment is the reading of a text­book. Many students hope to get by with their lecture notes, and they put off reading the text until just before the final exam. Read­ing the text week by week will give you the background knowledge necessary to understand the lectures and supplementary readings. In most courses the lectures embellish portions of the text, and lecturers assume that students are familiar with it. Sitting through a lecture on the economic aspects of the American Revolution will be confusing if you have not read the textbook discussion of the mercantilist theories behind many of the colonists’ grievances.

Read the text chapters in close conjunction with the lectures to which they are related. Note the most prominent factual informa­tion and underline it. Also underline important generalizations, interpretations, and conclusions. Don’t skip maps, charts, or dia­grams. You are urged not to mark up library books, but the re­verse is recommended for books that you own. Almost every page of the book should have some underlining on it. But don’t stop there. When you come across a passage that makes an important point, illustrates the author’s values, or contains statements with

which you disagree, write your reaction or a summary of the pas­sage in the margin. All of this will come in handy when you pre­pare to take a test. You will be able to reread the underlined material and your comments and obtain a quick review of the chapter’s contents. Before the final, however, you may need to reread the text itself, especially if you are having difficulty in the course or wish to write an outstanding exam.

Another typical reading assignment is a historical novel or a monograph (a specialized history work on a particular subject). In addition to the procedures used in reading a textbook, you will need to pay special attention to the theme and point of view of these works. They should be read more carefully because your teacher will expect you to learn not only about the subject they deal with but about the emphasis and methods of the work. There­fore, you will need to determine the author’s assumptions and values, and to understand the book’s thesis and conclusions. Read this kind of work not only to absorb the facts but also to analyze, question, and criticize. If you own the book, you can do your questioning and criticizing in the margins. If the book is not yours, or if you wish to have an organized set of notes about it, summa­rize the contents and the author’s theme on index cards (4" X 6" or 5" X 8"). You can then review your underlinings or index cards before the exam.

Some courses also involve the assignment of a book of readings. These are usually a series of short essays (excerpts from larger works or from primary documents) that deal with a single subject. All of the suggestions concerning the reading of texts and history books apply here as well, but this type of assignment often calls for a particular kind of reading. Each excerpt usually discusses a dif­ferent aspect or interpretation of the subject, and some are in serious disagreement. Teachers expect students to be able to as­sess the arguments of the various writers and on occasion to take a position in the controversy. Therefore, you must read this particu­lar kind of book with an eye to analyzing the arguments of the different excerpts or to comparing their different approaches to the subject. A good way to do this is to summarize briefly the argu­ment or approach of each selection.

To help you appreciate the differences among the three types of reading assignments, here are passages from each. The textbook passage is from Stephen E. Ambrose, Rise to Globalism: American

Foreign Policy Since 1938(New York: Penguin, 1971), pp. 148 and 150. The monograph passage is from Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954(New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 341. The read­ings passage is from an address delivered by President Harry Tru­man before a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. Each selection concerns President Truman’s 1947 speech to Congress, in which he called for a $400 million military and economic program of aid to anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey. In the speech, the president also advocated that the U.S. act to oppose Communist movements throughout the world. This idea became known as the Truman Doctrine. As you read these passages, note the different manner in which each deals with this subject.


The day before, 6 March, Truman had begun to pre­pare the ground. In a speech at Baylor University in Texas he explained that freedom was more important than peace and that freedom of worship and speech were dependent on freedom of enterprise. . . .

The State Department, meanwhile, was preparing a message for Truman to deliver to the full Congress. He was unhappy with the early drafts, for “I wanted no hedging in this speech. This was America’s answer to the surge of expansion of Communist tyranny. It had to be clear and free of hesitation or double talk.” Truman told Acheson to have the speech toughened, simplified, and expanded to cover more than just Greece and Turkey.

He then made further revisions in the draft. . . .

At 1 p.m. on 12 March 1947, Truman stepped to the rostrum in the hall of the House of Representatives to address the joint session of the Congress. The speech was also carried on nationwide radio. He asked for im­mediate aid for Greece and Turkey, then explained the reasoning. “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by out­side pressures.”

The statement was all-encompassing. In a single sen­tence, Truman had defined American policy for thenext twenty years. Whenever and wherever an anti- Communist government was threatened, by indigenous insurgents, foreign invasion, or even diplomatic pres­sure (as with Turkey), the United States would supply political, economic, and most of all military aid. The Truman Doctrine came close to shutting the door against any revolution, since the terms “free peoples” and “anti-Communist” were assumed to be synony­mous. All the Greek government, or any dictatorship, had to do to get American aid was to claim that its opponents were Communists. And the aid would be unilateral, as Truman never mentioned the United Na­tions, whose commission to investigate what was actu­ally happening in Greece had not completed its study or made a report.


What was really on the mind of the president and his advisers was stated less in the Truman Doctrine speech than in private memos and in Truman’s March 6 ad­dress at Baylor University. Dealing with the world eco­nomic structure, the president attacked state-regulated trade, tariffs, and exchange controls—“. . . the direc­tion in which much of the world is headed at the pres­ent time.” “If this trend is not reversed,” he warned, “. . . the United States will be under pressure, sooner or later, to use these same devices in the fight for mar­kets and for raw materials. ... It is not the American way. It is not the way to peace.”1 . . .

The question of how best to sell the new crusade perplexed the administration, not the least because Greece was a paltry excuse for a vast undertaking of which it “was only a beginning,” and in the end it formulated diverse reasons as the need required.2 The many drafts that were drawn up before the final Tru­man Doctrine speech was delivered to Congress on March 12 are interesting in that they reveal more accu­rately than the speech itself the true concerns of Wash­ington. Members of the cabinet and other top officials who considered the matter before the twelfth under­stood very clearly that the United States was now defin­ing a strategy and budget appropriate to its new global commitments—interests that the collapse of British power had made even more exclusively American—and that far greater involvement in other countries was now pending at least on the economic level.

Quite apart from the belligerent tone of the drafts were the references to “. . . a world-wide trend away from the system of free enterprise toward state- controlled economies,” which the State Department’s speech writers thought “gravely threatened” American interests. No less significant was the mention of the “great natural resources” of the Middle East at, stake.

Readings (excerpt from speech)

The very existence of the Greek state is today threat­ened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by Communists, who defy the govern­ment’s authority at a number of points, particularly along the northern boundaries. . . .

Meanwhile, the Greek Government is unable to cope with the situation. The Greek army is small and poorly equipped. It needs supplies and equipment if it is to restore authority to the government throughout Greek territory.

Greece must have assistance if it is to become a self- supporting and self-respecting democracy.

The United States must supply this assistance. . . .

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.

One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual lib­erty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.

The second way of life is based upon the will of aminority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and ra­dio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting at­tempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. . . .

It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East.

Moreover, the disappearance of Greece as an inde­pendent state would have a profound effect upon those countries in Europe whose peoples are struggling against great difficulties to maintain their freedoms and their independence while they repair the damages of war. . . .

The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.

If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world—and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this Nation.

Great responsibilities have been placed upon us by the swift movement of events.

I am confident that the Congress will face these re­sponsibilities squarely.

Note that the textbook is general in its coverage. It does not use footnotes or quote from primary sources other than Truman’s speech. It tries to summarize the content and meaning of the event without too much detail and without extensive proof for its conclusions. The monograph, on the other hand, covers a smaller portion of the topic, gives more detail, quotes from primary mate­rials, and uses footnotes to record its sources of information. The selection from the book of readings is a primary source—the Tru­man speech itself. Often these books are composed of the original

documents that form the basis of the historical events discussed by textbooks and monographs. Although this particular selection from a book of readings is a primary document, such works, as already noted, may also be collections of short essays or excerpts from monographs.

How to Read Charts, Graphs, and Tables

Works in history often include statistical data arranged in charts, graphs, or tables. These data describe the amounts of something (e.g., warships, marriages, schools, bridges, deaths from smallpox) at a specific time in the past and usually compare these amounts (e.g., the number of marriages in relation to the number of schools) or trace changes in amounts over time (e.g., the number of warships in 1820, 1830, 1840, etc.). The following are typical arrangements of statistical data with explanations as to how to read them.

Estimated World Population (Numbers represent millions of persons)














United States and Canada







Latin America





















This table organizes population statistics from different regions of the earth and across more than three hundred years. Reading across the lines allows you to trace the changes in population of a particular region (Europe, Africa, Asia) over time. By doing so, you can follow the population of each region at hundred-year inter­vals (the population of Latin America in 1650, 1750, 1850, and 1950). You can note the change for each region and the rate of change. For example, the population of the United States and Canada did not increase in the hundred years between 1650 and 1750, whereas it more than doubled in the fifty years between 1900 and 1950. Reading down the chart, you can examine the population of each region during the same period in time. This allows you to compare the populations of the different regions. In 1650 the populations of Europe and Africa were the same, whereas

in 1950 the European population was more than two-and-one-half times that of Africa.

More complex comparisons can be made by combining the dif­ferences between regions (reading down) and their rates of growth over time (reading across). For example, you can discover that whereas the population of Asia has grown more than that of any other region in absolute terms, its rate of growth from 1850 to 1977 (750 million to 2355 million, or about 300 percent) was much less than that of Latin America (35 million to 340 million, or almost 1,000 percent).

Even the cold statistics of a table can provide images of the great drama of history. The decrease in African population between 1650 and 1850 tells us something of the impact of the slave trade, and the decrease in population in Latin America between 1650 and 1750 hints at the toll taken among the Indians by the introduction of European diseases. The large increase in the United States population between 1850 and 1900 tells us something about the history of European immigration.

The information in the table can be presented differently in order to highlight different aspects of the data. In the following table, the numbers for each region are represented as percentages of the total world population. By changing the numbers from abso­lute amounts to percentages, the new table facilitates the compar­ing of populations and population growth.

Estimated World Population (Numbers represent percentages)







Europe 18.4






United States and Canada 0.2






Latin America 2.2






Africa 18.4






Asia 60.8






Another way of presenting these population

data is in the

form of

a graph. Note that the graph on page 25 makes more obvious the differences between numbers and thus makes comparisons easier. However, ease of comparison is traded for a loss in precision; the graph gives less specific numbers (reading along the vertical axis) than the table. A graph also requires more space to convey the

Estimated World Population












No. dep.










% vote









Social Democratic

No. dep.








% vote









No. dep.



% vote




No. dep.



% vote




No. dep.










% vote











No. dep.










% vote










Bavarian People’s

No. dep.










% vote









How to Read a History Assignment and Take Notes in Class


No. dep.










% vote










German People’s

No. dep.










% vote










National People’s

No. dep.










% vote










National Socialist

No. dep. % vote

















*Under the electoral system provided for in the Weimar Constitution, each party received approximately one representative for every 60,000 popular votes cast for its candidates. Various small parties, not listed here, were underrepresented in the Reichstag.

From L. S. Stavrianos, The World Since 1500: A Global History, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1982), p. 419.

A Student's Guide to History


same information as a table. The graph on page 25, were it to have included all of the time periods of the table, would have been very large.

The more detailed the data and their arrangement, the more historical information that can be displayed and the more intricate the comparisons that can be made. The table on pages 26-27 lists the percentage of the total vote and the number of deputies elected to the German parliament by each of the major political parties in each election from 1919 to 1933. (Note that in the parlia­mentary system, elections do not come at regular intervals.)

This table allows you to follow the changing fortunes of each political party. A wealth of information on German political history is contained in these figures. Between the lines one can also find pieces of the social and economic history of Germany. To choose only two examples, the strength of the Communist and Social Democratic (Socialist) parties attests to the deep dissatisfaction of many German workers with the state of the economy during the period known as the Weimar Republic. Even more striking is the tremendous growth of the National Socialist (Nazi) party after 1930. It was this development that brought Adolf Hitler to power in 1933. Eventually the results of that event would reverberate around the world. A table is not just numbers.

How to Take Notes in Class

The first rule concerning note taking is simple: pay attention. Don’t sleep, doodle, talk, stare out the window, or write a letter to a friend. Some lecturers are not exactly spellbinding, but there is no point in going to class if you are not going to listen to the lecture.

Read the text before going to class or you may be taking notes on the material in the book. If everything the instructor says is new to you, you will spend so much time writing that you won’t be able to get an understanding of the theme of the lecture. If you have obtained some basic information from outside readings, you will be able to concentrate on noting points in the lecture that are new or different.

An instructor is most likely to prepare exam questions from material that he or she considers most important. It is therefore essential in preparing notes to determine which points in the lec­ture are given most prominent attention. Some instructors are

very open about their preferences and clearly emphasize certain points, often writing them on the blackboard. Never fail to note something that the instructor indicates is important. Other instruc­tors are less explicit about their biases and values, and you will have to try to figure them out. Listen closely, and make note of those interpretations and generalizations that seem to be stressed, especially when they differ from the approach in the text. You should not feel obliged to parrot your instructor’s interpretations in an exam, but ignorance of them will work against you.

Your notes should be written legibly and headed by the date and subject of the lecture. They should reflect a general outline of the material covered, with emphasis on major interpretations and im­portant facts not covered by the text. It is often best to write on every other line and to leave a large margin on at least one side of the page. This will allow you to add material later and to underline your notes and write marginal comments without cluttering the page.

If possible, reread your notes later in the day on which they were written. If your handwriting is poor or your notes are disor­ganized, it is best to rewrite them. Check the spelling and defini­tions of any unfamiliar words, and be sure that the notes are coherent. Remember, your notes are an important source of in­formation in your studies, and if they don’t make sense, you won’t either.

To illustrate some of the essentials of good note taking, here are portions of two sets of class notes taken from the same lecture. The first example illustrates many of the common errors of note takers, and the second is an example of a well-written set of notes. The subject of the lecture was early European contact with Africa.

Example of Poor Note Taking

Colonization of Africa—People were afraid to sail out.

Afraid of sea monsters. But they liked the stories about gold in Africa. The Portuguese King Henry sailed south to find the gold mines and built a fort at Elmina.

England and France want to trade with Africa. They begin trading. Competing with Portugal. These coun­tries got into wars. They wanted to control Africa.

China had spices. They traded with Cairo and Ven­ice. The Asians wanted gold, but the Islams stopped all

trade. They fought wars about religion for hundreds of years. Fought over Jerusalem. The Pope called for a crusade. This was in the Middle Ages.

Spices came from Asia. In Europe they were valuable because the kings used them to become rich. They also ate them.

The Portuguese wanted to explore Africa and make a way to India. Their boats couldn’t get around until Bar­tholomew Diaz discovered the Cape of Good Hope in 1487.

Most of all the Portuguese wanted slaves. They shipped them back from Africa. Columbus took them after he discovered America (1492). The Pope made a line in the Atlantic Ocean so the Catholics wouldn’t fight. The colonies needed slaves. They sent 15 million from 1502 to the 19th century. Slaves did the hard work. They got free later after the Civil War.

Immigrants go to Africa from Europe but they don’t like the hot weather and they catch diseases. The Dutch set up their own country at the Cape. Then the English conquer them.

Example of Good Note Taking

Early European Contact with Africa History 200


  1. Why did Europeans come to Africa?

  1. Desire for gold

  1. Medieval legends about gold in Africa.

  2. Prince Henry (Portuguese navigator) sent men down coast of Africa to find source of gold. (Also to gain direct access to gold trade controlled by Muslims.)

  3. Portuguese built forts along the coast. Their ships carried gold and ivory back to Portugal (16th century).

  4. Then the other European states came (England, Holland, France, Spain) to set up their own trading posts.

  5. Competed with each other for African trade. (Will talk about rivalry next week.)

  1. Wanted to trade with Asia and weaken the Muslims

(The Muslims had created a large empire based on the

religion of Islam.)

  1. Religious conflict between Christianity and Islam. Fought a religious war in the llth-12th centuries—the Crusades.

  2. The Muslims had expanded their empire when Europe was weak. In 15th century they controlled North Africa and they dominated trade in the Mediterranean. They controlled the spices coming from Asia, which were in great demand in Europe. In Europe they were used to preserve meat. So valuable, sometimes used as money.

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