Strategies for Approaching Readings and Precept in History Courses

Vocabulary in the discipline:
Primary sources are documents that date from the time being discussed.
Secondary sources are documents that discuss or analyze primary sources.

For example: If your History class is studying ancient Greece, a primary source would be a play Sappho wrote, while a secondary source would be a recent article written about Sappho’s literary work.

However, if you are writing about the arguments made by a group of scholars who have studied Sappho, the above “secondary source” would become a primary source for this particular paper topic, while a secondary source would be an article that analyzes prior scholarship on Sappho.

Readings for Discussion: In high school, many students were given textbooks, and all assessments and class material were derived from the textbook. Some AP courses may have done exercises using primary source analysis. At Princeton, many history courses have a variety of assigned texts. Often, there might be a textbook that is a more dry and detailed version of what you may have seen in your high school history classes, but it is recommended reading, not required. The assignments will appear in the syllabus to give background for the lectures that week. Usually, history classes will assign a mix of primary source readings (documents from the time period you are discussing in class) and secondary source readings (scholarly essays written by academics addressing change/continuity over time of one of the class themes). While in high school you may have been asked to give a summary of events, in precept you are expected not only to understand the chronology of historical events, but have arguments derived from the reading materials as to why the events unfolded in the way that they did. There is no one right answer. Although it might feel strange to make assertions as an independent thinker instead of regurgitating dates, if you ask yourself the following questions while reading, you will assemble various insights and theories into why and how historical events happened.

Questions to Ask Oneself When Reading Discussion Material for Precept/Seminar:

“Although interdisciplinary, what distinguishes historical research and writing is that historians seek to understand previous eras and other societies on their own terms rather than from the perspective of our own time.” (PU History Dpt.)

Your answers to the following questions will help you contribute to precept discussion. You may not be able to fully answer every (or any) question, but thinking about each question as you read, and writing down the answer in the margins, your notebook, or computer will help you to use the same document to address a variety of topics, each revealing something different in the text.
Who wrote it?
Consider: What are the author’s race, gender, sexuality, class, political positions in their society? Would this person have been expected to write a piece like this? (ie who would have been the typical author of such a piece? For ex: Is a wealthy person writing about the ability of poor people to make a living? Is the author of a political speech a politician, or an actor? How does the person’s social/political/economic relation to their topic affect the way you analyze the piece?)

What are they saying?
Consider: Who/What are they referring to? What do they think about it? How are they supporting their arguments? What are they ignoring?

When did they write it?
Consider: What else was going on at that time globally and locally?

Where did they write it?
Consider: Where was it published?

Why did they write it?
Consider: What political, social, or economic forces may have affected their decision to write it? Who do you think was their intended audience? Who, in that time period and place, would have disagreed with what they argue?

How do they write it?
Consider: What is their tone? How is their argument structured?

Do you agree with the author? Why or why not? How does this document help you understand the complexities of life as a person with [identities] in [geographic region] in [time period]?

What surprised you about this text? What confuses you? What seems familiar to you?
→ then ask, why did you have those reactions at those moments? How did your assumptions or prior knowledge affect your reading of the text?

Strategies for Approaching Assessments in History Courses

Myth: History classes ask you to memorize dates and battles for success in the course.
Reality: “Historians seek to understand changes and continuities in the past and comprehend how the present came to be.” (PU History Dpt.) Demands of Princeton History courses reflect this aim.

Compared to high school: Those who have taken the AP tests in history might find some of the assessments and assignments for Princeton history classes familiar. Although few, if any history courses, assess students using multiple choice questions, many will have in-class essays for the midterm or final exams. The essays will have a comparative element, or a change over time component to them, and thus echo the style of essays high school students may have written for the AP tests. Often times, history professors will provide a list of sample in-class essay questions, and one or two will appear on the final, with students (also often) having the choice to choose between the questions.

A common prompt on in-class essays will ask students to discuss political, economic, and/or social change over time with a particular concept from the course. A way to study for such a question – which does not demand students to memorize many specific dates but instead to think broadly about movements and shifts in belief or practice – is to go through lecture notes with three different highlighters to mark points that help to trace the evolution of political, social, or economic events. Then, you can return to your notes to trace the changes in one of these categories.

Comprehensive exams take place during the exam period of the spring semester of senior year for history concentrators. They are a minor part of being a history concentrator, and are not supposed to require outside research. Instead, their purpose is to show the department what students have learned from their History coursework. They consist of two five-page papers that can be written using class notes. Students pick two out of about eight questions to answer for the exam. Although some questions can be answered using a variety of course materials, others are much more specific. Students should keep lecture notes from their history classes in case questions on the exams can be answered with them.

Strategies for Approaching Learning in History Lectures

Some professors design their lectures such that the historical content is delivered chronologically over the course of the semester. Other times, professors will deliver topics based on theme. Clues as to how the professor will deliver the lectures are in the course title: while some include a date range, like “Europe from Antiquity to 1700” (suggesting lectures will proceed chronologically) while others, like “Religion, Gender, and Sexuality in Colonial Latin America” are more likely to be structured thematically.

Strategies for Writing Papers in History Courses

Thesis statements: Try not to universalize, because there are always paradoxes! Think of popular opinion as a spectrum, and not a binary.

For example: A community is never all pro-war or all pro-peace. People fighting for revolution fight for different reasons, even if they technically all want a revolution, etc.

While we like to put people or ideas in neat categories, in reality we can’t make a definitive statement that will always be true. A more typical historical observation might be, “Many people believed in [idea A] in [time period and place], but those who didn’t instead argued for [idea B], [idea C] or [idea D].” One might go on to explain why each group believed in their specific idea.

Magic thesis statement: pointing out a pattern or trend while recognizing the contrasts or dissenting elements within that same data/document set.

Academics often write papers that disrupt the common conception of a people, event, or place at a specific time period using primary sources that are newly discovered or ones that the historian believes have been misinterpreted.

Department Resources

The History department has a variety of written resources on its website under the tab “Resources.” These include calendar dates for juniors and seniors to help structure independent work, a guide to independent work for the department, and junior paper and senior thesis guidelines.

Independent work guidelines

Both independent work calendars provide a bare bones outline for the writing process – each calendar gives a deadline for a partial first draft, and the first full draft, followed by the final due date. If students would like more internal deadlines, they have to decide these with their advisors. Sometimes advisors will impose internal deadlines on their advisees. Each junior seminar instructor has a different approach to their course.
Department guide: what is it answering/not answering? Student’s point of view?
The History Department Independent Work Guide is an 18-page, single-spaced, comprehensive overview of demands and strategies for completing independent work for the department. In addition to walking students through questions and strategies (even with motivational support!) for approaching questions, research, writing, and revision, it provides resources at each step where students can get outside help. For example, the online guide includes hyperlinks where students can make appointments at the Writing Center, or with the History librarian at Firestone. The sole aspect of independent work that the guide does not address is the often-overlooked importance of finding an appropriate advisor for someone and their project.


Students have one advisor for independent work in their junior and senior years. In their junior fall, the instructor of their junior seminar is their advisor. In the spring, students must research and decide on their own who they would like to be their advisor. The history department website says that students list three preferences and submit them to the department, but this is not the practice in reality. For many students, they must meet with potential advisors and ask them individually.
The history department does not give guidelines for how juniors might approach choosing a spring JP or senior thesis advisor. Ideally, one’s advisor is an expert in the field that is of interest to the student, however there are other factors that go into a positive advisor-advisee relationship. Geographic region and time period are certainly relevant to one’s choice, but they are only part of influential factors for the relationship. Another important aspect to consider is field (consider as a lens through which a historian focuses on a part of history), for example: political, gender, economic, intellectual, environmental, or post-colonial. Under the heading “Fields” on the department website, you can explore the biographies and research interests of the history department professors.

A less-discussed aspect of advising includes mentorship. Students might look for the opportunity to build personal connections to faculty members, and develop academic relationships in which they feel comfortable asserting themselves and asking questions. In this case, in addition to field, geographic region, and time period, these students should consider which professors with whom they or their friends have felt comfortable when taking academic risks. If a strong mentor-mentee relationship is of high importance to the student, they might consider asking a professor who does not share their research interests to be their advisor if they are a professor the student trusts. With the accessibility of other professors, the rising availability of sources online, and the expertise of the History librarians, students can find sources through other avenues than their professor’s research experience.