Our first Journal Club meeting was this Tuesday and we had a decidedly delicious discussion about Colonial Jamestown and cannibalism. We used Rachel B. Herrmann’s “The ‘Tragicall Historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown” as a springboard for a conversation about primary sources. Herrmann noted that historians previously took the Jamestown Starving Time documents at face value and treated their mentions of cannibalism as established facts. She demonstrated, however, that there are clear differences among the sources, including the details of the possible cannibalism. Moreover, she outlined the particular motivations for the authors of each source, revealing clear reasons for propagating or denying stories about cannibalism.
Using Herrmann’s article as a model, we thus reviewed the best way to handle primary sources that provide quite different accounts about events. Succinctly, we covered how historians evaluate and interrogate sources. For evaluation, they first ask the basic questions: who, what, where, and when. Once they have this baseline, next they evaluate the type of source for what information it is likely to convey. For example, the details in a private journal and a newspaper article potentially will vary. Next, for interrogation they consider both the historical context of the source and the motivations for the source’s production. Herrmann discussed the historical context of both the 1609-1610 Starving Time and the mid-1620s when many of the Starving Time accounts appeared. She also detailed clear personal and economic reasons for the discussion of cannibalism in these accounts of the Starving Time. Following these steps, even budding historians can read primary sources actively and search for source variations that reveal much about the past.
The last thing we did at the meeting was determine that blue was the leading choice for favorite color among this month’s Journal Club participants. Blue was followed closely by green and red. Sorry to orange, gold, and grey, but you are bring up the rear. Remember, charts and tables help get across information clearly and concisely. If you are writing a term research paper and have complex data to convey, consider a table or chart. For this pie chart, I used the free tools on Meta-Chart.
The only thing missing from the September meeting was YOU.
The next Journal Club meeting is Tuesday, October 20th, once again at 2pm in DM370. The October meeting’s focus will be on secondary sources. I will post more details over the coming month.
Best, Dr. Ferdinando