Interpreting Sources

To interpret any kind of source, you should break it down into these four parts:

  1. Context
  2. Paratext
  3. Text
  4. Evaluation

This process is known as strategic reading. Unlike comprehensive reading (reading a text closely from beginning to end), strategic reading allows you to quickly figure out what a text is saying  and whether it can help you make your argument. The lessons that follow will define the steps of strategic reading and show you how to apply them to primary and secondary sources.

To help you through these lessons about strategic reading, we’re going to use an analogy that involves food:

mystery mush dorm color
Imagine you’re in your dorm cafeteria. It’s 5:30pm, you’ve been in class all day, and you’re hungry. There’s no chicken-broccoli bake; instead they’re offering some mystery mush covered in sauce. Since you’ve eaten cereal for the last three days, you know you need something nutritious, but you want to know what kind of food the mystery mush is before committing to it. The mystery mush is like a source you have to interpret. How are you going to do it?