How to work with primary sources!

by Jana Cary-Alvarez and Hannah Fattor, writing advisors

Jana is a history major and Hannah works in theatre and the classics, so we both deal with a lot of primary source material.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know if you’re dealing with primary sources (what are they, anyway?) and sometimes it’s hard to analyze them (how am I supposed to know what people thought at the time?), but when you find a good one, it can be a wonderful resource. 

What Are Primary Sources?

Sources from the time period you’re exploring!  Playbills, propaganda posters, photographs, novels, bank notes, poems, songs, newspaper articles, plays, paintings, and so on.  A primary source is something that reflects a contemporary sentiment.  It has to be from the time period, though!  Statistical data isn’t a primary source, unless it was available at that time and you look at the way it was presented to the public.  Basically, once interpretation gets involved, the item is less likely to be a primary source.  Since statistics are interpretations of different types of data, they aren’t primary sources except in very specific cases.

How Do You Work With Primary Sources?

The key to primary sources lies in how you analyze them.  Look at how they functioned in their time period.  Look at what they reveal about conventional thoughts, styles, biases, conflicts, opinions, and norms.  A lot of the time primary sources are most valuable when you look at what they aren’t intentionally revealing.  What do household appliance advertisements during the 1950s in the United States say about the role of women in the economy?  The intention of such an advertisement is to sell appliances, not to demonstrate perceived gender norms, yet you can find that information there if you interrogate it enough.

What are a Primary Source’s Limitations?

It’s important to remember that a primary source is only one example from a time period and that it frequently needs to be supported by other primary sources and other scholarship if you’re going to make an overarching claim about society.  That dishwasher advertisement might be a treasure trove of information about gender norms in the 1950s, but we may not know if this advertisement was standard or if it was going outside of normal advertising techniques.  It’s important to know as much background information about the primary source as you can.  The implications of our dishwasher ad might be different if it was printed by a mom & pop local store in Wilcox, Arizona than if it were an advertisement put in a nationally-run magazine from General Electric.  Think about what those implications are. 

Another limitation of primary sources emerges with translations.  It may be tempting to do a word-by-word rhetorical analysis with a rich textual primary source, but if it has been translated into English from another language there are potential translation errors and the translator’s perceptions and interpretations between you and the original.  There are concepts in Greek that can’t be fully translated into English, such as the various types of love.  Familial affection, or στοργή, storgē, is completely different from erotic love, or ἔρως, érōs.  Such nuances in language make a big difference in understanding how people are relating to each other in a Euripides play like Hippolytus!  You can see Hannah’s earlier blog post on working with translations if you’re concerned about this at all.  It’s something to keep in mind when working with something already interpreted by someone else, though.  Reading more than one translation and comparing can be useful if you have the time; you want to be as close as possible to the original work.  This means that adaptations of a play shouldn’t be used to analyze the original work. 

The same goes for works of art adapted from originals.  Adaptations tell you about the time period in which they were made, not the time period of the source work.  Knowing that something is alluding to an earlier play or piece of art can be very useful, though!  You can track the original story or picture and observe how the more modern artist altered it to suit a new time period and new aesthetic.  Question why such changes were made, why some themes were preserved, how characters transformed, and how the new work would have been presented to a contemporary audience in contrast to how people would have seen the original.  Why allude to the older work at all?  What does the artist or writer gain from doing so?

Even with all of these limitations you may face when analyzing a primary source, they can tell you so much about a particular time period and the concerns people faced, the types of entertainment they enjoyed, how hierarchies within such a society emerged, what values and morals people held, what they liked to see in art galleries or in their living rooms, and how they understood themselves.  History can seem strange at times, but finding primary sources proves that these oddities to us were normalities to other people.

Recap: Long Night Against Procrastination!

by Jasmine Kaneshiro, writing advisor

Last night, the CWLT hosted the Long Night Against Procrastination from 3pm to 1am, and I would say that it was pretty successful! After two full hours of practice for the Hawaii Club’s annual Lu’au, I came to the CWLT with ambitions of finishing a biology assignment, studying for an upcoming exam, and starting essay. When I walked through the door, I was greeted by a strange, yet somehow endearing balloon head with a newspaper hat and a group of students who were intently coloring Disney characters. A few students were doing econ homework at a table that had been clearly claimed by craft supplies (including uncooked rice and balloons for stress ball making). Long Night was in full swing.

Though I didn’t get quite as much work done as expected, I enjoyed the study breaks and the hearty German pretzels. Maya led us in a guided meditation focusing on home, and just before midnight, we played a great game game of Sardines, in which I ended up crouched behind a recycling bin in the basement of Howarth. (I didn’t even know this floor existed until last night.) After the last people had found the group of us hiding near the elevator shaft, I decided it was time to home.

Here are some photos from the night, to give you a sense of the fun that ensued!


Smiles all around!



Garrett hiding (or not hiding?) behind the welcome whiteboard and the balloon head that could be described as unsettling, friendly, or all of the above.


The finished works of art!


For the overwhelming days…

by Jasmine Kaneshiro, writing advisor

With midterm season (nearly?) upon us, I’ve definitely been pretty stressed as I try to navigate assignments, tests, work, activities, staying up to date with New Girl, and making the most of my last semester at Puget Sound. So today, for the benefit of any stressed students reading this blog and also myself, here are some stress-relieiving and relaxation tips!

  • If a particular assignment (or a horde of assignments, as is often the case) seems overwhelming, break it down. If you have a 10-page paper due in eight days, you could make a mini-schedule: two days for brainstorming, two days for outlining, two days for writing, two days for revision/cushion time.  However you do this, you’ll likely feel more in control and, with hope, be a bit more relaxed.
  • What is a personal happiness booster for you? Is it listening to your favorite song, brewing the perfect cup of Earl Grey, or belting some Broadway in a room all by yourself? Do it! We all need breaks sometimes!
  • Practice mindful breathing. Last year, I learned the square or 4×4 breathing technique, and it can be helpful if you don’t know what else to do. Basically, you inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold for four counts. Repeat as needed. The counting and focus might help you calm down.
  • Spend time with friends! This can really boost your mood and outlook, whether you are having a long conversation about everything you have to finish, you’re studying together, or perhaps simply making a meal.
  • Ask for help when needed from your professor, peer tutors, writing advisors, etc. One thing I like about Puget Sound is that there a lot of people who care about the students. Professors are usually happy to help clarify an assignment, talk through how you can improve on the next test, etc. And the CWLT can help you think through a paper and brainstorm, learn study strategies, review for a test, and more!

That awkward moment when…

… you have to speak in a foreign language with someone who doesn’t speak English.
by Ben LaBouve, French tutor

Q: What is the most nerve wracking experience for anyone who studies a foreign language?

A: That moment you are faced with a native speaker and the pressure to speak elegantly and articulate is too much!

Studying foreign language in an academic setting is often vastly different than applying those skills in the real world. Sometimes you get so used to hearing and understanding a professor’s particular accent that you watch a movie in your language and realize you don’t understand anything! Even taking a class with a new professor, having to adjust to their speaking pattern and intonation, results in a sort of dizzying, linguistic vertigo. And let’s face it, while participating in class discussion, I am very guilty of using the same verbal structures over and over to get my point across. Just when you start to feel confident over your mastery of a language, it only takes one encounter with a native speaker to make you realize how much you still have to learn.

Depending on how closely you follow the CWLT blog, you should already be familiar with my extracurricular work with immigrants in the community. There is a lot of opportunity for me to interpret for Spanish-speaking clients but rarely is there ever a need for French language work. Coming out of class the other day, I received a call from work asking if I could come immediately and interpret for one of our clients. I obliged and went in! On the drive over, I started going over different sentence structures and specific vocab in Spanish that I knew I would need going in. However, I was met with a pleasant surprise! Today, I would be helping a woman from Haiti. Given the statistics of Spanish-speakers in the community versus the French-speaking, both of us were surprised that we could communicate using a mutual language.

After immediately freaking out (I have never interpreted actively in French before! Nor do I even know how to explain the specifics of social support programs, in English nonetheless!), I greeted her and could immediately tell how happy she was to be using her native tongue. After a few awkward flubs on my part, (the word for ‘March’ and ‘Mars’ are both ‘mars’ in French, No Madame, your appointment is not on Mars!! Darn prepositions!!), our dialogue flowed more naturally towards conversation. She reflected on her difficulty in speaking English: “I can read and write, but speaking is always what is most difficult.” We had a great laugh over this one as I explained that I was in the exact same situation as her, having to rely only on my speaking skills was extremely nerve-wracking for me, as my increasingly red face demonstrated. She also told me how her daughter would tease her that she really didn’t speak English, but only recognized the cognates and other phrases that English has appropriated from French.

Nothing could be truer. When we learn another language, we automatically flock to similarities as a way to compensate for our limited expression. Given that English and the romance languages are rooted in Latin, there are many words that can be easily converted across and many that are just cultural (l’amour is always love, fiesta is always party!). The only way to get past the language barrier is to take a deep breath, acknowledge that perfection is overrated and use it as an opportunity to learn. Get ready for a lot of correction! When you meet someone who speaks a different language, they will always be happy to speak to you because you are making an active effort to use their language and engage with their culture. A lot of the time, they will rely on you for the same reason. The chances are that they are just as anxious to use what they have learned as well. I believe that language only works with collaboration; through communicating with others, we essentially revolve the everyday world. Once you get past the initial language shock, your conversation will be fun and effortless. And the best part: you get a sense of validation that you’re not as awful as you think you are.