Information Studies 289 -- Interpreting Documents

Phil Agre
Office: 229 GSE&IS Building
Phone: (310) 825-7154

Fall 2005
Thursday 9:00am-12:30pm, GSE&IS 111

This is a course about methods from history and other fields for the interpretation of documents. It is designed for archivists and librarians, but it will probably be useful to students from elsewhere in the social sciences and humanities. Themes of the course include print culture, the history of scholarship, genre, rhetoric, and historical memory. Examples will be derived from diverse centuries and cultures.

The course will discuss only textual documents, and not, for example, maps, diagrams, or multimedia. This is because the analysis of those non-textual types of content has proceeded along a mostly different track in all of the major scholarly traditions.

The main idea of the course is that the scholarly interpretation of documents is critical to the well-being of a modern society. Scholarly interpretation occurs on several levels, from the internal economy of the text to the institutional systems in which texts are made and used.

Each class meeting will have three parts. During the first part, we will discuss the previous week's readings in a seminar format. During the second and most important part, we will analyze documents that students have brought in. And the third part will be a lecture that introduces the readings for the subsequent week. The general idea is that the lectures and discussions will accumulate, week by week, ideas and opinions that will be useful in analyzing the documents.

The main requirement of the course is a scholarly paper that uses ideas from the lectures and readings to analyze a particular document or interrelated set of documents. The assignment for this paper is on the Web at:

As preparation for the term paper, each student should sign up for a time to discuss their documents during the middle portion of one of the class meetings. The assignment for this discussion is here:

Grades will depend on the term paper (70%) and discussion of documents (30%). There are no exams.

In addition, I have assembled, through immense effort, a reading list of high-quality books about the interpretation of documents in diverse settings, and I encourage everyone to sample the books that are related to their own professional interests in the analysis of documents. The reading list is here:

There are eight required texts. All of them are excellent and worth the time and money. They should all be on sale at the bookstore, but they might also be available more cheaply from used bookstores on the Internet: <> or <>.

Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior, eds, What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2004. This book is unfortunately somewhat expensive.

Mary Elizabeth Berry, The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Thomas M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition, Longman, 1990.

Heather Dubrow, Genre, London: Methuen, 1982. This book will be available as a reading packet.

Benjamin A. Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China, second edition, Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 2001.

Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

James V. Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Course schedule. The readings indicated for each week should be completed before that week's class. There is no reading before the first class meeting.

Week 0 (September 29). Introduction

Week 1 (October 6). Texts

Read Bazerman and Prior, chapters 2, 4, 5, 10, and 11.

The readings in this edited book are introductions to five important themes in the analysis of documents that will recur throughout the course: narrative, relationships between texts, the combination of multiple codes in a text, rhetoric, and the embedding of texts in activity systems.
Week 2 (October 13). Printing

Read Johns, chapters 1-2.

We take for granted a world in which texts are what they claim to be. For most of history, however, this was not necessarily so. Johns describes the very different world of printers in 17th century London, in which copying (or, mostly, miscopying) of competitors' publications was pervasive.
Week 3 (October 20). Institutions

Read Johns, chapters 3-4.

Our world does have something in common with that of 17th century London: controversy about the institutions that attempt to regulate copying. Johns describes the mechanisms that printers set up for this purpose, as well as the printing trade's embedding in the political system of the times.
Week 4 (October 27). Philology

Read Elman, chapters 1-3.

Philology is the analysis of ancient texts and languages. During its heroic age, philologists rebuilt civilization by determining what the available documents really were and how they were really related to one another. Elman discusses the heroic age of philology in Qing dynasty China.
Week 5 (November 3). Reading

Read Berry, chapters 2, 3, 6, and 7.

Berry is a historian with an extraordinary ability to interpret documents. In this book, she uses several types of documents to reconstruct everyday life during the century-long uncertainty of Japan's most important civil war.
Week 6 (November 10). Genre

Read Dubrow.

Genres are the relatively settled structures of texts in a given medium. As such they are important parts of a culture. Every genre creates a set of expectations in the reader, and Dubrow argues that authors mess with these expectations in numerous ways.
Week 7 (November 17). Rhetoric

Read Conley, chapters 1-6.

Rhetoric began in ancient Greece as a framework for writing speeches. Rhetoric is important to us because most Western documents for two thousand years were thoroughly organized by one rhetorical framework or another. These chapters from Conley discuss the ideas and settings of rhetoric from the beginning through the 17th century.
Week 8 (November 24). Thanksgiving

Week 9 (December 1). Representation

Read Geertz.

Documents generally represent people and their lives, and so it is important how representation works. The field of anthropology is an interesting example. During the 1980's, anthropologists wrote many acute analyses of their own representational practices, of which this is the most famous.
Week 10 (December 8). Memory

Read Wertsch.

Every society has many interacting types of historical memory. And when interpreting a document, it is crucial to reconstruct how the document has participated in a potentially complicated series of such interactions. In this book, Wertsch describes the dynamics of historical memory in the midst of a massive historical change.