Group Discussion to Learn Complex Concepts

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I am attracted to the idea of using discussion groups with intermediate and advanced level genealogists to help them learn things like evidence analysis and research logic, the sorts of things that help genealogists solve the challenging problems. I am an admirer of Dr. William M. Litchman of New Mexico whose ideas have helped so many good genealogists in his area become much better researchers and much clearer thinkers. Concerning genealogy education Dr. Litchman wrote,

“Courses which move beyond the mere study of sources and into the implementation of logic and analysis are rare. It is more difficult to teach the skills of analysis and logic. However, most of the changes occurring in genealogical standards and family history research don’t lie in the document sources but in how they are used. Acquisition of evidence, as important as that is, is only a part of successful problem solving. Analytical thinking, the logical combining of evidence, and the successful structure-building which produces genealogical ‘proof’, are at least as important. The elusive ancestor must be entrapped in the iron net forged through the logical use of evidence.”[1]

Clearly there is a need for genealogists to learn more about the processes of analyzing facts, and logically combining evidence. I frequently offer workshops for genealogists that require serious advanced reading before the event, and 90 minute to two hours of discussion of the reading assignment However, in order for it to be effective genealogists need to repeat more experiences like this.

One way to do this might be to set up a discussion course consisting of a series of 90 minute to two hour long discussions to analytically read and study case studies in genealogical problem solving drawn from scholarly genealogical journals such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly . In such scholarly journals articles are read and screened by an editorial committee of genealogical scholars. Authors are coached to improve their scholarship and writing, and the results are often thoroughly researched, well written case studies.

A typical series might involve a group of 8 to 12 students meeting biweekly or monthly to discuss one of eight articles on the reading list, a different article being assigned for each session.

The lead article in such a discussion series should set the tone and provide some of the language or concepts needed to analyze the others in a series. Two good articles I have used to begin discussion series are

Thomas W. Jones
“A conceptual model of genealogical evidence; linkage between present-day sources and past facts” National Genealogical Society Quarterly Vol.86 pages 5-18

Elizabeth Shown Mills
“Working with historical evidence: genealogical principles and standards”National Genealogical Society Quarterly Vol. 87 (Sep 1999) pp.165-184

Another good starting point for a discussion series on analysis and logic would be:

Donn Devine “Evidence analysis” in Professional Genealogy A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians, Elizabeth Shown Mills, editor (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 2001) pp. 327-342.

Some Case Studies for Consideration

The following is a list of case studies drawn from National Genealogical Society Quarterly that might be used with a discussion group. Those marked with an asterisk are ones I have used successfully.

H. Clark Dean,” Thornton Violett: Two Men or One” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 (March 2003) 31-39

Margaret J. Field “From the Black Hills to the Berkshires: Lessons in Using Indirect Evidence to Find the Ancestors of Albert Field” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 (June 2003) 85-94

Warren L Forsythe,“Resolving Conflict Between Records: A Spurious Mosley Bible,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 84 (1996): 182-200

*Patricia Law Hatcher, “Details, Details, Details: Reviewing Existing Scholarship for Alcock Origins,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 85 (1997) : 195-218

Richard A. Hayden “Using Relationships to Establish Origins: Casper and Catherine Hoover of Pennsylvania and Maryland” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 ( 2003) 298-313

*Ge Lee Corley Hendrix, “Backtracking through Burned Counties: bonds of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 78 (1990): 98-115

*Ronald A. Hill,” Identification Through Signatures: Using Complex Evidence to Sort Colwills of Cornwall,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 87 (1999) : 185-198

*Thomas W. Jones,“Howerton to Overton: Documenting a Name Change”, National Genealogical Society Quarterly 78 (1990): 169-181

*Thomas W. Jones,” The Children of Calvin Snell: primary versus Secondary Evidence,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 83 (1995): 17-31

*Helen F.M. Leary, “Resolving Conflicts in Direct Evidence: Identity and Vital Dates of Mary Kittrell” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 87 (1999) : 199-205

*Connie Lenzen, “Heritage Books and Family Lore: A Jackson Test in Missouri and Idaho,”National Genealogical Society Quarterly 80 (1992) :5-55

*Connie Lenzen, “Proving the Maternal Line: The Case of Frances B. Whitney,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 82 (1994) : 17-30

*Marya Myers,” Discovering Identity through Indirect Evidence: Elizabeth James of Bristol, Rhode Island” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 87 (1999) : 206-216

*William B. Saxbe Jr., “Family Reconstruction by Filling the Inside Straight: Joseph Walling of Sussex County, New Jersey,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 85: (1997) 94-115

If you are interested in setting up such a discussion group , or having me come and run one for you, please get in touch. You can reach me at How many, I wonder will read this list of articles and start reading them?

[1] William M. Litchman, “Teaching analysis, logic and the research process: a seminar approach” National Genealogical society Newsmagazine (Nov-Dec 2000) p. 340


One response to “Group Discussion to Learn Complex Concepts

  1. Ken,

    I suspect that many of your readers are, like me, not genealogy educators, but interested amateur genealogists. I appreciate your listing of these reference articles, and have printed them out to take with me to the historical/genealogy library at the state archives on my next visit. I’m glad to have a brief bibliography that will help me improve my genealogical skills. Thanks.


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