I’d like to blame Dean Hunter, Past President of the Federation of Genealogical Societies for planting the doubts that led to changes in my thinking, but to be honest, the doubt was percolating on the back burners of my mind for some time. It was at the National Genealogical Society conference in Milwaukee in 2002. Dean and I shared a room. One evening he told me about a conversation with his friend David Rencher, about what they were taught in their beginning genealogy classes. We were on our way to dinner with David in a great seafood restaurant. “What were you taught?” David and Dean asked.
Good question. I recall my first genealogy class reasonably well. We learned to interview the old folks and gather info from them. We learned to write to distant relatives for their info. And we learned to look in vital records, church records and the census, then organize it in family group sheets and ancestry charts. Essentially, Dean suggested, we were taught to gather information from basic sources. But We were not taught to analyze the information or evaluate the evidence.
Looking back at that early work I can see so much that needs to be redone, I may never actually do research in the 18th century in my life time.
Later that year the November/December issue of the National Genealogical Society Newsmagazine arrived with a brilliant article by Dr. William Litchman entitled “Teaching Analysis, Logic and the Research Process: A Seminar Approach” (pp.340-343). Out of this came several discussion groups examining case studies from the NGS Quarterly where we learned about those missed-out topics.
What was missing, in my view, was a way to introduce the concepts at the beginning stage. I was invited to speak at the Ontario Genealogical Society Conference in Toronto in 2004 on the same program as Helen Leary, one of the most brilliant minds in American genealogy. During the course of events of the conference I tried to attend all her lectures. Somewhere in the middle of all this she slipped in the idea that if she were teaching beginners genealogy, she’d start by asking students to bring along a document concerning their birth or marriage, and using those documents teach them about original and derivative sources, primary and secondary information, and direct and indirect evidence with their own records in front of them to make it very clear from the beginning. The student comes out with the vocabulary, and the tools for basic analysis and is ready next time to look at corroborating evidence with a variety of other records. Now I know this was obvious to you folks. no blinding revelation here for you.
But for me! Wow. The idea to equip the student with the conceptual structure to analyze problems, before she runs into brick walls meant a real change in how I taught beginners.