Thursday, January 26, 2017
A Perspective on Genealogy Classes
Researching your family history or genealogy is a skill. The reality of doing historical research is that you have to find documents and records about your family. In the beginning, it is relatively easy when you start with yourself. Except in situations involving people with unknown parents, such as adoptions or foundlings, most people can discover two or three generations without too much difficulty. As you go back in time, the available records become scarce and finding the ones that do exist becomes more and more difficult.
In the United States, many schools teach some of the rudiments of research. But from my own observations, most of the students look on "research" as a very negative activity. They see little connection between the basic activities such as keeping notes and sources and making outlines and the overall idea of learning about something new that they didn't know before. The worst part, according to student response, is writing a "research paper." Of course, research has changed dramatically since I was in school. Today, most research is done on the internet and students spend almost no time in libraries or other record repositories.
Now, if genealogical research is a skill, how best can it be taught? The answer seems fairly obvious to me. Genealogical research skills, like any other research skills, are best learned through actually doing some research. Personally, I loved reading and libraries so much, doing research at that level was not much of a burden. Writing it all down was, however, very difficult. I can only wonder how different my life would have been if I had grown up with computers like the children do today.
What about classes? We have a strong cultural tradition that classroom teaching is the "best" and most efficient way to educate students. Because this concept of classes is so ingrained in our culture, we automatically assume that if we want people to learn to do research into their family history (genealogy) we should have classes to teach them about what they need to know. But if genealogical research is a "skill," a student could go to classes indefinitely without ever learning exactly how to do it.
I had the issue of knowledge vs. skill brought home to me forcibly when I attended law school. After graduating from law school and taking the Bar Examination, I had a lot of knowledge. What I lacked was the skill of being a lawyer. To acquire the skills I needed too be involved in many months and years of very painful law practice. This is probably the main reason why what professionals do is often referred to as a practice. I only learned how to be a lawyer by actually practicing what I had learned.
I think classes are helpful if you are actually involved in the practice of doing genealogical research. I could take classes all day about swimming or riding a horse or archery, but unless I got the opportunity to practice, I would never learn to swim or ride or shoot. The only way a person can begin to learn how to find their family members by doing research is to actually do it. The classes that we teach should always be supplemented with hands-on training where the person learning has a mentor to work with them and answer questions.
Recently, I have been doing a series of webinars along with others sponsored by the Brigham Young University Family History Library. Holding webinars that are recorded and then uploaded to the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel is a compromise between a class and personal instruction. The YouTube videos can be stopped and repeated to practice any action explained or to look at any of the resources. In addition, if I teach a live class that is not recorded, then the participants are the only ones who can experience the class, but if I record the class and put it online, I can have thousands of additional views.