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Archiver > TMG > 2000-01 > 0948588263

From: "Mills" <>
Subject: TMG-L: "Academic" genealogy (was UK word Evidence)
Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2000 18:44:23 -0600

Bob Bass wrote:
> You have brought ups something that I feel is hurting modern genealogy.
> have become too academic! I say this from the viewpoint of a college
> professor. . . . I
> suspect the average modern genealogist are non-academic, at least in the
> language and history fields. Why is this a problem? (excuse me Ms Mill
> while I pick on you) Personally I to not always enjoy reading NGS
> it is often difficult reading, due to its very high academic standards.

Darn! I guess we're totally wasting all that effort we put into editing
articles to make them "readable" <g>!

Seriously -- no offense taken, Bob. As you might expect, in some ways, I
agree with you and in some ways I view things differently. I'm also
considering this jointly with your other message in which you wrote:

>I had lumped all phases of genealogy/family history into a
>stereotype and placed it under the heading of Genealogy. I suppose
>I should have termed it Family History, with Genealogy exhibiting a
>more limited scope.

There's a common thread in both messages: genealogy/family history means
different things to different people, because people have different
interests and needs. "Genealogy" has many types of publications, each aimed
at filling a specific set of needs and interests. There are periodicals for
"newbies." There are periodicals for those who prefer "human interest
stories," "inspirational accounts," and generalized "how to advice" on
sources and repositories. As NGSQ editor, I'll admit in a heartbeat that the
material in popular magazines makes much "easier" reading -- and in a couple
of cases, their subscription base exceeds ours, too <G>. But, just as
genealogists come in beginner, intermediate, advanced, and exceedingly
advanced models -- with all permutations in-between -- genealogical
literature needs to exist for all of them as well. This field/hobby would be
negligent if it produced material only for those who are "discouraged" by
things "academic." What of all those researchers who are *inspired* by a
higher bar?

> I have noted in the class room if we use a text written at a high academic
> level the students do not study as much, even the great ones, compared to
> when one is used that is written on a more 'worldly' level.

True. But then, as a good teacher, you choose your textbooks and outside
reading to fit your students, no? Assignments for your freshman classes are
not the same as assignments for your graduate students, right?

>I then contend
> that when the average modern day genealogist reads an academic
> genealogy they MAY become discouraged and abandon ALL
> academic standards. I further speculate, this is why we see so
> many undocumented or poorly documented genealogies.

On this score, I see things totally differently. First, I think it is
historically inaccurate to refer to the above-mentioned ranks as
*modern-day* genealogists or to consider "undocumented and poorly documented
genealogies" to be a modern phenomenon. The "typical genealogist" has never
been a "scholar"! But, as I now enter my fourth decade in this hobby/field
(I started at age 3 months, of course <g>), I do so convinced that the
"typical" genealogist is *much* more scholarly and much more sophisticated
in his/her judgments and writing than was true 20 or 30 years ago. I'm also
totally convinced that there are far more quality genealogies being produced
today than ever before.

As the bar has been raised, so has the overall quality of work being
produced. Meanwhile, those who who are new to genealogy or those who take a
casual approach to it continue to produce the same undocumented work we've
always seen.

> I suggest it is time to lower the academic bar, thereby encouraging better
> genealogy.

But how do we encourage "better" genealogy by lowering the "academic bar"? I
know you "admit [you] don't have a solution" but I don't see one here,

Let's consider for a moment one common reason that some families *do* get
discouraged by journals and people who are "too academic." (In fact, I
know NGSQ has specifically discouraged one particular Bass family!) Quite
frequently, a family's respected "historian" submits his/her account of the
family's origin to an academic journal and it's rejected. Commonly the
reason is that the editorial board or its peer reviewers set a "higher bar"
as to what deserves to be considered proof -- regarding an individual record
or a case in general. The author is miffed. The family is miffed. And the
conclusion is exactly what you say -- "academic genealogy" is "too
demanding." Therefore, the family decides to reject "academic standards" and
believe what it prefers to believe. In such cases, yes, we could "encourage"
these genealogists and their families by lowering the bar -- but would that
really result in "better genealogy"?

> The one exception to lowering the bar is
> documenting sources.

This one, I can agree with <g>.

Actually, throughout your comments, I see another thread -- a need to define
"scholarship" and "high academic standards." To me, the essence of both is:

1. accuracy in detail
2. careful identification of sources
3. thorough research
4. reliance upon reliable evidence
5. thoughtful analysis of findings, based upon an understanding of the
sources used.

Judging by all the comments in your message (and in other messages you have
posted), I think you agree with all this.

If so, given that this is the criteria NGSQ (and its ilk <g>) applies,
how/where do we lower that academic bar? Admittedly, as the Q's editor, I
can never view our offerings with the "outside" objectivity our readers have
(which is one reason why I value *every* statement of opinion made by a
reader--and the critical ones more than the complimentary ones). But, I do
put a lot of time and energy and contact into *trying* to understand what
"modern genealogists" need and want.

>From this standpoint, it seems to me that one main reason some articles are
"difficult reading" is not that their "standards are too high" but that our
case studies are sometimes very *complex.* We don't just tell an interesting
story (as with some family history magazines) or just report someone's
research conclusion as a statement of fact (as many local/regional pubs do).
When we publish a case study, it demonstrates to the reader how information
was found and how certain statements should be interpreted under law or
custom. Those articles tend to follow the author's reasoning and turn the
evidence inside out, examining the clues.

Sometimes an article is short and fairly straightforward. Sometimes they're
very long and complicated, and do require readers to invest considerable
thought into following the trail of evidence. (That's something "typical
genealogists" aren't inclined to do when the subject isn't their own family,
and often not even then <g>.) But, all those steps are things that advanced
genealogists do; and they are things that many intermediate genealogists
tell us they need help with.

Would "scholarly" journals fill this need, if they were to target the
"lowest common denominator"? If we avoid complicated articles because
"typical genealogists" feel they are too "academic," then what's to supply
the need of those who seek something more challenging than the wide
selection of "popular" magazines that do a wonderful job of inspiring the

> The only trouble with
> modern documentation standards is they are very complex and difficult for
> most people to understand. This is illustrated by the number of threads
> this group relating to sources. It is imperative we develop an easy to
> and understand method of documenting sources.

Bob, it seems we may be speaking here of two different things -- 1)
documenting (i.e., which detail do I need to write down to identify this
source and explain where to find it again?); and 2) evidence analysis. It's
no. 2 that gets so complex. Students are taught to identify sources in 7th
grade English -- but seldom does one try to teach evidence analysis at that

Certainly, analyzing evidence takes more commitment to the *thought* process
as compared to rote copying. Even in the recording of sources, as Hugh has
pointed out in several posts, once we get beyond basic books and magazine
articles, we do have to apply that *thought* process to some materials to
figure out what we have. In genealogy, we often have to go beyond those
basic sources in order to identify people and relationships that aren't
already laid out in somebody else's book. Humans, being human, do tend to
prefer what's easy. But there's just no way around *thinking* about our
sources and our evidence. Research is a mental activity!

So, like you, I appeal to all those "great minds that visit here" to
brainstorm and produce the solution: how/where do we lower the bar? Within
those 5 criteria above that "academic" genealogists (and journals) follow,
where can our standards be lowered without affecting the reliability of the


- -------------------------------------------------
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG
Editor, National Genealogical Society Quarterly

P.S. In the great meanwhile that I've spent thinking through this response,
I see that a bunch more "evidence" posts have come through. I'll go ahead
and send this before I read them. Otherwise, as someone pointed out a couple
of days ago, I'd then be obliged to document which thoughts I originally had
and which ones I might owe to somebody else's stated views <g>.

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