Teaching Analysis, Logic, and the Research Process: A Seminar Approach

by Dr. William M. Litchman, C.G.S.M.


A cooperative approach to the teaching of difficult research techniques in genealogical research

            Sherlock Holmes, when pursuing his criminals, uses observation; dashes from place to place looking through his magnifying glass; picks up cigar ash, fingerprints, and bits of glass; gathers his clues; and then sits back in his chair to analyze the data he has gathered before he astounds the police, Dr. Watson, and his admirers with his genius.

            It is the chase that keeps up the interest, homing in on the elusive criminal as he twists and turns desperately, trying to escape the clutches of the master detective. But try as he might, it is impossible to get away from the mind like a steel trap which stays focused on the trail, using every clue, combining them into a net so tight and so secure that no matter what he does, the criminal eventually succumbs to the iron grasp of the law.

            The gathering of information is one of the things that both detectives and genealogists do very well. Genealogists search document sources diligently for clues to their family history, and the range of documents that is used is extensive. Almost every conference, seminar, lecture, or discussion group centers on documents and how to find and search them.

            But analysis and logic are at the root of all successful criminal or genealogical detective stories and yet most introductory research courses touch only lightly on this aspect of research. We are taught about the research process and then the remainder of the time, sometimes as much as ninety percent of the course deals with the several classes of document groups (census, probate, deeds, etc.). Even advanced courses, conferences, and seminars simply dig deeper into documents, perhaps concentrating on more obscure types of documents, new or unusual classes of them, or new locations for and subtle variations on the finding of evidence.

            Knowledge of document sources is not bad, certainly it is essential, but it is not everything. This exclusive approach to the teaching of genealogy makes the student feel that “if I don’t find something on my family history in this source, then it isn’t worth my reading it.”

            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.

            On completion of a basic course, one student said, “When I first became interested in genealogy, almost all of my older relatives were no longer around to answer questions about their ancestors. As with any other novice; I was told to start with myself, what I knew factually about my immediate family, and work backwards. I quickly exhausted the “easy” sources: local newspapers, the federal census, family bible, letters, etc. The local Family History Center volunteers were extremely helpful in providing advice on available microfilmed documents. Acknowledging I needed additional instruction in methodology, I then took a short course in basic genealogy. This was helpful but there was no real world experience. I took the intermediate course and advanced seminar because the attendees discuss and study what someone actually accomplished and published.”

            Broadening our reading interests beyond studies dealing with our surname is of great value to individual genealogists (at all levels) as well as the community at large. Realizing that any community of genealogists can better thrive and progress if opportunities for advanced discussion and learning are available, a group of students in Albuquerque decided to move from the typical beginning research course and the more advanced discussions of document groups to deeper discussions of logic, analysis, and the use of evidence.

            The recent disavowal of the use of the preponderance of evidence in genealogy laid the groundwork for a discussion among these students and a desire to know more about the importance of evidence and how it can be used effectively. It appeared that a seminar format would be the very best way to provide a stimulating and guided discussion series where the instructor could guide the conversation without appearing to be overbearing.

The Intermediate Course in Analysis and Logic

            In order to approach these more difficult skills, we set up an intermediate discussion course consisting of a series of eight two-hour discussions to analytically read and study a series of eight articles published in recent issues of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. This journal was chosen because of the face that it is peer reviewed and because the subject matter addressed includes research techniques and methodology. The first article in the series was chosen primarily because of the controversy over the preponderance of the evidence question and the need for firm and understandable definitions for sources, evidence, and the ways of using them in genealogy.

            With this in mind, a group of eight students read the following articles:


Thomas W. Jones, “A Conceptual Model of Genealogical Evidence; Linkage between Present-Day Sources and Past Facts,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 86, 5-18.


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


Patricia Law Hatcher, “Details, Details, Details: Reviewing Existing Scholarship for Alcock Origins,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 85, 195-218.


Connie Lenzen, “Heritage Books and Family Lore: A Jackson Test in Missouri and Idaho,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 86, 19-36.


Virginia Easley De Marce, “‘Verry Slity Mixt’: Tri-Racial Isolate Families of the Upper South: A Genealogical Study,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 80, 5-35.


Ge Lee Corley Hendrix, “Backtracking through Burned Counties: Bonds of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 78, 98-115.


Warren L. Forsythe, “Resolving Conflict between Records: A Spurious Moseley Bible,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 84, 182-200.


Curtis Brasfield, “‘To My Daughter and the Heirs of Her Body’: Slave Passages as Illustrated by the Latham-Smithwick Family,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 81, 270-282.

            Each student was asked to read each paper in the series at least four times before coming to the discussion meeting. None of these articles dealt directly with any of the students’ current surname interests. The first reading was simply to acquaint the student with the overal picture of the problem. The second was to include a careful reading of the general argument or problem including the footnotes. A third reading was meant to carefully understand the evidence and to track the logic used in solving the problem. The fourth reading was to make sure that the arguments and logic are correct, sound, and successful, taking great care with an eye to detail.

            Each discussion was lead by the moderator (teacher) but was an open and unbiased discussion of the subject article of the seminar. The point of each discussion was the use of analysis and logic rather than simply finding evidence. That is, the students were reading these articles without the motive of advancing their own specific evidence needs. There were no exams or quizzes throughout the course.

            Some comments by the students are instructive. Many of these students were neophyte genealogists when they took their first basic research course and were joined by more experienced researchers as they continued to the intermediate class.

            As one commented, “The ... class before it had been excellent and in that group we had begun to analyze and share many ideas beyond our class reading assignments. They were tremendously stimulating conversations that naturally led to wanting to do and learn more in analytical readings and genealogical writings.”

            Another valued the group input in analyzing different approaches to research: “The first thing I realized is that I had forgotten how to read an article and be able to discuss it intelligently. The articles assigned were written to instruct as well as provide family histories. The techniques used by experts were sometimes ingenious. I was impressed with the amount of time and effort some authors took to solve a problem. The procedure to get a conclusion was not direct and clues were found in places I would not ordinarily look.”

The Advanced Seminar in Research and Genealogical Writing

            Then, as the group matured in their analytical skills and the depth of their discussions of logic and analysis, our advanced seminar in research and genealogical writing was created. The seminar format is used here (as opposed to a “course”) because while there is a moderator, each student has the opportunity to be the leader. The group decided that they would continue to meet and discuss the periodical literature but that if any in the group had the courage to organize and present their own genealogical research, then the group would use their newly acquired skills of analytical reading to discuss their own work.

            “Initially, I did not plan to attend the advanced seminar because I lacked research experience to write a genealogical article.” said one participant.

            At the outset, this requires a deal of courage on the part of the participants who had never published any of their own work, nor whom had even considered doing so. Several of the group were determined not to make an attempt at writing but one or two were willing to give it a try as long as the rest of the group would be kind to them in their criticism and analysis. If no student-produced paper was available at the time of the seminar, then the analytical reading of published works would continue as it had in the past.

            As the course progressed, the participants made discoveries about both the craft of writing and its value in enhancing research.

            “Humility isn’t exactly sweet tasting!” said one participant. “Exploring writing is hard but well-worth pursuing. It is a craft that can be learned with lots and lots of practice and more and more rewriting.”

            “On several occasions [it had been] emphasized how the actual process of writing an article would compel us to focus on the genealogical problem at hand. Focus indeed!! Stating the genealogical problem, analyzing the information and presenting it in a manner for a reader to easily follow becomes a monumental task. My attempt to write an article has made me aware of many problems I did not know existed in my research. I know what I mean, but others would soon be lost...”

            One of the strongest positive aspects to this approach to learning advanced group support techniques is that (as one participant said), “the seminar participants consist of a group of supportive individuals who are eager to sharpen their research skills. The noncompetitive nature of the group coupled with the skill and demeanor of the facilitator provide a pleasant environment [for] learning and sharing the peculiarities of slave research.”

            It cannot be over-emphasized that the support of class members for each other is essential to the success of any endeavor such as this. Another mentioned, “... I immediately felt at home with the informal, congenial, constructive, and encouraging atmosphere of the group. I found that some people in the group were highly motivated to write their family histories for publication while others, like myself, were more interested in learning new approaches and advanced techniques of research that emerges from writing and critiquing both published and unpublished articles. Soon, it was apparent that I, too, should attempt to write an article in order to profit from the group’s ideas on how I could improve my research ...”

            It is important to note that five articles have been produced in a group consisting of ten members, something almost unimaginable at the start. As stated by the participants: “I have always held NGS [National Genealogical Society] articles in high esteem; however, I certainly now read them at a whole different level due to the exercise of analyzing the methodology of those articles in class. My research techniques [i.e. evidence gathering] have not changed all that much; however, my analysis of the data found has improved and I want to continue writing as I have found it to be a wonderful way to see problems more clearly.”

            “Instead of scattering my efforts in searching for clues on a myriad of ancestors at once, I now identify a specific problem and focus my attention on it. This particular method has proven to be a much better utilization of my time.”

            “The advanced seminar was designed to put into practice techniques of experienced genealogists. The process of writing a problem ... clearly shows one where more research needs to be done. [It] ... is not as simple as may be expected. I would rather have the seminar class critique my paper and be able to take advantage of their comments than to send it to a publisher and be completely demoralized after one attempt.”

            “I’m more critical of sources and published material which can take a lot of effort to correct. I’m more confident of my opinion as far as evaluating material.”

            “I have learned to appreciate the rewards of tenacity and the importance of focus. I have also learned the importance of clarity and specificity in annotating citations. I ... have learned to appreciate the worth of my slave ancestry research. As a result, I have produced an article proving an aspect of my family’s oral history.”

            In general, the feelings of the students have been positive, supportive, desiring success, and helping the other students feel successful and, overall, this has been the result of the group’s efforts. To put it into a nutshell, one student concluded: “I would like to have this seminar continue.”

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