RootsTech 2014

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Sequestration of Expertise not its Death

Recently, Michael J. Leclerc, the genealogist for Mocavo.com, wrote a post entitled, "The Death of Expertise" in which he quoted social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols, who published a post in the Federalist a couple of months ago called “The Death of Expertise.” Michael applies Tom Nichols rather long post to genealogy. There are several things that the Nichols' post says that I agree with and likewise several things that Michael says that I agree with, but in thinking about both articles, I disagree with some of the basic premises of both.

First, ignorance is nothing new. The Nichols' post seems to make the basic assumption that ignorance is the product of our information age when I believe that it merely gives it voice. In years past (pre-Internet) if you were thoroughly ignorant, your views were mostly confined to your immediate neighbors and family, although you could write to the editorial section of the daily newspaper. But in most cases, the newspapers of the day acted as a gatekeeper and edited out most of really blatant ignorance. Nevertheless, the fact that the ignorant had very little voice did not mean that they did not exist. In this I agree with Michael's statement,
The major issue, though, is that folks like that now have a public forum for their views. They can create a website or a blog and get followers who are even less experienced than they are, and mislead these beginners. And anyone who dares to speak against them is simply elitist.
I further agree with Michael that one of the manifestations of this trend is the proliferation of online completely unsourced and unsupported family trees. As Michael says,
For all they have done to help us, computers have also worked against us. In some ways, the ability of computers to process large amounts of information quickly has become a problem. Instead of trying to find out ancestors, many people are in a competition to build the largest database of names. Little attention is paid to things like proof and documentation.
Now I begin to disagree. Michael assets that,
Throughout the twentieth century, genealogists worked to move away from the unstructured and undocumented compiled genealogies that had been published with little to no documentation, and many made up out of whole cloth. They worked to educate people to understand how easy it is to make mistakes and link individuals into families incorrectly. We developed peer-reviewed journals like the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The American Genealogist, and many others, to provide high-quality documented genealogies. This was not only to make such work available, but to show others how to properly research.
Here we part. I think part of the problem lies with the experts. In my experience, they are more concerned with credit for their "work." than they are concerned about participating in the rough and tumble public forum. Each of publications named by Michael are peer reviewed but also largely inaccessible. If I want to read an article in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, for example, after 1923, I must do so by subscription on the American Ancestors website. My attempt to read a current article exhibits the following, "You must be logged in as a member of the NEHGS to view this issue." This is exactly the same issue with each of the other named sources. Why would I subscribe to a website merely for the purpose of reading articles when I had no idea of the content or purpose for those articles. Here is a list of content of the current articles:
Volume 168, Whole Number 669, January 2014
  • The Origin of Thomas Gleason of Watertown and Cambridge, Massachusetts by Judith Gleason Claassen
  • The Earliest Shermans of Dedham, Essex, and Their Wives: Part 6: Edmund Sherman and His Descendants by Michael Johnson Wood
  • “Book of Births & Deaths of Benjamin and Rachel Brenton’s family” by Cherry Fletcher Bamberg
  • The Family of Philip (Sole) Sales of the Winthrop Fleet by Patricia Law Hatcher
  • Henry 1 Butterworth of Halifax, Yorkshire, and Weymouth, Massachusetts by Clifford L. Stott 
  • Early Coy and Harris Families of Eastern Connecticut: A Further Analysis of the 1798 Estate of Martha Harris by Gale Ion Harris
  • Abigail Cobb, Wife of Ebenezer7 Fairbank, and Daughter of Ebenezer2 (Stephen1) Cobb of Cheshire County, New Hampshire by Patricia Sezna Haggerty
 There is a vague chance that I am actually related to some of these people, but can you explain to me how I am supposed to motivate my very newly minted genealogy students as to why they should pay for a subscription so they can read these articles? No matter how valuable the content of these articles may be, they are so far removed from the daily activities of most people's ancestors that they cannot understand the connection between such articles and finding their great-grandfather or whatever.

Don't get me wrong. I respect the expertise and time and research that goes into such publications, but I also see how irrelevant they are to nearly all of the people I talk to and teach each day. Oh, did I mention that each of those articles is also fiercely defended by a claim of copyright? Any attempt to copy the research is met with hostility. This is true of many (if not most) academic journals. Most people do not even know they exist partly because they are inaccessible.

If there is a problem in the genealogical community with, as Michael says, "losing the ability to understand the basics of research and how to really find our ancestors," then the fault lies with those same "experts." I realize that many of these same people spend time presenting and educating, but at the same time, they shouldn't expect that the scholarly articles they write, directed at a tiny segment of the genealogical community and sequestered behind subscription services, should be read by those same masses they decry.

Rather than wringing my hands over the death of expertise, I would suggest that those same experts realize that they have a duty and an opportunity to teach others. Rather than dismissing the ignorant bloggers, how about teaching them. Rather than dismissing the ignorant, help them to become educated. Here I make a distinction between ignorant and stupid. An ignorant person can be educated. A stupid person cannot. Let's not confuse the two. Most of the online family tree people can be educated. That is our challenge in the genealogical community. We do not need to hide behind a wall of "expertise" and condemn the ignorant masses. We need to extend ourselves as teachers and servants of those who need our help and are ready and willing to be educated.

One last word about blogs. If I say something wrong or even have a typographical error (which I frequently do) I find that the community is quick to correct me. Michael asserts about ignorant bloggers,
They can create a website or a blog and get followers who are even less experienced than they are, and mislead these beginners. And anyone who dares to speak against them is simply elitist.
 If this is true, then let's write about the errors. After being involved in litigation for almost 40 years, I don't expect anyone to agree with me, so I am never offended when they do not and I am usually surprised when they do. I also do not expect to change many minds. Neither of these expectations, however, stop me from trying. Thanks to Michael J. Leclerc for a thought provoking article. Perhaps I am one of those that mislead the beginner? If I am, please let me know. Please dare to speak against me, if you wish. Oh, by the way, Michael J. Leclerc is one of those who patiently and publicly educate and help us all. Thanks again, Michael.

18 comments:

  1. Thank-you James for a very thought-provoking article (as usual!) I know that I have been helped by others reading my blog and asking questions - usually very nicely worded to kindly point out a possible flaw. I actually like it when people point something out to me because, as you say, it's an opportunity to learn.

    Right now I am in contact with someone who was questioning how I knew that a particular person was my 4th-great-grandfather. Turns out I meant to type 4th great-granduncle...really I did! But it was great to meet a new cousin - and also to correct my assertion on my blog

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am speaking from experience since my daughter had to email me to correct a typo this morning.

      Delete
  2. Thank you for the commentary. I agree pretty much with you (surprised?). What the internet has done is bring the hidden voices of a great many people to the conversation, and the elites don't like it. Everyone can participate and find a group of like-minded people.

    Of course, the ignorant are exposed more rapidly. The "tolerant" and "social justice" elites are really into shaming people for making one (or more!) poorly worded or thought out comment and holding it against them forever.

    For me, the real value of the peer-reviewed journals is to be good examples of scholarship and research methodology rather than for specific family research (although the Thomas Gleason article in NEHGS is about "my" guy). They are usually available for free in genealogy libraries which few online researchers visit any longer. A shame, that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I always get interesting comments whenever I talk about anything in the peer-review community.

      Delete
    2. Randy, I don't understand the comments in your second paragraph in view of your No. 14 in your own post of 7 April 2014. There, you are not saying that the "elites"("credentialed genealogists") are into shaming people.

      Delete
  3. Maybe instead of motivating "very newly minted genealogy students as to why they should pay for a subscription so they can read these articles," they should not expect everything to be instantly available, but should get off their arses and "get thee to a library" (with apologies to Mr. Shakespeare).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I realize that the journals are likely available in libraries but I have a hard time getting new genealogists to look at books these days, much less journals.

      Delete
    2. Then, James, you have your teaching work laid out for you--to teach the value and merit of traditional methods alongside internet methods. Just as the so-called "elites" need to be sure to value and recognize the online methods. All of us who teach in the field have that obligation. In so doing, we help protect others' intellectual property and respect their work, as well as teach our students the power and value of a broad array of research techniques and skills.

      Delete
    3. I agree. Thanks for your comment. We do have an obligation to teach, especially if we are inclined to criticize those who need teaching.

      Delete
  4. While I much appreciate your overview, I think you were a little off-target regarding the peer-reviewed journals "and many others" referred to by Michael regarding the 20th-century trend ("Throughout the twentieth century . . .").

    21st-century blogs, webinars, google+ hangouts and other media are worthy continuations of the trend toward making good genealogical methods more available. Since they are often public and freely accessed, they too are 'peer reviewed' and their creators as well as the genealogical and historical societies are constantly seeking more outreach methods.

    Maintaining and spreading the word concerning methods and the learning process itself is a persistent struggle, particularly in a country where the public education system is so often underfunded and unsuccessful regarding literacy and understanding of history.

    All efforts in this vein deserve praise to those willing to take time and effort to spread the word.


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree but I think that peer-reviewed journals do not address the issues apparent in online user-contributed family trees.

      Delete
  5. Having read both your (long-)blog and Michael's, I don't see much disagreement James. In fact, I believe you're both seeing part of a bigger issue. I believe, like many people, that there is something wrong with existing genealogy, but I'm not smart enough to get it all in focus. We complain that academic history frowns on genealogy, but genealogy has its very own professional standards which aren't shared by anyone else. Those standards are important for professionals -- people who perform research for clients -- but where's the incentive for simple hobbyists. In the class I used to give, I never encountered a single person who had even heard of BCG. We talk of a community but I'm starting to feel more, and more, that there's a gulf between genealogists and software people. Articles in a journal may be peer-reviewed, and even a research blog could be peer-reviewed in principle, but how do you peer-review a mere tree. Commercial Web sites are deliberately throwing more hits at us to make it easier for the person-in-the-street, and they also encourage us to participate in philately with the details of biological lineage. Maybe if they didn't do this then genealogy wouldn't appear as popular as it does now. What they're churning out is not so much results for serious researchers as "tree fodder", or fruit-for-the-tree.

    I know this outpouring is a little uncoordinated but having read it back, I think I'm suggesting that the apparent ease (no narrative writing, no citations, only online research, just trees) is the price we pay for a popular pastime, which in turn is necessary for the investment (digitisation, Web sites, products) in the field of genealogy. If all we had were scholarly articles -- whether in journals or online -- then there would be fewer people in the "community".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good points. I think it is a sort-off if we build it they will come attitude towards the family tree users.

      Delete
    2. +Tony Proctor I liked your reply, but lost your train of thought at philately- study of stamps? Could you restate that part? Sorry, I don't want to assume I know what you meant there. Thanks so much. BTW, not a criticism, just a request for clarification. :)

      Delete
    3. :-) It was a less-than-flattering description of the art of collecting names & dates (just like stamp collecting) without regard to history, verification, or sources.

      Delete
  6. James, this reminds me of the old adage about becoming a good writer. "If you want to become a good writer, read well-written books." I think the same applies to genealogy writing. Readers need access to good, well-researched publications, or they'll never be able to emulate it. (Tip: Many times you can find these peer-reviewed journals that are still in copyright online at FamilySearch Books, even though they're not supposed to be there.)

    ReplyDelete
  7. James, you could be part of the solution by explaining the relevance of a particular peer-reviewed article in one of your blog posts. (If you yourself think they're irrelevant to your research, that would be a different issue!) Granted, that can't be the first lesson that new people learn but it will strike a chord with some of those a little farther along. We all need to learn that there is methodology involved and not just name chasing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Harold, that does sound like a good idea. I will put it in the lineup for a future blog post. Thanks again.

      Delete