Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Well-Rounded Genealogist

No, this is not about genealogists who need to push back from their desk and take a walk. But it is about being well-rounded in a different way.

If you have been at this research pursuit for any amount of time, you realize that it is not solely genealogy that we do. We delve into a vast number of disciplines, all in the time it takes to trace our roots back through the generations. We simply can't help it. To understand our ancestors is to understand their history, their geographic location, their personal beliefs, their physical constraints, their economic status, and so many more circumstances that blend to become life-as-that-ancestor-knew-it.

Perhaps in the past few weeks, as I've been teaching another genealogy series, my mind has also been on education as it applies to the research we do. How do you explain all that to someone who has just started out, and thinks only that he or she wants to assemble that family tree? It is only after the task is started, when the person becomes engaged in the process that the realization begins sinking in. The goal of discovering one's family history becomes a multi-faceted spread of opportunities.

Since I was discussing education in yesterday's post, it brought to mind one aspect of curriculum design: the style of learning known as the unit studies approach. Basically, that is where you take one topic—for the sake of today's discussion, let's pick genealogy—and, much like mind-mapping, you put that label down in the middle of a blank sheet of paper.

Then, you think of every other topic that can be related to that main item, and add it to that sheet of paper, arranging labels in relation to that original word. I've already mentioned a few above: history, geography, religion, health, economics. We could go even farther and include language, customs, politics, social class, migration routes. Some topics would actually become sub-headings to other topics on that sketch of the unit study's subjects. Language and customs could be a subset of geography. Politics might cross-apply, as well.

From that list of inter-related subjects, drawn out mind-map style on the paper, you could extrapolate a plan of study to cover that expanding area you once conceived of only as genealogy. And that would likely represent what you, by default, have discovered without any such elaborate plan—you've just found yourself delving into that material as you went along, seeking to know more about your family's story.

After immersion in the pursuit of your family history, you likely have acquired a better understanding of, say, life in early 1800s Cleveland, Ohio. Or migratory patterns of the German Palatines. Or early French trappers along the Mississippi River. You know: the stuff you never dreamed you'd be diving into.

In the process, not only have you informed yourself of topics you never before dreamed you'd be studying—and in your spare time, to boot!—but you've built up a considerable body of knowledge from which to draw when you hit your next research dilemma.

And yet, just like that never-ending family tree, you keep on learning. Whether by attending local genealogical society meetings or regional conferences, or by watching webinars online, or spending the day in research libraries, you find the resources keep on coming, as well.

It is as if we heed a call, not to learn just who our ancestors were, but to learn about their lives—almost to become their companions on that stretch of the timeline they claimed as their life's span.

Above: "Church-goers in a Boat," 1909 oil on canvas by Swedish artist, Carl Wilhelmson; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Well, this genealogist needs to push back from the table a lot sooner!

    :) The German Palatines are in part "my people and neighbors." I never get tired of learning about them.

    1. And you are in the right neighborhood to glean a lot of information on them, too!


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