Saturday, October 24, 2020

Diving In:
Can't Swim Without Risking Sinking


When I first came to college—mind you, a trip of over three thousand miles from the only place I ever called home—one of the introductory exercises our small student body was immersed in was an experience which likely wouldn't pass muster in current accreditation circles. In small groups, our newly-arrived freshman class was driven far from the university to a place on the back side of the city's harbor with the instructions: find your way back to the campus any way you can.

We did, obviously, succeed in that challenge. In the meantime, that set of strangers not only mounted a geographical learning curve quickly—we were, after all, teenagers approaching mealtime—but we did it without aid of cell phones, motorized transport, or even maps. We had no idea where we were, or where that location was in relation to our target to complete our task. The way to resolve the issue was to put one foot in front of another while problem-solving our dilemma with our suddenly-new teammates.

We learned, in other words, by doing. By testing out theories, comparing notes, observing what was surrounding us, and adjusting our course based on feedback. But above all, by taking action.

Of course, we ran many risks. But to take no action would be an unacceptable failure. We had no choice but to dive in. Like learning how to swim, we were engaged in a type of learning by doing. And much like swimming, we discovered ways to swim without being taught. But we couldn't have done that without concurrently taking the risk that we might, figuratively, sink.

It's been a week now since I committed to mounting a steep learning curve which, to an American, means exploring a totally foreign world of documents. It's been awkward. It's certainly an experience for which I couldn't just sit and wait for an online class to be developed and offered. I mean, how many customers are out there on my side of the world, clamoring to learn about New Zealand genealogy?

Granted, there are a few details about New Zealand genealogy which may be familiar to the American researcher: that we both speak the same mother tongue, that we both share similar legal and governmental roots, and that we each comprise a composite national heritage which embodies both native and immigrant populations.

From that commonality, the requisites for search techniques in each country go their own separate ways. While I know fairly well how to find the records I need when searching for ancestors in any given state of our Union, I have little to rely on when trying to find my way through document sources in New Zealand. But in the past week of my flailing attempts at delving into the Irish roots of my husband's DNA cousins in New Zealand, I have learned a few things about learning.

The first lesson I've stumbled upon echoes that saying, "It takes a village." Maybe not an entire village, but a helpful genealogical community which is willing to share what they know with others who are just starting out. That can go a long way in helping the new-to-this-region genealogical explorer get on her feet and pointed in the right direction. Resources like Cyndi's List, the end result of people-helping-people by sharing online links, provided the way markers for my first research steps in that far-away country. I'm grateful, also, for other bloggers who were willing to share the resources which helped them the most as, through their writing, they serve as trailblazers for other researchers on the same path.

The second lesson I'm seeing has to do with my thoughts last week on learning by osmosis: sometimes, the only way to learn—especially lacking any official resources we're accustomed to, like instructors and pre-packaged classes—is to jump right in and see what can be seen from the vantage point of that milieu. 

Yep. Just dive into the water and see if you can swim. Once you get over that initial shock of the cold and the wet and get accustomed to what you can see right at eye level, you'll find you can make quite a few discoveries. And you know what? One small discovery leads to another one, until what once seemed a foreign experience sheds its strangeness and takes on a more inviting aura of familiarity. 

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