Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Explain This!

Sometimes the problem in genealogy education is not explaining things . . . it's knowing what to explain. Every time I attend a talk for beginners I learn, especially when people ask about things that we no longer recognize as needing to be explained. Two real-life examples:

"What is the DAR?"

"What is a 'census'?"

As a writer, I know that even just one undefined (or unclear) term is likely to doom a whole paragraph (or article, or book). Readers will slide over it and then discover themselves in a swamp of mysterious verbiage, and give up in puzzlement. Same goes double for lectures.

Good beginners will ask these questions. But, quite aside from the embarrassment, it can be hard to know how to ask.

I'm frequently on the other side of this gulf when talking about technology hardware and software. If I don't ask, I'm going to be under water so fast . . .

Whether I'm on the asking end or the answering end, what's usually needed is not a dictionary definition, but a vivid example showing how it's used in practice. The definition can come later if at all.

So two teaching talents are called for here: recognizing what needs to be explained, and finding ways to do so effectively.

Photo credit: MrJVTod's photostream, : accessed 7 October 2012, per Creative Commons.

Harold Henderson, "Explain This!," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 10 October 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Jacqi Stevens said...

A timely reminder, Harold, as local genealogy organizations rev up their "back to school" intro classes for beginners.

We take so many things for granted. And it would be quite the gifted "beginner" to know how to ask the right questions. I always hated being in that position of knowing that you don't know something. When you don't even know that much, how do you even begin to frame the question?

Connie Sheets said...

Excellent post, Harold. I was thinking about this very issue just the other day. Part of our responsibility as teachers/trainers is, I think, to let people know there is no such thing as a dumb question, and then respond accordingly. But we also have to anticipate the beginning questions and build them into the presentations. Thank you for pointing out the same is true in writing.