Thursday, January 31, 2013

What Passes for Scholarship

<rant mode on>

Tonight I went to a presentation at a local historical society.  I will not grace the speaker by publishing her name, as I was, shall we say . . . disappointed in the information presented.  If you really want to know, you can probably Google and find it.

The speaker began the talk as a theatrical presentation, having the attendees clap while she sang.  This is a common tactic used to have an audience become emotionally invested in what is about to happen.  It creates an atmosphere more conducive to believing what the speaker will say.

And then it got worse.  And I'm going to quote directly from the presenter.

The speaker said she had read the many words her subject had written and then "strung them together" for her presentations.

The subject of the speaker's "research" is documented as having told several different versions of many events in her life.  The speaker defended the way her subject changed her stories as "spin doctoring" of "her own conflicting accounts."  But the speaker has been able to determine the true facts from all these versions.

The subject told several different stories about when and where she was born.  Our erstwhile "researcher" decided that seven testimonials of people who knew her some 35 or so years later, in an entirely different state, proved one of the stories was the true one.

As the presenter began talking about her subject's life, she warned us right up front that she wouldn't "bore [us] with great details" about how she had proved a lot of her information.

The presenter talked about how the research subject was supposed to have been born in slavery in Georgia, then somehow (before the Civil War) beame indentured in Nantucket for nine years.  How did that happen?  Well, it's a "long, involved story" and she "[wouldn't] go into it now."

We were shown four lines of an 1850 census page that was supposed to prove that the subject was married to a particular man -- except that the subject wasn't one of the people on the four lines.

Now, as almost anyone who knows me will attest, I have a very low tolerance for BS.  At the end of a work day, that tolerance is even lower.  So at this point I was having trouble keeping quiet.  I decided to go out to the lobby and look at the book that the speaker had available for sale (self-published, of course).

Well, that was a mistake.

The text of the book has no references.  No footnotes.  No endnotes.  No citations.  Nothing to indicate where the information came from to document any of the assertions in the book.

The book does have a reference list.  It is constructed as a list of sources that were "consulted."  Seven of the sources were the speaker's own works.  About twenty of the sources were interviews with octogenarians.  While these types of interviews are wonderful to use as leads for real research, they are not usually accepted as stand-alone evidence by themselves.  Other sources listed were incredibly generic, such as "city directories", "census", "archival documents."

While I was looking through the book, the speaker was talking about how her subject had often said that she had worked with and learned from a very famous person.  So how did the speaker "prove" that this was true?  She interviewed the subject's granddaughter, who said it was true.  Oh, so it must be, right?

The speaker is said to have a Ph.D.  This is not the quality of research I am accustomed to seeing from someone who has earned a Ph.D.

<rant mode off>

Genealogists often have a bad reputation for shoddy or questionable research.  If you present, or even do, historical research of any kind, including genealogical research, please take the time to use established best practices in your work.  Document your facts.  Use citations.  Resolve conflicting stories with facts.  Make sure that anyone who reads your work knows where your information came from.  If you have theories or beliefs that you are not able to prove, label them as such.  And as my friend Carol said, don't forget that the devil is in the details and people will be looking for that devil.


  1. I understand not wanting to publish her name here, but I do hope you've enlightened the person responsible for inviting her to speak not to give her a reference, so she is not referenced as an "expert" or even as a worthwhile speaker for the future? If she's allowed to continue without being reviewed publicly "by name", she will of course use her speeches before groups like this as a reason others should have her speak to their groups. A review can be done truthfully and with examples, as you've done, to allow others to make their own conclusions or decisions to purchase her book or go see her speak.

    1. I tried. Before I left, I did tell one of the society staff members that I thought the presentation was an embarrassment for a historical society and why, and also pointed out the deficiencies in the presenter's book. What the society officers do with the information, of course, is up to them. Somehow this researcher has already earned references from others for preveious presentations; since this is the first time I have heard her speak, I cannot say how the earlier talks compared to this one.

      I actually considered buying a copy of the book in order to dissect it piece by piece. I had already left the venue and turned around to go back. After a moment's consideration, I decided the speaker had not earned my money, even for that purpose.

  2. I'm amazed that this sort of stuff (I can't call it "research") was allowed to be presented at the Historical Society. Whoever vetted this person needs a wake up call. I hope this post get back to them.

    Side it "an Historical Society" or "a Historical Society." I solved the conundrum by using the article "the" but that was a cop-out. Just curious.

    1. The presenter has several references for her previous work. I have not read or seen any of it previously so cannot say how it compares to what I heard and read last night, which was said to be the culmination of 21 years of research. But revisionist history is popular for topics such as the research subject, and it is the type of topic that many people are hesistant to say negative things about for fear of appearing insensitive or racist. From what I saw, though, the Emperor has no clothes.

      As for your grammar question, I believe "a historical society" is generally accepted as the preferred construction. Using "an" would be appropriate if the "h" were not pronounced, but that is not the normal pronunciation, even in the UK.


All comments on this blog will be previewed by the author to prevent spammers and unkind visitors to the site. The blog is open to everyone, particularly those interested in family history and genealogy.