Wednesday, August 12, 2009

BYU Conference 2nd Keynote: John Philip Colletta

This article is one in a series of session reports from the recent BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy. I tweeted the session live, but I hate to send you to Twitter to read them because they appear there in reverse chronological order. I’ve straightened them out for you here. Additions are shown in italics.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

John Philip Colletta, Ph.D. Good morning, #genealogy fans. It's day 2 of the #BYU conference. We just finished the morning keynote, John Philip Colletta, “Writing a Narrative Family History: The Challenges, Pitfalls, and Rewards.” (8:43 AM Jul 29th from TweetChat )
He spoke on the challenges, pitfalls, and rewards of writing a narrative family history. (8:45 AM Jul 29th from TweetChat )
Sorry about today's coverage. I'm presenting today, so my mind is half in preparation mode, not leaving much bandwidth to tweet. (8:46 AM Jul 29th from TweetChat )
Avoid anachronisms. Read as much background material as you can. Colletta wrote up a narrative account of a family story in Mississippi in the 1870s. His description of a courthouse scene included starlings on the lawn. Later he learned that starlings didn’t make their way to North America until later.
Don’t use anachronistic language, such as “pipsqueak,” in historical narratives before such terms and phrases were invented.
Don’t try to describe the historical context for your ancestor using a famous contemporary event not associated with your ancestor. He read a student’s paper that noted the birth of an ancestor in Kentucky the very day that Queen Victoria became the Queen of England. Colletta noted that the ancestor’s life was totally unaffected by Queen Victoria. While giving a reader a familiar reference point, it used a context totally alien to the ancestor.
Avoid glib generalizations about your ancestors. Just because something is generally true, doesn’t mean it was true for your ancestor. Colletta’s Italian grandmother hated to cook.
Avoid “presentism” - judging the past using modern sensibilities. He mentioned reviewing a student narrative that made the statement, “I don’t know why she didn’t leave her husband.” The student was imposing a modern possibility on an ancestor who lived in a time when leaving a husband could not be done.
According to his syllabus, his next point was to avoid unfounded assumptions. I must have missed that, worrying about my presentation later that day. His example sounded like it applied to his first point, anachronisms. He mentioned a PBS special showing the White House and the Capitol building the way they are now, instead of how they appeared during the depicted period.
When you study background material, be careful about applying modern meaning to words whose meanings have shifted over time. What was his example? It seems like it had something to do with coming of age. A 20 year old man a month short of reaching “majority” (was that the word he used?) could be called … a child? an infant?
I also mostly spaced the last to-avoid item mentioned in his syllabus: uncritical reading. Records don’t always tell the truth.
In his conclusion he gave a list of weasel words and encouraged us to use them. (On Wikipedia, weasel words are to be avoided.) They aren’t really weasel words. I didn’t get any of his list down, but the idea is to couch statements in a way that discloses the uncertainty one must deal with in writing narrative histories.
These words might have been on his list:
Possibly
Could have
Maybe
Might
Perhaps

Credit is due the Deseret News. Scott Lloyd’s coverage of the keynote helped jog my memory of the address:

Remember that tweets are limited to 140 characters. Less the #byugen hashtag, each tweet could not exceed 132 characters. Hence, tweets often use abbreviations, bad grammar, and lack proper punctuation.

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