“The American Scholar”

ByTaryn Dollings
MA Student, UNC Charlotte

Ralph Waldo Emerson describes “The American Scholar:”

“He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation […] Long must he stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept, – how often! Poverty and solitude.”

My copy of Emerson’s speech is highlighted and punctuated with “Yes!” and “I feel that!” and “Life of a grad student!” So often we sit, as I am now, alone in our dark chambers, pouring out thoughts and words onto a glowing computer screen.

The Transcribathon this October was a welcome change, and my first experience with what I felt to be hands-on scholarship on a large scale. The Early Modern Paleography Society at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte holds regular meetings where we work to transcribe receipt books as a group, puzzling over conventions and rejoicing over the many different names for peaches. However, the energy in our cozy little room at the Folger Shakespeare Library was different. Through our collaborativethe Trello board, I could see the other students and professionals faculty across America and the rest of the globe ticking off keyings of the manuscript of Rebeckah Winche. Someone would occasionally pipe up about an odd ingredient, or we would pause to marvel at the amount of sugar and butter that went into an early modern dessert. Tweets about strange recipes were shared from scholars near and far.

Beyond the exciting sense of community, there was a satisfaction that we were doing something tangible and lasting. Because of our work at the Transcribathon, scholars across the world will have access to the receipt book of Rebeckah Winche. At the end of the day, we got a glimpse into the vetting process, where transcriptions were overlaid so that our more experienced colleagues could compare interpretations and determine how the manuscript would be digitally preserved. It was rewarding to think that we were enabling others to study the same work that had delighted us all day.

Our fun didn’t end with the Transcribathon. My fellow travelers from UNCC and I were able to return to the Folger the next day to study manuscripts, letters, and even printed books with newspaper clippings pasted inside. As quietly as we could, we crowded together, sharing our discoveries and questions.

So, I have concluded that Emerson may in fact be wrong. We do not have to forego the living for the dead. Our best work happens through active collaboration, and I look forward to sharing in that collaboration throughout my studies and career.