By Robin Kello, PhD Student, UCLA (formerly, MA Student and co-founder of EMPS, UNC Charlotte)
“Ahem. These manuscript books are portraits of the past. The past is another country, in which we discover the oddities and continuities of our own cultures and customs.”
Eyes glaze over in my “Food and Social Justice” course. A young man pulls the brim of his baseball cap lower over his eyes. Their phones suddenly become even more attractive to their restless attentions. The temperature rises. I am doing it again—trying to impart wisdom.
Much to the dismay of their future teachers, I encourage students to ask that most difficult of questions—Why do it?—about any intellectual endeavor. How might Calculus, Film History, Business, or indeed recipe transcription, add to one’s life? I emphasize values that transcend the economic, visions that emerge out of new labors, how the recipes on these centuries-old pages articulate relations between the human and nonhuman worlds. Perhaps that energy is at times infectious, but a monologue, no matter how ecstatic, remains a monologue.
The transcribathon provides another model—more immediate than trying to convince—of exposing undergraduate students, who may be drawn to digital literacies and the use of the internet to broaden the realm of knowledge, to the work of recipe transcription. It replaces description with discussion. In place of explanation of discovery, there is discovery itself: the deciphering of a troubling letter, a slanted secretary-handed word, a thoroughly weird recipe. Wait, does that say “Sheepeshead Pudden?”
On April 8, 2016, the Early Modern Paleography Society of UNC-Charlotte (full disclosure: I serve as their note-scribbler, the secretary who is vexed and awed by secretary hand) hosted a transcribathon. During the course of the day, novices and old-hands alike worked their way through an anonymous 1720 manuscript of recipes and remedies. EMPS even provided a sample of candied Angelica, cooked according to the specifications of the manuscript. If you have ever longed to cross celery and licorice, I recommend get your hands on this recipe.
The transcribathon itinerary included a panel discussion with students, professors, and a representative from the botanical gardens of UNC-Charlotte, who conversed on their relationship to this sort of work from perspectives that bridged Environmental Sciences and the Humanities, and touched on the political and ethical aspects of reflecting on human/nonhuman relations by way of seventeenth and eighteenth-century manuscripts. Their points of view provided a constellation of entry points into the study of early modern texts—spanning from Shakespeare to the North Carolina soil, from the leaf of the page to the leaf of the branch. A student interested in literature, history, new instructional technologies, or collective learning—each had a window into a way of conceptualizing this labor, before engaging in the labor itself, and they continued to ask questions about the panel participants long after the day was over.
But on the day, we got back to work, eyes on screens and fingers on keys, not just watching and interpreting but creating. I would like to think that what may have seemed esoteric to my students became immediate and concrete at the transcribathon, that I helped them cross theory and action, the warp and weft of all valuable labor. At the end of the term, I asked my students what the most interesting aspect of the course was, and a few said the transcribathon.