On Transcription in the Undergraduate Classroom

By Ian MacInnes, Albion College

Last year, I taught my upper-level class on Early Modern Women’s Writing for the first time in five years. As I planned the course, I reflected on the enormous difference five years had made in the accessibility of manuscripts. In other classes, I had noticed how my students’ eyes lit up when I introduced even a few manuscript passages. This time, I decided to go all in – to make manuscript transcription and study the central scholarly endeavor of the class, using EMROC and the skills I had developed in Heather Wolfe’s amazing paleography workshop at the Folger Library. I learned a lot by building my course around manuscript study, and the results surprised me. I had thought of manuscripts simply as an engaging subject matter, but they ended up fundamentally altering my students’ perspective on humanities scholarship. Their growing confidence made them more curious and more determined. They began to see texts as opportunities to develop new insights and ideas, and they began to see such insights as truly belonging to them.

Paleography takes time

The first thing I learned was that working on paleography throughout an entire course instead of creating a “unit” in the topic is definitely the way to go. While an intensive week-long workshop might be fine for faculty members who are already expert in an area of study, undergraduates clearly need time and practice to develop their skills. I began by introducing a few lines from a different manuscript every class period, trying to add a few skills each time. Soon, I had them create analytical alphabets for a given hand, with screenshots attached to letters. Next, they participated in an EMROC transcribathon with its fairly easy text (using the Folger Library’s collaborative Dromio transcription engine). Eventually they moved on to help EMROC with a more difficult manuscript (also using Dromio). As a final step, I asked them to cook one of their transcribed recipes, hewing as closely as possible to the ingredients (which I provided) and the methods (including cooking on an open fire) and to make their results public in a on-campus demonstration. One advantage of working slowly and systematically, I found, was that my students’ growing expertise in the subject matter of the course help them learn paleography. And building skills carefully can allow students to tackle challenges happily. As my student Julia Vitale, ’19, put it,

“As a future teacher, I also loved the scaffolding involved in this assignment. We learned how to transcribe, and then we read many readings written by women about gender roles, stereotypes, cooking, writing, etc. At the end of this assignment, we got to combine those skills with some cooking, and then present the results to the class, trying each others’ food.”

Embracing my ignorance

I was a little worried when putting together my plan because I don’t feel that I’m an expert in paleography yet, and I knew there would be times when students might bring me difficult passages I might not easily decipher. They did, but the result turned out to be extremely helpful because it let me cast myself as their colleague and collaborator. Making my own effort visible also helped promote a growth mindset for my students, showing them that paleographic skill is a result of effort and careful thought, not intelligence. When I would eventually decipher the passage, I would explain my process as a way of helping them develop problem-solving skills and of encouraging them to persist. My student Courtney Rogers, ’19, began referring to herself as “Detective Rogers”: “It feels like a challenge to figure out what the missing pieces of the puzzle are,” she said, “which I love to do.”

Making the humanities collaborative

The transcription of manuscripts for public presentation is collaborative, so I knew I needed to emphasize collaboration. What I learned is how positively my students responded to collaboration and how it changed their understanding of the humanities. Participating in EMROC’s transcribathon early in the course helped convince students that collaboration is valued among serious scholars. Student Kellie Brown, ’21, said, “I think what made me feel part of the community was that we were seeing the live feed on Twitter about other people participating in the event, and that I felt like I really could understand what I was reading even though a couple of weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to read those documents at all.” I tried to keep collaboration at the front of my students’ minds through the rest of the semester by having them work in groups, share problems, and cooperate on solutions. And it made me happy when a student like Lauren Huggett, ’21, would say, “I got a real sense of accomplishment when I helped one of my peers figure out a word.”

Transcription requires scholarship

It turns out that manuscript transcription doesn’t just help students develop a detailed and analytical approach to language. In all my early modern courses, I introduce students to tools like the Oxford English Dictionary and Early English Books Online (EEBO). But in this class, my students quickly realized that these tools were the key to prying open the meaning of tantalizing passages in manuscripts; they were far more strongly motivated to use them than I’ve experienced in other classes. They also developed a new respect for online maps, Wikipedia, and even Google’s auto-complete feature. Depending on the manuscript, students had to draw together knowledge from areas as disparate as lexicography, cultural history, ethno-pharmacology, mathematics, theology, basic Latin, and chemistry.

Make room for reflection

In part because the project was new for me, I built formal reflection into each assignment, but I quickly realized that these reflections provided much more than a sly opportunity for feedback. Reflections made my students partners in the scholarship of teaching and learning. They helped them develop a perspective on the nature of scholarship in the humanities. And they allowed them to develop new insights. As Stephanie Saksa, ’19, said, reflecting on her attempt to cook from a seventeenth-century manuscript: “In the end, everything that frustrated me about this baking actually helped me realize that baking wasn’t something put in place by the patriarchy to oppress women, but rather women creating for themselves to communicate with each other, be creative, have a purpose, and put their mark on society.”

Transcription is original scholarship

Ultimately, I learned that manuscript transcription can help with that elusive humanities goal: integrating original scholarship into the curriculum. By using the Folger’s Dromio engine and focusing on manuscripts targeted by EMROC, my students realized they were making a significant original contribution to the field; their work was true scholarship and not just a classroom exercise. They were solving new problems and their knowledge was being disseminated to others in the field. Paleography is a teachable skill, and it has immediate payoffs in terms of student engagement, curiosity, and close reading. But it has much larger payoffs for our students by transforming their relationship with humanities scholarship.

Here are some links to my materials:


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