Teaching Transcribathons and Experiential Learning

By Liza Blake

This post is one of seven scheduled to appear in The Recipes Project’s upcoming September Teaching Series, which focuses on new ideas and strategies for teaching with recipes.

As we all prepare for the next EMROC Transcribathon on Sept. 18, I look back at the role Transcribathons might play in literature classrooms—specifically, in this case, a class on early modern women’s writing (compare techniques here and here).

Interested in bringing transcription into the classroom? It’s easier than you might think, and just as exciting for your students as you might expect! This post describes a locally hosted, teaching-oriented EMROC Transcribathon, and provides some resources for those wishing to host local Transcribathons of their own.

Scene from Toronto Campus

This winter the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) hosted Professor Rebecca Laroche to lead a local EMROC Transcribathon. The Transcribathon was made possible by funding from the UTM Graduate Expansion Fund, the UTM Department of English and Drama, and the University of Toronto Scarborough Department of English. Two University of Toronto graduate RAs put time and energy into the event: Melanie Simoes Santos (English Dept.), and Cai Henderson (Centre for Medieval Studies).

The UTM Transcribathon was hosted for the 47 UTM undergraduates in Professor Liza Blake’s early modern women writers course, 307 Women Writers syllabus W18 (abbreviated for sharing).

The course was designed around experiential learning: in addition to the Transcribathon, students also received training in textual bibliography and editorial theory; critically analyzed editorial choices in two women writer anthologies; and each produced an edition of a text of their choosing for a class-wide anthology (conducting bibliographical research, undertaking textual collation, and producing textual and bibliographical introductions for their texts). Students left aware of the work that went into producing their textbooks, and empowered to not just consume but produce those texts themselves.

At the heart of the course’s emphasis on experiential learning, then, was the EMROC Transcribathon, where students gathered together to transcribe, and reflect on the place of transcription in a women’s writing course. For attending and participating in the Transcribathon for at least an hour, and submitting their reflections, students received a grade worth 5% of their final mark.

What does it take to run a local Transcribathon? Not much! The funding sources mentioned above allowed us to fly in and host an EMROC representative (Prof. Rebecca Laroche); reserve a room and provide refreshments; and hire graduate RAs to serve as (paid) organizers and facilitators. But at a minimum, one needs only a designated space and a committed group of transcribers!

Leading up to the event, we talked in class about EMROC, and why so many scholars are invested in transcribing these recipe books. I went over standard transcription conventions, describing the differences between transcribing and modernizing with a handout (Transcription Conventions) and I went over how to mark up with this handout: Dromio guidelines.

I also gave them a manuscript “alphabet”—a cheat sheet (TurnerMS alphabet) showing the manuscript’s particular graphs. These handouts were prepared by Melanie Simoes Santos and myself. Jennifer Munroe has also written on helpful tips for easing students into transcription, here.

On the day itself, the instructions were simple: show up for an hour and transcribe! One student wrote about the experience, “It gave me a surreal sense of intimacy with a woman who lived in a completely different time,” and another was surprised that “the personal grammatical and expressive preferences of the author became familiar to me; … I didn’t expect something like an old cookbook to possess such a distinct voice.” One student said, “It never occurred to me how much work actually goes into uncovering a work, transcribing it, and publishing it in an anthology,” and this insight prompted larger reflections for another student: “Getting the chance to transcribe something makes me think about the relationship that exists between the original work versus the modernized or edited work we see in our anthologies.” The event allowed one student “to reflect … on why certain texts are privileged and transcribed over others.” Another concluded, “I felt like I was contributing to something bigger than just our course.” There were also extremely practical outcomes: “I learned how to make orange pudding and dry figs!”

Anyone interested in hosting a local Transcribathon of their own is welcome to get in touch with me; I’m happy to share funding materials or answer questions about hosting. In the meantime, I leave you with some parting thoughts and tips.

1) Flexibility. Though many students cherished the collaboration of the group Transcribathon, some students had irreconcilable work obligations, so I allowed a few to “check in” and “check out” via email, and send copies of their transcriptions, if they couldn’t come in person.

2) Food. Funding made it possible to have ample refreshments set out for the duration of the event, and many students mentioned how much they appreciated draw of the free lunch.

3) Prizes. A trip to the Canadian store Dollarama the night before yielded us some cheap prizes: e.g., if someone found the word “spoon” in a recipe, they could win a wooden spoon to add to their own kitchen.

These prizes were surprisingly effective motivators for our transcribers, and we’d recommend this practice to others!

4) Beyond? It might have been exciting to try the recipes themselves out, as other Transcribathons have done, or to link the Transcribathon more specifically with a same-day research event. Transcribathons that include linked research talks remind participants of what is at stake in their transcribing labor.

Undergraduate Recipe Research Wins PSU Abington Prize

By Marissa Nicosia

EMROC member Marissa Nicosia was recognized for her teaching and mentorship of undergraduate researchers with the 2018 Abington College Faculty Senate Outstanding Teaching Award. At the Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities poster session her students were awarded the 2018 Blue Ribbon prize for an Arts and Humanities Project and the library’s Information Literacy Award.

Early in the fall 2016 semester, a student approached me after class to ask if I “had an ACURA” project. In the parlance of my home institution, Penn State Abington, “ACURA” is an acronym for the thriving Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities program. This program fosters student and faculty research collaborations that are a hallmark of our small, undergraduate-focused campus. At first I was stumped: I didn’t have an ACURA project planned and the program seemed to be dominated by science and social science research. But I thought about my research process for Cooking in the Archives, the ongoing transcription work of EMROC and Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO), and my colleagues’ stories about working on recipes with undergraduate students in the classroom and beyond. Why couldn’t I run an independent study about recipes that would be useful for students, for me, and for the community at large? I designed and launched a research project entitled “What’s in a Recipe?” which has become a multi-year collaboration with four students.

Here is a link to the syllabus for the 2017-2018 version that I discuss in what follows. At Penn State Abington, this ACURA project counts for one course credit in the fall and two credits in the spring. Students and faculty meet by appointment and projects take radically different shapes depending on the topic and the discipline. I’m planning to redesign this course next year to include more DH instruction through a collaboration with Heather Froehlich and other colleagues at the library.

The first thing I asked students to read was a Student Collaborators’ Bill of Rights. We talked about the fact that their labor contributed to an international digital humanities project and that they could (and should) utilize the information that they were generating for their own scholarly pursuits. Then we spent the fall semester reading crucial background articles and a recipe manuscript from the Folger Shakespeare Library collections. Over the past two years we have worked on two seventeenth-century manuscripts of medical and culinary receipts owned and compiled by gentlewomen named, respectively, Margaret Baker and Mrs. Corlyon. Although this might seem like a straightforward activity, as EMROC readers likely know, seventeenth-century handwriting is far more difficult to decipher than modern cursive. After accessing online resources on paleography—the study of historical handwriting—students worked with me and with one another to master the handwriting in the manuscript and type up transcriptions of large sections of the book. In addition to participating in the transcription project and learning about recipe books in general, during the spring semester each student also developed a personal research project. The readings for the second half of the course are tailored to what students were curious about at the end of the fall semester. Students have tested recipes for healthful foods and cosmetics, investigated perfumed gloves and humoral theories of sleep, and considered Baker’s self-fashioning as a healer and collector in her manuscript. You can read what they have to say about their experiences here and here.

I’m pleased that ACURA funding supported a trip from Philadelphia to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC each year so that the students could consult the original manuscript that they had been working with, see other recipe books for comparison, and discuss their research topics with curators and scholars at the library. Turning the pages of the manuscript that they had scrutinized and deciphered online was simply electrifying. Students reported that this experience of handling rare materials and engaging with the broader scholarly community was equal parts transformative and informative.

Working with students on this shared project has forced me to ask questions about recipes that I would never have asked if I had simply continued my research alone. Since my research is focused on food – specifically, recipes for dishes that sounds so tasty that I want to recreate them in my kitchen – I often skim over the recipes for plague water, face cream, salves, perfumes, and restorative broths that fill early modern recipe manuscripts. But my students were curious about these recipes, and drawn in by their questions I became more curious, too. I tried one of Margaret Baker’s possets and I’m planning to make some “sweet bags” of potpourri when the weather turns cooler. As I continue to research manuscript recipes, I’m excited to work alongside my students and see where both my interests lead them and their interests lead me.

Teaching Transcription and Recipes at a Liberal Arts College

In a new undergraduate course at Bowdoin College about health and healing in the early modern Iberian world, we dedicated a unit of our semester to studying recipes from the period, as curative and culinary, considering questions such as access to ingredients, location of preparations and intended makers and recipients. We began our unit with introductory materials from selections from Carolyn Nadeau’s Food Matters (2016) and Michael Soloman’s Fictions of Well Being (2010). We then spent a class session in Special Collections for some hands-on work. Although we did not have any examples of Iberian recipe books on hand, the college is fortunate to possess a 1662 copy of The queens closet opened: incomparable secrets in physick, chyrurgery, preserving and candying, allowing students to handle the palm-sized edition of this widely popular 17th-century English recipe book, commenting on the materiality of the book, the contents of the recipes and connections with cabinets of curiosity as well as the gendering of medical practices.[1] In anticipation for this visit, students also spent time with the virtual paleography tutorial preparing them for their first encounters in transcription during this visit.

Bowdoin’s resourceful librarian Marieke Van Der Steenhoven curated a selection of manuscripts in English, offering a variety of hands and examples of types of documents with early material from the collection. Some of the documents included a French-to-English translation of Pierre Jurieu (1637-1713); A 1772 court notice for the trial of Ansell Nickerson who was “charged with the crime of murder, committed upon the High Seas”; A revolutionary war letter from Jacob Gerrish to L. Jewett dated November 23, 1778 regarding troop provisions and movement around the Boston area; and a 1727 land deed for the township of North Yarmouth, Maine. Along with our hands-on help, students consulted tips on transcription using selections from this guide.

Thanks to advice from colleagues in EMROC, I learned about the Granville manuscript as a source of information that would allow us to think about recipe circulation in the Iberian context, while also demonstrating ties between England and Spain and the global circulation of ingredients and preparations. The goal of the class was to introduce students to the history and content of this particular recipe collection, but also to provide space for some hands-on practice with digital transcription.

Here is one of the recipes, “receta para agua de ambar” or recipe for amber water, from the Granville MS, fol. 106r.

Below are some student responses to the transcription experience:

Francesca-Beth Haines: “From transcribing the two recipes I chose, I found that although the transcription was, at times, quite difficult and perplexing, it was very satisfying to figure out the word or words that were actually written… I learned to be patient and open-minded through this process. This was an eye-opening experience where I participated in something I never thought I would, and I was able to gain additional respect to those who perform these transcriptions because they can be very arduous.”

Hannah Zuklie: “Transcribing today was especially interesting because each recipe reminded me of the Lentils (Carolyn Nadeau) reading we did earlier in the semester, and it made clear that the Granvilles had access to privileged foods like steak, not to mention chocolate from the Americas.”

Cordelia Stewart: “Transcribing with DROMIO was an incredibly rewarding experience. While the process of transcribing requires patience and persistence, the omnipresent knowledge that every word decoded contributes towards a huge project of sharing is super fulfilling. It was a particularly empowering exercise as a Spanish-speaking female to work on transcribing recipes from historic Spanish-speaking females.”

Grace Mallett: “I learned the importance of understanding the context of the time period in which the manuscripts were written. With this background knowledge, illegible words will be much more clear and transcription is much more seamless. Furthermore, I feel like this experience truly allowed me to sense the history of the manuscripts. Seeing the original text / paper was very powerful and made my experience feel extremely authentic.”

Tessa Westfall: “I had so much fun decoding and transcribing the Early Modern recipes! It felt like I was a real detective, uncovering what people hundreds of years ago were interested in. It was so remarkable to me that even though the textual expression looked so different, the recipes I was working on could easily be found in a contemporary cookbook. The whole experience was a very exciting coalescence of past and present, old and new, and I felt really lucky to have contributed to the project.”

Catherine Call:  really liked the transcription class. It was fun, and like a puzzle. It reminded me of a religion class I took last year when we read excerpts from the Dead Sea scrolls and looked at the actual pieces they came from– this exercise (and looking at how tiny and faint the Dead Sea “scrolls” were) reminded me of how much work goes into making information available.

Sabrina Albanese: I really enjoyed transcribing the recipes. It thought it was interesting to know that we are able to be part of something bigger than ourselves and actually help out others studying recipes. It was like a puzzle trying to figure out what the writing was saying but it was fun!

Diego Villamarin: I appreciated having a class in Special Collections and Archives prior to the digital transcription. Getting the hands on experience with a peer reminded me the goal of our work. Also, working in a group allowed us to cover a larger span of the paper, since we covered each other’s weaknesses and we had the second pair of eyes to check over our transcription of the text. The individual work with EMROC in the library computer lab offered a hands-on experience that had a more immediate contribution since our transcriptions were sent immediately and were awaiting more transcriptions in order to ensure accuracy. Working in the presence of our peers certainly gave the feeling and rush of taking part in a “transcribe-a-thon”. With your and Marieke’s help, a lot of the common mistakes and hurdles were overcome. The experience gave me a new appreciation for the work that is done to make the papers and texts that I read legible and accessible.

[1] For a compelling introduction to this recipe book, see Opening the Queen’s Closet: Henrietta Maria, Elizabeth Cromell, and the Politics of Cookery (Laura Luner Knoppers, Renaissance Quarterly 60.2 2007)

Margaret Boyle is an Associate Professor in the Romance Languages and Literature Department, Bowdoin College.

Constance Hall’s ‘Carrott Pudding:’ A Rendition

A note about this post from Lisa Smith.

The following post is by an undergraduate student, Jessie Foreman, who worked with me on a research placement this summer, as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme at the University of Essex. What I appreciate most about her following post–besides its honesty about failure–is the way in which she highlights the assumed knowledge behind cooking, now as well as then. This post originally appeared at The Recipes Project.


By Jessie Foreman

From the Cookbook of Constance Hall, 1672, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.20.

From the Cookbook of Constance Hall, 1672, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.20.

A carrot pudding, how hard could it be?

Being a total beginner to early modern recipes, it was only logical that I should find a very simple recipe–not necessarily all that easy to do… I finally found a recipe that wasn’t cut off at the sides, used sixteen eggs and could feed the whole street… or require any ingredients that I couldn’t get from the local Co-op. In fact, I thought I was one step ahead of the recipe, since I had a fan-assisted oven and an actual Early Modern Assistant (thanks Nan!). How naïve I was!

As instructed in the recipe, we started by boiling three large carrots in a saucepan to fulfil the order of ‘4 spoonfulls of Carrotts.’ My Nan did start to scrape them before they were boiled, noting that it would be easier to do while they were still raw and not boiling hot, but we stuck to the recipe and scraped them after they were boiled. Beating the carrots in a mortar also proved to be very ineffective when it came to taking the pudding out of the oven, as you could see that they hadn’t distributed very well. I’m not trying to give baking advice to Constance Hall, but maybe she should think of grating in a few more things for a more even flavour.

Next were the eggs. I should’ve known that with ten eggs (two of which had the yolks removed) and a pint of cream, that I’d have needed something else substantial so it doesn’t come out as a runny mess. We whisked them up, but only to a normal whisked egg consistency – ‘beat them well’ leaves a lot to the imagination.

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

After that we added a generous amount of Aldi’s Own Brandy (in place of sac)k and softened butter, along with cream, salt and nutmeg. We used a spring whisk in lieu of not being able to use an electric mixer, and came out with a butter lump mix and cramp in one hand. It was hard to get rid of the lumps of butter in the mix, which had started clumping together and kept getting harder to remove. With the help of a spoon we did manage to squish all of them, but I wonder if the smaller remaining lumps can be blamed for the wobble on top of the pudding when it was in the oven. At ten minute intervals while the pudding was in the oven, I had to drain a growing lake of butter from the top of the pudding.

Grating the breadcrumbs was a nightmare: I’d bought fresh bread that morning, so it was very fresh and doughy. We should’ve used day-old bread, but by the time my Nan flagged that up, the carrots were already boiling, and the batter, already made. The recipe did not specify how much bread we should put in, only just enough to make it into a batter. As the mix was already sort of looking like a batter, we added in enough so that the grated bread was distributed evenly and went all the way through.

This was one of the main challenges we encountered while trying to follow this recipe: in any recipes, both old and new, there is a substantial amount of implied knowledge in the recipes. Given that fewer people would have read Hall’s manuscript recipe than modern printed recipe collections, there is even more implied knowledge; her audience was much more selective to begin with.

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

This wasn’t to last, though, as when we were pouring it into the baking tin, all of the mashed carrot and bread immediately sunk to the bottom. It was at this point that I started to think that the pudding might not quite turn out as planned… but there was nothing to do about it now, so I put it in the preheated oven for half an hour, draining Lake Butter every ten minutes. When the timer started beeping, I stuck in a knife to see if it was baked through. The knife was covered in grease, so we turned up the oven a little and left it again for ten minutes.

By the time the timer rang again, the top of the pudding was very brown, so there was no way that it could last any longer in the oven without getting burned. Whatever was inside of the tin now – whether cooked or sludge – was the finished product. I left it on the side to cool for about twenty minutes before turning it out onto a plate. The good: it solidified and kept its shape! The bad: just as predicted, everything had sunk to the bottom, so there was a very uneven distribution.

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

Image Credit: Jessie Foreman.

The pudding had mixed reactions from the official taste testers. My Mum said that the top of it, where there were no breadcrumbs, tasted like an egg custard. She quite enjoyed it. My Dad? He spat his into the bin.

Trying out this recipe wasn’t exactly a resounding success, but I thoroughly enjoyed a somewhat blind cooking experience and it felt like I was doing Constance Hall’s version of the technical challenge on The Great British Bake Off. If you’re not sure what this is, you should definitely check it out, where you’ll see baking disasters even worse than mine!

A Summer Project

By Lisa Smith

This summer, I had the pleasure of hosting Jessie Foreman as an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme student at the University of Essex. Over the summer, she worked on transcriptions for several manuscripts, tweeted occasionally about her findings, developed an instructional video, and tested a recipe… It was a busy summer!

She’s kindly taken a few minutes out of her busy start of term to answer a few questions about her placement.


From the Cookbook of Mary and Timothy Cruso, Folger Shakespeare Library, X.d.24, fol. 20r.

From the Cookbook of Mary and Timothy Cruso, Folger Shakespeare Library, X.d.24, fol. 20r.

How many manuscripts did you work on, and which was your favourite?

I worked on four: L. Cromwell, Mary and Timothy Cruso, Mrs. Carlyon and Constance Hall. I think I liked Cromwell the most, as the hand changed so often and it really kept me on my toes. But Cruso had some very intriguing political verses.

What was your favourite recipe?

My favourite recipe has got to be Hall’s Carrot Pudding because it’s the one I actually tried out, even though it didn’t go so well.

What did you like best about transcribing?

I liked the real connection I got with history when I was transcribing, and that my typing skills got much faster.

What did you find most interesting about early modern recipes?

The most interesting part to me was seeing how big the portions in the books were and how long the recipes took to make. Not exactly fast food.

Any summer highlights?

My highlight was definitely my attempt at making an actual recipe.


There you go: transcribing… an immersive connection with the past that also provides you with real world skills in cooking and typing! Sounds like a summer well spent.