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.

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.