Smith — Early Modern Women and Gender

Reflections on Teaching Transcription in a History Class on Women and Gender

By Lisa Smith

I had my senior-level undergraduate class on “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe” transcribe a large portion of Johanna St. John’s book in the autumn term of 2012. Although I’ve blogged on the process of teaching collaborative transcription when I was still fresh in the moment, as a teacher I’ve since had much time to reflect on the successes and failures of my in-class project as a whole. Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. For your reading delectation and ridicule, you can take a look at my syllabus and assignment descriptions to see where it all went wrong…

Here, I give you an overview of the  course, followed by my successes, failures and remedies for next time.


On the first day of class, I introduced students to the project and the importance of transcription as a scholarly activity. I also went through the basics of doing transcription (letter forms, semi-diplomatic convention and started students off trying to decipher some easy-to-read hands. For homework, students were to transcribe some recipes using these conventions. I recommended Scriptorium as a useful resource for transcription and the OED as a reference for vocabulary.

Next, I introduced students to XML code for doing transcriptions, as well as the Textual Communities platform. Students turned in another assignment that helped to familiarise them with using XML.

After a couple weeks, the students submitted the first half of their transcriptions, using the Textual Communities platform, to make sure that they were on the right track.

The next assignment included tagging, to show students’ understanding of the recipes. This led to several good classroom discussions about the construction of databases.

The students submitted their final transcriptions via the Textual Communities platform. Initially, I had planned to have students double-key, but the double-keying facility was not completed in time.

Along the way, we met regularly with Peter Robinson (the Primary Investigator for Textual Communities) to offer feedback about the usability of the platform.

By the end of term, twelve students had completed nearly two hundred folios of transcription. See here for the names of my 2012 transcribing team.

A classroom with children sitting at long tables. Lithograph J.B. Sonde. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A classroom with children sitting at long tables. Lithograph J.B. Sonde. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Successes

I loved teaching online transcription. It was a chance to bring research into the classroom in an exciting way by involving students in the behind-the-scenes work that scholars so often undertake. This was the highest energy class that I have ever taught. The students were excited about the project and, by the end of term, it was clear that they had learned a lot about TEI, editing, transcription, and digital methods in history. Many of the blog posts that drew on the St. John post were fantastic and three of them were worthy of publication on The Recipes Project. And, of course, they had all worked hard on their transcriptions. By the end of the term, students had a portfolio of digital work that they could show for their efforts and an entry for their CV.

The biggest assignment success was where I least expected to find it: tagging. The students were tasked with the goal of deciding what terms and concepts were important in five recipes that they had transcribed. They were to think of a standardised language to describe these (tags) and to justify their choices of terms, concepts and language–in other words, considering how data in databases is selected and constructed, as well as trying to identify what other researchers might want to find in the recipes. I wish that I had focused more on this, as it highlighted the importance of close-reading and the construction of seemingly neutral digital data. It also gave me insight into the way my students’ minds worked when breaking down a mass of data and led me to think about the recipes in new ways.

The Failures

My discussion on failures is frank only to keep you from making the same mistakes!

The course was trying to be too many things to be entirely successful. Owing to the stringent and far advanced timeline for new course proposals and planning next year’s timetables–both of which had passed long before this particular transcription project was a glint in my eye, I had to make do with an existing course that I had planned to teach. Women and Gender seemed a natural fit, especially since I had planned to teach the subject within the context of the household anyhow.

But the ‘Europe’ and ‘Women and Gender’ parts of the course posed an immediate challenge: limiting the number of readings that I could assign on the histories of medicine, books and England. These had to be squeezed into a supplemental reading list. And the ‘supplemental’ nature of the readings meant that I had to rely on the varying enthusiasm levels of overly-burdened undergraduates who had signed up to take a course on Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe NOT a course on Transcribing Early Modern English Recipes.

As the digital and transcription nature would have come as a surprise to many of the students, I felt obligated to offer some more traditional options. While I hoped that they would all blog on and write essays about the St. John book, I also didn’t want to compel them to skip over assignments on women and gender, which is what had attracted them in the first place. This meant that the students reflected less on the St. John book and collaborated less on the project than I had hoped.

I was also a bit ambitious in what I thought students could do. In my misguided attempts to equalize workloads between the digital project and a standard research essay, I figured that one page of transcribing was about half a page of researching/writing. I envisioned that students would read their recipes closely and be able to write, with a minimum of effort, a series of assignments drawing on their transcriptions. This would not be excessive work on top of their transcriptions.

Except… most students chose to do further work on other women and gender topics. To make matters worse, about two thirds of the class found either learning XML and/or transcribing very difficult. And, as I came to realise, to do a good transcription and close-reading (e.g. looking up words in the OED and adding them to the glossary; understanding what was actually going on in the recipe and its wider context) of one folio is more work than researching and writing one page for a term paper.

As Textual Communities has both wiki and chat functions, I encouraged the students to share their expertise with their classmates online, such as building up a glossary, pointing out particularities in hand-writing or sharing the reasoning behind their XML choices. Very few students contributed to the wiki or chat. This, perhaps, seemed like that little bit of extra work too far.

Some of the issues were more technical. Textual Communities was a very new platform and we were the first guinea pigs to try it out for collaborative work. This meant that the platform was in a state of constant flux, which was frustrating to both the students and me. To give only one example: part of the assignment I’d originally set out–double-keying or checking transcriptions–had to be dropped altogether because the function for double-keying was not completed in time.

Then there was the matter of assessment: how do you grade an online transcription? To begin with, I tried to think of it in terms of grading the French translation language exams that I administer in my department (is the translation trustworthy?), but ran into the problem of looking at two separate things: translation into XML language and transcription. My basic grading scale was woefully inadequate when confronted with, say, an excellent transcription that had several XML errors. Grading so many transcriptions was also difficult and required a greater attention to detail than essay marking; for my own sanity, as well as the students’, fewer transcriptions will make everyone happier…

The Remedies

The old writing master sharpens his pen with his students in the background. Lithograph by F. Hanfstaengl, 1836, after G. Dou. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
The old writing master sharpens his pen with his students in the background. Lithograph by F. Hanfstaengl, 1836, after G. Dou. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As I most certainly plan to teach transcription using the Textual Communities platform again, I’ve come up with a plan for how to make this an even better experience for the students and me.

The first of the remedies is pretty simple: develop a new shell course that I can use for teaching transcription using different types of sources. This should be one that, upfront, aims to develop students’ digital and close-reading skills, as well as being historical in nature. This might even encourge non-history majors to enroll, which could make for some lively discussion and collaboration. Alternatively, it could be offered within a slightly less specific course than Women and Gender, such as one on Early Modern Medicine.

Collaboration and close-reading need to be made an explicit part of the assignments for the course. First, I would strip out any work that did not focus on transcription or close-reading of the sources. I had the students doing far too much! Second, participation through wiki contributions would be worked into formal assessment. Third, the reasons behind collaboration and editorial decision-making need to be made much clearer so that students understand why sharing their knowledge is important.

Indeed, the students’ roles as textual editors need to be drawn out more: what is the value of their TEI transcription? How do their decisions about XML (should a word be expanded or left as is?), spelling or word choices when ambiguous, glossary definitions, and editorial comments shape the text that is being (re)created online?

As to the technical issues: 1) never plan for anything that isn’t already built in yet, as the promises of programmers are often impossible for them to keep; 2) assess the XML and transcriptions separately!

Next time…

  • focus assignments and course content on one text, its specific context and digital methodologies
  • fewer transcriptions, but closer reading of what there is.
  • more discussion around tagging
  • include double-keying (now that it is functional!)
  • focus the blogging only on the text or methodologies

Comments and advice gratefully received!

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