Transcribing in Baby Steps

Jennifer Munroe

Woodcut, Anatomical Fugitive Sheet, c.1540.  Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A woman, all layers lowered, (after restoration) Engraving Published: circa 1540 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Woodcut, Anatomical Fugitive Sheet, c.1540. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

When I decided to have students work on transcribing a manuscript recipe book, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. After all, I have been transcribing manuscripts for over ten years, and at this point I am finally getting fairly good at it. I had to some extent forgotten the pleasure and pain associated with my first try at the difficulties of reading secretary hand. But including manuscript documents in our collective research and teaching gives us a way to uncover voices previously silenced, experiences and perspectives hitherto only marginalized, which allows us new ways to think about questions of feminism and ecofeminism alike related to the women’s relationship in particular with the nonhuman world.

By exploring alternative perspectives on this relationship, students learn more than just how early modern Englishwomen engaged with plants and animals in symbolic as well as very practical ways (though that would be reason enough). What I aim to facilitate is their understanding of the reciprocity that is inherent to living on this planet for women (and, of course, men) then and now. The climate change crisis that we face today is only the latest symptom of what many have argued is a larger problem that begins with our neglecting our fundamental connection to the nonhuman things that surround us, are within and comprise us (if we recall Michael Pollan’s New York Times piece on the microbiome).  The work I was asking students to do was, therefore, aimed at facilitating greater sensitivity to such relational thinking, and it materialized in the intellectual understanding they gained as much as the collaborative relationships they developed with each other.

Last fall, I taught a graduate seminar that looked at the human/nonhuman relationship in early modern English texts. The course considered a range of texts from the most canonical, literary (Shakespeare, Milton, Cavendish) to print and manuscript recipes. The transcription took place during a four-week unit embedded within the course. Students worked first with a partner and then by themselves to transcribe two total manuscript pages of recipes. Students in the course had no experience with transcription, which was actually a positive thing as far as I was concerned because it allowed them to see this material with fresh eyes. I used the Cambridge site as a primer for students and spent one week of our unit working through the basics of paleography. It was a crash course, really. Even with such minimal preparation, and some work on their own with exercises on the Cambridge site, students were ready to start their transcriptions during the following class.

By Week 2, students were still apprehensive about working with manuscripts, but they partnered with another student to transcribe one page (usually two or three recipes) from Lady Frances Catchmay’s manuscript recipe book, available digitally through the Wellcome Library.  The time spent during class working through the transcription helped me realize several pedagogical goals: first, our classroom became a laboratory of active learning, as students struggled with the details on the page; second, that learning was collectively achieved by way of their discussing with each other how they might interprets letters and words that at first glance may as well have been a completely foreign language. By the third and fourth weeks, students transitioned to working on a page of their own, but the classroom became no less a collaborative space. In fact, at this point students had achieved a high enough level of comfort with their discomfort with the text that room began to sound a bit like an auction house; students called across the room to one another to ask for help with a particular word or, as happened especially during week four, to explicate with wonder, excitement, and sometimes revulsion (puppy water anyone?), the details of a particular recipe they finished.

Why do this work, though? If measured by the total number of pages students transcribed by the end of the unit (only approximately 10 or 15), one might wonder if the product warrants the number of weeks dedicated to the exercise. But that’s really not the point as far as I’m concerned. Most immediately, having transcribed these recipes offers students access to a different perspective about the relationship between humans and nonhumans, at the very least because the print texts we have from this period are almost exclusively by men. But doing this work also connects students to something bigger than they are: the imperfections of paper and ink that made someone from the past seem more human; the nonhuman ingredients used by an early modern woman for sustenance and health that reflected her interdependence with the earth and its resources; the relationships students forged with each other through trial and error that allowed them to make these discoveries. While I won’t claim that all of the students in the class decided that further transcription is in their future, I feel confident that they were changed by the experience. Their understanding of relationships of various kinds expanded. They came to see in a different way the historical particulars of how women used plants and animals even as they became participants in a dialogue that is greater than themselves. And that’s reason enough for me.

Happy Birthday to us!

By Elaine Leong

This week, The Recipes Project celebrated its second birthday. It seems like yesterday when Lisa Smith approached me to start an academic blog to showcase the wonderful ways in which our colleagues around the world research and teach with recipes. Over the past two years, the blog has published over 200 posts and featured the work of more than 50 researchers. This is a big thank you to all our contributors. After all, my life is definitely richer having found out about tobacco enemas, learnt about Glauber Salt, discovered the wrong way to distill turpentine, gotten ‘in’ on the medieval Russian secret hangover cure and somehow become a fan of Ed Sheeran through Manchu recipes. Also, now that it is plum season in Berlin, I cannot bite into one of those juicy purple fruits or eat a slice of Pflaumenkuchen without thinking about Johannes Magirus. So, a big round of applause to our contributors around the world.

As a historian of reading, I spend my days and nights dreaming of and writing about early modern readers. At The Recipes Project, we’re lucky to have a band of dedicated readers. If you’re a fan of the blog, you’re in good company. For the past year, around 10,000 of you regularly log on to the site every month. Thank you for your support and we hope that you’ll keep reading and hitting that comment button to let us know your thoughts. Finally, a big thank you to our friends in the Twitter and Facebook spheres, the editors of the H-word on Guardian.co.uk, the editors of the various History Blog carnivals – thanks for all the shout-outs and keep’em coming.

Let’s raise our glasses of seasonal organic cider to another year of discovery on The Recipes Project!

Teaching Recipes Online: Building Community and Purpose

Rebecca Laroche, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.17.58 PMI started teaching an early modern survey of women writers online in 2002.  My reasons were many, not the least of which were feminist.  Serving a largely military community, the University of Colorado Colorado Springs had more than its share of military spouses, mainly women, who had suddenly found themselves single parents as their husbands were deployed in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and online courses provided the means to continue their education in a flexible manner. The fact that extensive research in early modern women coincided with the establishment of online databases meant that the course’s content was also in line with its form.  Our primary “textbook” was Women Writers Online, then recently released by Brown University. My position at a rapidly growing research university serving a large geographic region meant there were resources for teaching online, and we were in many ways ahead of the national trend. I was able to experiment with different discussion formats and social media manipulations that spoke to the need for intellectual community and deep inquiry within the format.

It wasn’t until a necessary hiatus from online teaching while chairing the department and a sabbatical in 2012 that I came to a profound realization about this aspect of my teaching self, however. Many professors who are teaching online, including myslef, have gone about it all wrong.  The online environment is not simply an update of the classroom to which one translates what you’ve already taught, approximating in the virtual that which we’d come to value in the real. Rather it is its own sphere with its own pedagogical aims and outcomes.  And in this realization, I have developed Early Modern Women Writers Point Two.

You see, during 2012, I also became a founding member of the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), an international group of scholars committed to creating a database of English recipe manuscripts 1550 to 1850, transcribed and searchable. With hundreds of these manuscripts extant, the task was huge, yet we had all come to recognize the importance and richness of the work.  And with women’s key roles in the genre, it was feminist work, clearly. In our first meetings, it became apparent that this work could sustain generations of scholarship, but it also became certain that it could sustain teaching.

Before becoming chair, I had begun to incorporate “online edition” assignments into ENGL 3200, as one challenge to having Women Writers Online as one’s textbook was the lack of editorial mediation for students.  They could not understand the texts, not because they were incomprehensible, but because they were early modern and had not been “Nortonized.” I wanted students to see that, in line with the theorization of Margaret Ezell, the problem of women writers in the Renaissance was not that there were so few but that there were so few made accessible to modern readers.[1]  Having students make their own edition not only helped to make the works more accessible to students it also made them to realize the work of making things accessible, work from which the male canon had benefited for a century and which still remained to be done for many early modern texts.

From this assignment, recipes were an easy leap, and in the last two manifestations of the course I have made EMROC’s mission the work of the second half of the course.  In these months, students learned to transcribe (currently I use the Cambridge University transcription site and various handouts from Textual Communities), read entries from the Recipes Project blog (to learn about the extensive scholarship at play), performed group work in transcription, transcribed a page of the text themselves, took on the basics of XML, and submitted the document either directly to the database (making them a contributing member) or to me to be submitted with a note to their work. It is difficult scholarship, and at first quite daunting, but the group support meant that the task that first seemed impossible suddenly (often magically) became recognizable.  With the help of the OED (introduced during the online edition portion of the course), they were developing early modern vocabulary and became enmeshed with early modern concerns.  The early modern period, and the labor women did in that time, was alive to them in ways never before experienced.

After two semesters of teaching the course this way, I have had several students catch fire with this mission and with their roles as undergraduate researchers. In October, you will be able to read the research done by two students who continued their coursework on Catchmay in an independent study. One of these young women is even looking into her MLS degree so she can continue to work in the archive.  As they contribute to the database a year after their coursework, I will be teaching two sections of the course in the Spring of 2015.  As my students are transcribing in tandem with other face-to-face courses across the country (see Amy Tigner and Jen Munroe later this month), the online medium underlines the future of collaboration.  You see, to this day, the steering committee of EMROC continues to meet bimonthly on Google+.

[1]. Margaret Ezell, Writing Women’s Literary History (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Teaching Schoolchildren with Historic Recipes

Amanda Moniz 

Last February, I visited the Washington Middle School for Girls, a Catholic school serving girls from underprivileged backgrounds in Washington, D.C., to make cookies from the first African American cookbook, published by Malinda Russell in 1866.  In this post, I’d like to reflect on what I learned about the challenges and possibilities of teaching history in schools through hands-on cooking programs.

First a little background about Malinda Russell.  Born in Tennessee around 1820, Russell lived most or all of her life as a freewoman.  At age 19, she intended to migrate to Liberia, but her plans were stymied.  She married and had a son, worked as a washerwoman, and, in time, learned to cook.  After her husband’s death, she kept a boarding house and then opened a pastry shop.  During the Civil War, she was attacked and robbed for supporting the Union and fled to Michigan.  In 1866, she published her cookbook to raise funds to return to Tennessee, where she hoped to recover her property.

Malinda Russell cookbook photo

The Washington Middle School invited me to explore the life of this determined woman and make one of her recipes with the school’s 35 fourth and fifth graders.  I chose Russell’s recipe for jumbles – a cookie made with rosewater, mace, and caraway seeds.  The school has no kitchen, so we agreed we would prep, but not bake, the cookie dough in the lunchroom.  So that the students could try the jumbles, I would bake the cookies at home and bring them in.

So on a bitterly cold day at the end of February, I found myself nervously unloading grocery bags at the school.  I had taught children before, but never 35 of them.  I wasn’t sure if I knew how to present either the history or the baking lesson in a school setting.

After I set up, the teachers ushered the kids in.  I started by asking the girls what they knew about slavery. They were able to speak knowledgably about slaves’ experiences.  Then I asked what they knew about the lives of free African Americans in the antebellum era, and the answer was just about nothing.  I explained that Malinda Russell was a free African American who had lived when most African Americans were slaves.  I outlined her story and talked about obstacles she would have faced.

It was time to make the jumbles.  I had students read the recipe aloud and identify ingredients.  Next I assigned tasks.  Then, we got to work and this is where things went somewhat awry.  While waiting for ingredients to be passed around, the kids jostled each other and got a little noisy.  I found it challenging to maintain order with the girls.  We got four batches of the dough made, however, and the kids rolled or shaped it into balls or double rings.  Finally, we sampled the jumbles – and they were a hit.

So what did I learn?  Most important, I recognized that teaching history through recipes to elementary and middle school students (and, surely, high school students too) critically depends on K-12 educators who know how to teach schoolchildren and can anticipate their needs and interests in ways that a visitor like myself could not.  I had thought through every step of the recipe and how to make it work even though we weren’t in a kitchen, but the lack of a kitchen turned out not to be a real issue.  Instead, the fact that some ingredients had to be passed from table to table created downtime for the girls to become antsy.  I wanted the kids to measure out ingredients themselves – this is what cooking is – but I should have put, for instance, some flour into a bowl on each table and let the girls measure from it, rather than have to wait for the 5 pound bag to come to them.  An experienced K-12 teacher would not have made that and similar mistakes.

K-12 teachers are paramount in educating our children about history, but academic historians and institutions such as the American Historical Association (AHA) have key roles in broadening our children’s educational experiences too.  Russell does not find a place in elementary, middle, or high school curricula – although she can be fit into the study of the Civil War – and here is where academics can make a contribution.  Scholarly interest in food history is going gangbusters.  Historians would do well, I think, to collaborate with elementary and secondary school educators to identify usable primary sources that can be related to curricula.  The AHA’s K-12 workshop at the upcoming annual meeting in New York, in January 2015, will do just that: The workshop will explore teaching the history of World War I through food.

What worked?  The students loved the opportunity to cook at school.  They were eager to answer my questions and to read aloud from the cookbook.  But the chance to take ingredients and transform them captivated them.  And it created openings to teach history.  The girls at the Washington Middle School, and likewise, the students at the Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, New York, who I spoke with by Skype last February, wanted to know more about foods in the past.  The ingredients – something they could relate to but perhaps had not thought about as having pasts – sparked their historical curiosity and imagination.

Did I do everything right?  No.  Can we use historic recipes to teach history?  Absolutely.