Teaching Recipes Online: Building Community and Purpose

By Rebecca Laroche

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).

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