As a founding member of Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC)—an international group whose main objective is to transcribe early modern receipt book manuscripts and upload them onto an open, searchable database—I, along with my EMROC compatriots, wanted to create a labor force to increase the number of transcriptions available to the public. As many of us teach at universities, we thought it would be a great idea to conceive of classes in which a portion of the workload would contribute to this digital humanities project. I have to be honest, that at first, I thought of my students as a kind of slave labor, but Rebecca Laroche (see previous blog post in this series) quickly reminded me of the value for students of what we were trying to accomplish as scholars ourselves. After all, we are in the process of building a new source of knowledge and making viewable to the masses what had previously been seen only by the lucky few. Also, such a process would in fact teach the students valuable skills that they could use if they continued in the profession, or, if not, they could parlay into other pursuits outside academia. From a traditional point of view, students would need to learn paleography, a necessary skill for any archival work. As more and more libraries are digitizing their manuscripts, there will be quite a lot of this kind of scholarly work for years to come. Additionally, students would learn how to code their transcriptions into XML in order to upload their work to the database, Textual Communities, which is hosted by the University of Saskatchewan; this skill is clearly transferrable to the outside world.
The first class I taught that incorporated this project was a senior seminar for English majors at the University of Texas, Arlington, in spring of 2013. The course was entitled “Recipes for Literature/Literature of Recipes.” I have a previous post that details the course, and students in the class also posted blogs about their discoveries in transcribing Wellcome MS108, a receipt book written by Jane Barber. As this course was really successful (students generally loved working on the project), I thought I would take it to the next level and have graduate students contribute. So the following year, I taught a class entitled “Food, Women, and Manuscript Culture.” The course was designed to change students’ conception of the “literary” by broadening the meaning to include household writing, and in particular recipes. The graduate students (like the undergrads) first had to learn how to decipher seventeenth-century handwriting, so I (like Rebecca Laroche) had students use the Cambridge online paleography course, a site that has progressively difficult handwriting examples from the period.
I found in both classes group work was key, as students get easily frustrated with the kind of work, especially as most were inexperienced with difficult and archaic handwriting. As some students naturally have a greater aptitude for transcription than others, they were to become teachers—good practice for many whose future plans include teaching. When it came to coding, which was a completely new world for me, students had to use problem-solving skills or often relied upon other students to help them. This collaborative atmosphere in the class created a greater sense of intellectual community—and fun. Another interesting thing happened, however, in the work of transcription and later of coding: students had to slow their reading down, often to the level of deciphering individual letters, in order to read the text. Thus transcribing and coding turned into close reading, causing students to dig deeper to find meaning. We often ask students to read a text slowly and carefully, but more and more students are losing the patience to read in this manner. Our experience with the Internet, and with media more generally, trains us to read quickly and to skim the surface but rarely to be contemplative. This digital humanities project brings together traditional scholarly pursuits with twenty-first century technology to contribute to a growing a body of knowledge about the past.