Tag Archives: historic recipes

Teaching Transcribathons and Experiential Learning

On September 18th, EMROC is holding its annual Transcribathon. In this post, Liza Blake offers some expert–and excellent–advice on hosting a Transcribathon event in your class or institution.

Liza Blake

As we all prepare for the next EMROC Transcribathon on September 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.

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 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), and went over how to mark up transcriptions in Dromio. I also gave them a manuscript “alphabet”—a cheat sheet 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.

  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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!


  • 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 Schoolchildren with Historic Recipes

By 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.