By Christina Riehman-Murphy, Marissa Nicosia, and Heather Froehlich
Could a small recipe transcription project make space for student contributions to broader public knowledge? How could we facilitate our students situating themselves as part of a community of local undergraduate scholars and the larger international EMROC community? Would they even see themselves as scholars?
These are the pedagogical questions that Marissa Nicosia, Heather Froehlich, and I pondered while collaborating on the second iteration of a three semester undergraduate research project on early modern recipes at a small local-serving public land-grant campus where students tend to have significant financial need and more than a third are first generation. With a 3:5 faculty student ratio, these questions felt particularly important. In a typical undergraduate English classroom, the faculty is an expert on the course’s primary texts as well as the wide context of scholarly conversations around those texts. It is unusual for undergraduate English courses (even advanced courses) offered at American universities to focus on unpublished material held in archives, museums, and libraries due in part to the liberal arts structure of college degrees.
In this project, faculty and students work together to investigate primary source materials. Creating authentic space for students to contribute their voices to those conversations in a meaningful way is a challenge. Funded through an undergraduate research initiative largely used by the sciences and social sciences, we had to adopt certain hands-on, practice-based laboratory experiences to students, most of whom have never interacted with rare, historical materials before – either in a physical or digital way.
As this was not a typical classroom, we felt a bit more freedom to experiment. Experiences such as undergraduate research projects like ours, are arguably high-impact for both the faculty and students alike. For example, they create a space where faculty can explore pedagogical practices, such as student-led inquiry, renewable assignments, and open pedagogy, in order to create situated learning experiences and transformative outcomes.
We pulled back lectures so that inquiry could drive the discussions and encouraged students to share their evolving interests as they would determine subsequent semesters’ syllabi and their final research outputs. We gave each student a copy of They Say, I Say because of its emphasis on demystifying academic writing and helping students find their authentic voice. To help students begin to see themselves as scholars with accessible entry points for contributing to scholarly conversations we swapped journal articles for undergraduate-authored blog posts and taught textual analysis via Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes. We rebranded the library classroom space The LibLab to create an atmosphere of humanities experimentation.
Ultimately though, it was the choice to decentralize our authority as faculty by selecting an unfamiliar manuscript that had the greatest impact. The five students who joined the project in Spring 2019 were to transcribe V.b.380, a seventeenth-century digitized handwritten recipe manuscript from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s early modern recipe collection. Marissa had tested a recipe from the manuscript as part of her public history project, Heather has extensive experience in early modern digital humanities projects, and I teach undergraduate humanities majors how to research. But none of us had anything close to textual expertise for V.b.380.
In January, Marissa started the students on the project with a brief lesson on paleography and Dromio, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s transcription portal, and set them free to begin their semester long work of transcribing their assigned pages. In the first few weeks the students’ questions about the recipes led the bi-weekly discussions and Marissa’s answers contextualized those recipes within early modern life and history. Questions like did she really catch and kill swallows (yes), did she actually test these remedies on her family (yes), and why is she using so much sugar paved the way for energetic and sometimes incredulous discussions on early modern medicine, ecofeminism, invisible labor, and the transatlantic triangle trade of enslaved labor which resulted in large quantities of unexpected ingredients in students’ recipe trancriptions.
The middle of the semester brought two new experiences. Heather introduced Voyant for linguistic analysis of their transcriptions and we visited the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. where we got to see V.b.380 on display in the First Chefs exhibit and were able to handle rare material manuscripts and meet with the exhibit curators and developers of the transcription portal. In both of those instances, the traditional authority dynamic was reversed when experts had genuine questions for the students. What verbs were most frequent in your transcriptions? What could be improved in the portal? What did you find interesting about V.b.380? What kind of notes are in the marginalia?
By joining this project they had become part of a relatively small group of undergraduate student scholars using Dromio and doing recipe transcription (e.g. see the EMROC project) and most importantly, they were developing authentic expertise on V.b.380. As Heather explicitly pointed out to them in her lesson, how often can faculty genuinely tell undergraduate students that they have unique expertise on a primary text?
By the end of the semester, we had learned a great deal about V.b.380 from the students and in this way the library classroom project site imitated the early modern kitchen. As historian Elaine Leong has argued, recipe books make visible the site of the early modern kitchen as a place of knowledge production. Student transcriptions of those recipe books make visible their own scholarly expertise and undergraduate research as a site of authentic knowledge production.
Christina Riehman-Murphy is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Penn State Abington
Marissa Nicosia is an Assistant Professor of Renaissance Literature at Penn State Abington
Heather Froehlich is the Literary Informatics Librarian at Penn State University Park