Dr. Anne Lindsay / University of Central Florida / Assistant Professor
I began assigning transcription in my upper-division undergraduate courses several years ago. It was a natural outgrowth of my own dissertation work at the time. I had recently completed a course in paleography and was spending hours reading in archives across the eastern seaboard, looking for clues to the everyday life of the eighteenth century. I was teaching a course in Colonial America and we had been discussing the value of travel diaries; I had some copies of a short travel narrative from my own research, so I brought them in, did a quick overview of paleography, and set them to transcribing. My intention was for them to use this primary source in an upcoming assignment, so they would have the historian’s experience of finding a document, reading it, and using it in research. It was a big hit right away. Circulating the room I had students stop to tell me that this was fun, it was like a puzzle, unlike anything they had done before. There were also bursts of excitement from those who had FINALLY figured out the word they were looking for. A particularly troubling passage about a flock of turkeys had several students in serious discussion about what animals come in flocks. For the rest of the term, I heard from students about how much they liked it, some wanted to continue to transcribe, and of all the sources that we read, they remembered the content of this one the most and referred to it with ease. Needless to say, this activity was a keeper and has continued to be featured in my upper division courses in one form or another. The Glassford and Henderson project allows me to take this assignment to the next level.
I started the project with Mount Vernon with the Fall Semester of 2012 with my undergraduate course in public history. I believe strongly in service-learning in all public history courses. I believe that public history education cannot be accomplished through classroom work alone. There are lessons that I can’t teach – some things just have to be experienced to be understood. Working together with Molly Kerr at Mount Vernon, I set up a partnership where my students would be participating in the crowd sourcing of the Glassford and Henderson project. Each student was given some lessons and practice in paleography and then individually requested documents for transcription. I worked throughout the term to facilitate the process being careful not to micro-manage the students. I wanted them to have the experience of the independent scholar in a client relationship with a community partner. I set up some days where we went to computer labs together, talked about progress as a group, and shared ideas for blogs. Each student was required to write a blog based on a topic that they found interesting in their work. They were each required to do twenty hours of transcription during the term and were responsible for self-reporting their hours and maintaining their relationship with the institution. In addition to the transcription, blog, and hours logged, each student also wrote a reflective paper about what they learned from the experience.
At the end of the term, looking at what was accomplished, reading blogs, and grading reflective essays, I learned a lot about our undergraduate students and about service learning in the classroom. First, I learned that our students had never before really thought about the process of history before. Taking a document from its raw form and making it into something searchable and more accessible for researchers taught them many of the lessons that I had hoped for, the things I can’t teach. They learned that history is a process that involves many individuals working together but not always in conversation directly. They learned that research and transcription take a lot of time and that history can be a solitary experience. They also had a lot to say about being a part of something bigger than themselves and their course. I was very happy with the results overall. Three of the blogs from my course (see posts from students Stephanie Smith, Sarah Thorncroft, and Cristina Peters) have been posted on the Mount Vernon Mystery Midden blog. I know that they learned the skills of the historian and the public historian from the project. They also learned something about themselves as independent scholars which every historian must discover at some point in their career. My students had been in traditional classrooms with assignments that managed their time very closely up to this point. Putting them in a classroom where they managed their own hours and work and were responsible to a client was completely out of their comfort zone.
Were there draw backs to this project in my classroom? Of course! Some students resented the freedom. They wanted to be told what to do and when to do it. Some students claimed that they had spent 20 hours on one page, when most others did 3 sets of documents in the same period. Some didn’t care what they typed into the spreadsheet, just trying to get it done, even if it didn’t make sense. Most of these issues were related not to the transcription as much as a lack of comfort and confidence in a self-paced learning environment. As I approach the project again with my Fall 2013 public history course, I have changed some things to try and ease these issues. Students will have a number of required pages instead of required hours. We will have a bi-weekly discussion about the transcription work where students will share their accomplishments and struggles. I will keep a better eye on who seems to be keeping a manageable pace and who is falling behind. We will also have a Skype session with Molly Kerr to assist students in feeling accountability to a client. I can’t wait to see the results. I will keep you posted!