Coding, Cookbooks, and Other Interdisciplinary Feasts

By Timothy J. Tomasik, Associate Professor of French, Richard P. Baepler Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Valparaiso University

In early December, two graduating French majors, Jennifer LeCaptain and Andrea Sanchez, of Valparaiso University presented the fruits of their labor in this semester’s senior seminar at a banquet to commemorate their efforts.

Jennifer and Andrea chose to take on an experimental project for their senior seminar. The goal of the project was to produce a digital scholarly edition of a Renaissance cookbook. To accomplish this goal, we set out to learn some of the basics of Renaissance cuisine and the history of its cookbooks (my primary scholarly expertise). From there, they also needed to learn about print culture and the history of the book so as to understand the format of a Renaissance printed book. To produce the electronic edition, they 20161205-hao-renassaince-french-banquet-006aalso needed to learn how to read the gothic script of the original text and then transcribe it correctly. Finally, they took on the even more daunting challenge of learning how to code the text using XML and the markup conventions from TEI (text encoding initiative). Before the end of the semester, we could code more than 90% of the original text.

Once the marked-up data was in place, we called on the assistance of colleagues and students from Computer and Information Sciences to help us build a web interface for the digital edition. Two students, Isaiah Sorvaag and Nate Weber, under the guidance of Professor Nicholas Rosasco, created a web page for the text using a template called TEI Boilerplate. Since the French students had painstakingly coded modernized spellings in their transcriptions of the original text, the CS students created a toggle for readers to either see a default version that shows both the original and regularized spellings at the same time, a regularized version that only shows the corrections, or a verbatim version that shows the exact original text. Additionally, they provided links for each page to a PDF of the original document so that readers can compare the digital transcription to the original text.

20161205-hao-renassaince-french-banquet-007aThis project could not have been accomplished without the collaboration of students who know enough French to puzzle out a challenging text and those who know enough about coding and web interfaces to present the resulting data in a usable form. We often talk about the value of interdisciplinary work on campus, but we have so few opportunities to put it into practice. This seminar was an exception to the norm. My students pushed their French knowledge to the absolute limit, while also acquiring practical computer coding skills that may be attractive to future employers in our increasingly digital world. They also began to think like editors, not transcribing and coding a text for a grade in a class, but in order to share this never-before-published text with a community of scholars and readers outside the walls of their own institution. This experiential, project-based course allowed them to learn on a deeper level, but leave the course knowing that they produced something that will endure beyond the classroom and that they can be proud of. We plan to have them present this project at the Butler Undergraduate Research Conference as well as our own local Celebration of Undergraduate Scholarship.

20161205-hao-renassaince-french-banquet-008-200To celebrate this accomplishment, we organized a Renaissance banquet centered around dishes for which we could find recipes in the cookbook we worked on. French students and faculty, as well as our colleagues in CIS, were invited to this convivial event and Jennifer and Andrea presided over the proceedings. After they presented their project to their peers, we had a formal, four-course banquet that both challenged and (pleasantly) surprised the students in attendance. It was a perfect end to a powerfully engaging semester.


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