Lehigh history professor Rachel Taggart poses for a portrait on Wednesday, May 1, 2019, outside of the STEPS building. While pursuing her PhD, Prof. Taggart oversaw her students as they transcribed historical documents to contribute to history websites. (Brian Lucas/B&W Staff)

Learning beyond a textbook: Professor Rachel Engl’s class transcribes historical documents


History professor Rachel Engl incorporates an interesting activity in her HIST 041: Making and Breaking of the United States class that both engages her students while serving the greater public.

And her students love it.

Engl is pursuing her Ph.D in history, and for her dissertation she transcribes 18th century primary sources among other historical documents, which she decided to incorporate into her teachings for a specific reason.

“A lot of what we get today on the news has a spin to it,” Engl said. “So to go back to the original state, that’s where students can make their own interpretations and formulate their own opinions.”

Engl has not only partaken in it but has known about different programs in which organization’s crowdsource transcriptions and publish them to their databases.

She reached out to a number of institutions that had documents online in need of transcription that could not only help researchers but the general public, allowing for documents to be easily found and understood. She networked with different historians on Twitter to help get some ideas of how this could be useful.

David McKenzie, associate director for interpretive resources at Ford’s Theatre, responded to Engl’s tweet in need of help with transcriptions. Combined with her own work and the help of others, Engl was able to formulate a list of options, including the Library of Congress and Ford’s Theatre, for the students to pick from for their first transcription activity.

“I am very grateful that Professor Engl suggested this to her class,” McKenzie said.

The transcriptions from Engl’s class to McKenzie has been helpful in improving the database.

The students enjoyed the project so much that she gave them the option of either writing a final paper on Frederick Douglass or transcribing runaway slave ads, in which about half the class chose to transcribe.

Robby Griswold, ‘21, was one of the students who chose to transcribe the fugitive slave documents instead of writing the paper.

“It was like an insider’s view,” Griswold said. “You can read a textbook. But that’s already written by someone else, the transcriptions are like a firsthand account.”

Engl said after the first class, she had never had students more engaged and focused on any other activity than this one. She had the students turn it in, and many of them revealed to her that they had shared this information with their family and friends, which encouraged her to keep this activity going.

Griswold said when students learn from a textbook or word of mouth, things tend to get glossed over. He said transcribing is more important because students can see the reality of how things were.

“It gives you insight into what people were thinking and feeling, because too often we see a political picture of things and don’t get a feel of what normal folks were talking about,” said Stephen Crane, ‘21.

Engl has taught this course before at Northampton Community College, but this is her first time teaching it at Lehigh and her first time incorporating this idea in the classroom. Based on the feedback she’s received, Engl said she plans on continuing this in the future.

Engl has expressed rising concern about the ability to understand script in the coming generations. She said it is a real concern among historians because all the documents are in cursive.

“It was definitely difficult, but they were up for the challenge and it wasn’t impossible to do either,” Engl said.

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