Using Voyant Tools in the Undergraduate Research Classroom

[note: this post is cross-posted to the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) blog. see it here.]

This semester I have partnered with Dr Marissa Nicosia (Penn State Abington) on an undergraduate research course she runs on Early Modern recipes in collaboration with my colleague Christina Riehman-Murphy as part of the larger Early Modern Recipes Online Collective initiative. In this course, students transcribe recipes from a 17th century recipe book using Dromio (transcribe.folger.edu), learn about Early Modern food culture and history, and develop a lot of hands-on research experience with Marissa, Christina and me. This semester we and our students were focusing on a medicinal and cookery book associated with Anne Western, owned by Folger Shakespeare Library and affectionately called MS v.b.380.

This course has a pretty serious transcription element, where one of the requirements was that each student would transcribe 40 openings using Dromio throughout the semester. Since each student was responsible for submitting a Word file of their transcriptions to Marissa for grading, we then had a substantial (but not complete) coverage of the volume to work with. And it could be easily be loaded into Voyant Tools for some linguistic exploration.

Over the course of the semester, students have also grown increasingly comfortable with the differences between contemporary and early modern recipes with regards to both genre and format, so we wanted to get them to think about the language of recipes more pointedly. The students were already experts in the language and style of the author they were working with. And since the students were so intimately familiar with the work they had already done, it was a little less of a hard sell to get them to think about their work from a more birds-eye view and think about what the language of their recipes looked like in aggregate.

Before class met, we asked the students read three contemporary chocolate chip cookie recipes.[1] We had a brief discussion about the overall form of these contemporary recipes before dropping them in Voyant to practice reading from a birds-eye view. Chocolate chip cookie recipes, as you may have guessed, do not have a whole lot of variation, making this a pretty low-stakes way to introduce the various features of Voyant: word cloud, reading pane, general trends over time (not particularly useful for this genre), concordance, and some basic statistics.

3 chocolate chip cookie recipes in Voyant

three chocolate chip cookie recipes in Voyant

Once they were comfortable with the idea, we ramped up the stakes a little. In small groups, our students looked at their own transcriptions in Voyant, taking notes on what made their sections of the corpus similar and different to each other. This process was designed to get the students to think about what their recipes were doing not just stylistically but linguistically, too: what are the lexical ingredients of their recipes? This primed for discussions about polysemy (a pound of something vs pound the ingredient) and words marking for measurement (spoon). One group even discussed the importance of the verb mingling as a way to describe mixing things together in one student’s particular section of the recipe book.

Now used to the software and the process, we looked at the full class corpus (a compiled file consisting of all the students’ submissions). Students and faculty partners practiced some close reading, identifying terms of interest and looking at them using Voyant’s concordance feature, including a variety of ingredients (sugar, water, butter, mace, rosemary) and verbs for actions chefs may use (again, back to ‘mingling’ and ‘stir’).

VB380 class corpus in Voyant

looking at the class corpus in Voyant Tools

And though we had been discussing the role of VB 380 as a medicinal and cookery book throughout the semester, this was thrown in sharp relief while the we all thought about the language of the class corpus. Certainly one big surprise was the relative importance of ‘sugar’ compared to ‘water’ in VB380. We were very struck by the lack of fixed vocabulary for the recipes, though we all had a pretty clear sense of expectation for the full-class corpus based on our earlier exploration. And, finally, we had a brief discussion about variation and affordances of changing some of data to deal with the question of spelling, authorship and authenticity.

While this was set up to be a discussion of linguistic features (nouns versus verbs; variation; etc) many students commented on how salient some terms were as transcribers – yet these were deemed less important in the overall big picture provided by Voyant. Ultimately, this left our brilliant students thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of both Voyant’s birds-eye view and linear start-to-finish reading – which was an even better outcome than I could have asked for.

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Additional notes:
This is related to another undergraduate classroom activity I have done a few times where students read several online articles related to a theme, try out the birds-eye-view approach to the topic using Voyant, and then move into trying it out on some of their own writing (forum posts, assignments, etc) to think about their own style. It works pretty well as a way to get undergrads to think about their own style and editing in a way that is a little less obvious than other formats.

Please also see Miriam Posner’s very excellent Investigating Texts With Voyant workshop (10 April 2019) for more ideas https://github.com/miriamposner/voyant-workshop/blob/master/investigating-texts-with-voyant.md

[1] For the curious: One was from Smitten Kitchen, one from Martha Stewart, and a recipe of their choice from the NYT’s giant chocolate chip cookie compendium. (If I was doing this again, I would maybe not use NYT, as it kept asking us to log in. Also if I was doing this again, I’d be bringing cookies into class!)