collage of madeline freeman and matilda krell with old manuscripts and a microscope
Hands-On Humanities
Trinity students take on humanities research through lab experiences

“So, what are you going to do with a liberal arts degree?”

This age-old question has followed humanities majors since the dawn of, well, humanities majors. Yet to those who haven’t delicately cracked open the chipped spine of a centuries-old manuscript, or who haven’t challenged a historical perspective with inclusive research, or who haven’t questioned ideas and issues in a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths— the question may be more complex than they thought.

What are we doing with our liberal arts degrees? At Trinity University, we’re infusing them with experiential opportunities—undergraduate research, interdisciplinary projects, labs, clubs, and organizations that help students bring theory to life. To sum it up? Hands-on humanities.

As luck would have it, Trinity magazine’s two interns this past semester, Madeline Freeman and Matilda Krell, can tell us about hands-on humanities first-hand. Both, along with being double majors and majorly involved in co-curricular activities and student organizations, are active participants in two of the University’s most Trini-famous humanities labs: the Early Book and Manuscript Lab and the Roman World Lab, respectively.

So, what are they going to do with their liberal arts degrees? Well, currently they’re deciphering ancient texts and symbols, creating robust technological databases, developing collaborative learning and leading experiences, and publishing scholarly research. But don’t just take our word for it—take theirs.

English professor Andrew Kraebel and undergraduate researchers meet in a Northrup Hall classroom for the Early Book and Manuscript Lab.

For the Love of Old Books 

Early Book and Manuscript Lab offers hands-on experience with handwritten texts

by Madeline Freeman '23

When my First-Year Experience professor, Andrew Kraebel, Ph.D., told me about his Early Book and Manuscript Lab, my heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t imagined that my interests in English and Latin would land me in a hands-on humanities lab deciphering medieval manuscripts, digging into the handwritten books in which all texts were preserved before the invention of the printing press—and as a first-year, no less. Two years later, I’m getting ready to develop the work that I’ve been doing in the Early Book and Manuscript Lab for my senior thesis.

In Spring 2020, eager to continue working on the kinds of complex questions we had discussed and debated in my First-Year Experience humanities course, I met up with two of Dr. Kraebel’s current lab students: Kennice Leisk ’22, who was taking a Latin course with me at the time, and Becca Kroger ’21, who had helped me with my papers at the Writing Center.

The medieval manuscript Kennice and Becca showed me that day, a 12th-century commentary on the poetry of Virgil, admittedly looked like gibberish. I knew Latin well enough from high school, but between the scribe’s cramped handwriting and his frequent use of abbreviations, reading medieval manuscripts was like learning a brand-new language. It was like typing out the curvy letters of those online robot CAPTCHA tests, only I actually felt like a robot this time because the letters did seem warped beyond my human understanding. Nevertheless, Kennice and Becca could do it. I watched them decipher the Latin, fascinated by all the little details they picked up on, things that only someone familiar with the strokes of the scribe’s pen on the parchment would know. From my perspective, they were practically experts—and I wanted in.

Luckily for me, Kennice and Becca took me under their wing. In the fall, I started meeting with them and other lab members every week to work together on sections of certain manuscripts. At first, it went a little something like this: open my computer, pull up a digital facsimile of my manuscript in one window, have a master document open in another, get out my abbreviation cheat sheet that Dr. Kraebel made, and start deciphering the text in a separate document. The more time I’ve spent in the lab, though, the more complex my projects have become, like the one I’m currently working on with my thesis partner, Grace Rea ’23.

(left) Madeline Freeman ‘23 and Grace Rea ‘23 work in the Early Book and Manuscript Lab. (right) English professor Andrew Kraebel helps Alexandra Cortez ‘22 with one of the lab’s Middle English projects.

Grace and I first started working together in Spring 2021. Dr. Kraebel assigned both of us a single manuscript of a 14th-century Latin treatise called De amore Dei contra amatores mundi (On the love of God against the lovers of the world), written by the English mystic Richard Rolle. (Rolle was a kind of medieval spiritual guru, living as a reclusive hermit in the fens of Yorkshire.) The text presents a vision of the ideal religious life and of the possibilities for ecstatic mystical experience, and it was widely influential among later English authors. As I worked through the manuscript, recording and recovering Rolle’s thoughts, I became more and more fascinated with this unique way to interact with the Latin language. It took me a while to get in the groove, but with my knowledge of the language and my skills as a lab student growing, I was ready to dive even deeper into the text—and the next semester, that opportunity came.

During Fall 2021, Grace and I took Dr. Kraebel’s course on textual criticism with our fellow lab students Kennice, Claire Siewert ’22, and Sami Pynes ’22. As part of this class, we collated the first two chapters of De amore Dei from all of the manuscripts in which it survives. Very basically, this means that we compared manuscripts of the text, moving word-by-word and noting every place where one scribe wrote something that was different from the other copies. From this process, we were able to identify one manuscript, Oxford, St. John’s College MS 127, as the most reliable witness to the text, and we’ve now prepared a complete typescript of it. By the end of the semester, we also narrowed the pool of witnesses down to five manuscripts, the ones we determined to be closest to our base manuscript, to have the least amount of scribal variation, and that give independent evidence of what the author wrote.

Cut to Spring 2022, and Grace and I built on the collaborative work from that class. Once we’ve finished our collation of the rest of the text, we’ll be able to assess this evidence and determine what this text looked like when it left its author’s pen. We’ve also started to put together a translation of the Latin, making notes along the way of passages that present ambiguities or uncertainties in the manuscript evidence. Dr. Kraebel, Grace, and I check those places with each other to discuss how best to present the text and to make annotations. Ultimately, we’ll be putting together a critical edition and translation of Rolle’s complete text, ready to be published for use by students, scholars, and anyone else interested in medieval religion and culture.

And ours is just one of many projects in the Early Book and Manuscript Lab! Some students—including first-years—have been working on a variety of other texts, in Latin and Middle English, all related to Dr. Kraebel’s current research. Other students work with English professor Willis Salomon, Ph.D., on manuscripts of John Donne’s poetry and with classical studies professor Corinne Pache, Ph.D., on manuscripts of Homer. There’s so much work to be done, and so many different kinds of work!

It’s pretty incredible to reflect back on the day that I looked at a medieval Latin manuscript for the first time, having no idea how to read that seemingly foreign object; today, I can get through an entire page during one of our lab meetings. My responsibilities have increased so much over time, and I’ve been able to connect this interdisciplinary experience with my other interests and activities on campus.

I’m especially grateful to have learned from other lab students, who have become some of my closest friends at Trinity, and for the support and encouragement Dr. Kraebel has given me from day one. It’s amazing to see new students enter the lab with the same curiosity that I had as a first-year, and to be able to help them the same way that so many of my peers have helped me. That’s why the Early Book and Manuscript Lab continues to be one of my favorite experiences at Trinity.

Madeline Freeman '23 is an English and Latin double major and communication minor from Dallas who was a writing intern with Trinity Strategic Communications and Marketing.

Matilda Krell '23, a member of the Roman World Lab, researches "Noah in the Ark" in the Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter.

The Delights of Day One

Roman World Lab changes trajectory of this student’s time at Trinity

by Matilda Krell '23

I walk into the small, windowless conference room on the second floor of the Chapman Center. It’s a weird room—hidden down a short hallway next to the Department of Religion—but it feels special, not only because I have an actual key to it (as opposed to swiping in with my Tiger Card), but also because it’s where I meet with my Roman World Lab every Monday morning. As my fellow Roman World Labbers (as we’re called) and I settle into our chairs, professor Rubén Dupertuis, Ph.D., religion department chair and leader of our lab, walks in, cup of coffee in hand. He greets us as he always does—“How are you feeling today? Well? Well-ish? Well enough?”—before diving into our ongoing project.

When I received an email from Dr. Dupertuis in early fall of my junior year asking me to join the lab, I was surprised. He needed more people, and I had been in his class on non-canonical (meaning not in the Bible) Christian texts the year before. I was only a religion minor at that point, and I definitely did not feel qualified to participate in a professor’s research, especially not in a lab with projects that had been around for half a decade.

And then I walked into the first meeting.

I don’t know what I was expecting, given that the Roman World Lab was established as part of the Mellon Institute specifically to give students the opportunity to do research over a long period of time with close mentorship from professors—all things that aren’t feasible in a traditional class setting. I was a newcomer to a close-knit community of students and faculty who had focused for years on the intricate details of religious and non-religious writings from the Roman period. But Dr. Dupertuis and Zoe Grout ’22, the only other student in the lab at the time, quickly caught me up on their research and immediately asked for my feedback on an article they were hoping to publish.

That was just Day One. Since then, we’ve been writing short articles for Bible Odyssey provides accessible articles covering every imaginable topic relating to the academic study of the Bible. It’s a website I relied on heavily in my first few religion classes at Trinity, so I’m thrilled to be able to contribute to its vast collection of information. Anyone interested in religion can learn the basics of early Christianity through the site’s easy-to-read articles and video clips from experts in the field. The website focuses on study of the Bible, which is scholarly, as opposed to Bible study, which is religious. And although I have yet to publish my own article—I just finished one at the end of this past semester!—I’m excited to eventually see my name on a piece of work available to the public.

Rubén Dupertuis, Zoe Grout ’22, Pia Rodriguez ’22, and Matilda Krell ’23, the Roman World Lab team in Spring 2022.

Our Spring 2022 project was an analysis of various pieces of early Christian artwork. The Roman World Lab had three students this past semester: myself, Zoe, and Pia Rodriguez ’22. Each of us researched and wrote our own short article about one piece of early Christian art. I did my research on “Noah in the Ark,” an image that can be found in the Roman catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter. This image is not a stand-alone piece; rather, “Noah in the Ark” refers to a common set of symbols: Noah standing with outstretched hands in a box-like ark with a dove and olive branch, found in multiple pieces of early Christian art.

The research for this project was not easy, but collaboration made it feasible. A shared database was helpful when I hit dead ends. We helped each other editing first and second drafts, and more. Together, we discussed and balanced our interpretations of early Christian symbols.

Additionally, all three of us took on a “non-expert reader” role when editing each other’s art articles, since we’d only researched our own pieces in depth. Remember my Day One, when I was immediately asked for feedback on an existing article? I was nervous about stepping in so late in the process, but I was put at ease when my suggestions were enthusiastically accepted. While my name wasn’t a part of the final publication, I was proud to see that article accepted by Bible Odyssey because I recognized all the work that went into it, and I was grateful to be a part of the team. On the flip side, the early Christian art project is the one that I’ve taken on from the beginning, so I’m excited to submit it for publication.

I’m also excited to see the lab grow and change: This spring, we had one member leave and a new one join the lab. The new member, Pia, had a Day One just like I did, when she was asked to pick up another team’s research. She dove right in, working collaboratively with team members and technology, and quickly developed a rough draft. It’s encouraging to see someone in the same boat as I was last semester jump into a project with energy and enthusiasm.

The Roman World Lab was my first experience in any lab, and it has given me writing, editing, and research experience as well as the opportunity to contribute to ongoing projects and work with like-minded students. Next semester, our new space in Dicke Hall will be ready, which will be a big step up from our current room. (Hint: our new room has keycard access instead of an actual lock and key; and it will have windows!) I’ll be studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in the fall, so I won’t be there to experience the grand opening, but I look forward to coming back in my final semester and having a second Day One, all over again.

Matilda Krell '23 is a political science and religion major from Austin, Texas, who is a writing intern for Trinity Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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