Timelines in the Classroom: Teaching Toolbox 2018

Do you have students work with timelines in class? Do you teach surveys, or long texts that have substantial narrative components unfolding over time? Have you used Northwestern University’s Knight Lab’s Timeline JS?

I am developing an assignment that uses Timeline JS to recreate a novel with enriched digital resources.

TimelineJS is an open-source tool that enables anyone to build visually rich, interactive timelines. Beginners can create a timeline using nothing more than a Google spreadsheet [and experts] can use their JSON skills to create custom installations, while keeping TimelineJS’s core functionality.

Here is a sample timeline using Timeline JS to explore the history of Women and Computing.

It uses Google Sheets to organize the information and an open-source javascript code that renders that information in an easy-to-use timeline. Timeline JS can incorporate media from many sources to help you develop rich timelines for a variety of purposes–teaching or learning content, studying for exams, learning about research and writing, and much more.

TimelineJS can pull in media from a variety of sources. Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Dailymotion, Google Maps, Wikipedia, SoundCloud, Document Cloud and more!

I am testing what this might look like in an assignment focused both on understanding a novel–Frances Burney’s Evelina--and learning how to research using quality, reliable, freely-available materials online. My task is complicated by the fact that Evelina is an epistolary novel, which means it is told entirely in letters, and the dates are not always confirmed.

My ideal use of this tool would be in EN340: Major Women Writers, which is LT-2 and WI, but I could also imagine incorporating it in a history or a survey course.  By sharing the google sheet on which the timeline is based via Canvas, students could be assigned letters or chapters to add to the timeline.

Some things I’ve discovered so far are that you can add entries in the timeline to groups, useful for visualizing the epistolary network of who writes to whom, and you can also use simple numbers instead of dates in the year category–by doing that, coupled with providing a “display date” that can be a text string, one can create a non-date-specific timeline, useful for a novel. Here is a link to the working timeline.

Things to consider when developing the assignment:

  1. How and when to paraphrase or excerpt a representative quote from the letter? This might teach identifying importance, a notoriously difficult skill for students to learn.
  2. How to identify what makes a relevant media resource linked explicitly to the letter? This is useful for teaching research and information literacy.
  3. How to cite and caption that media resource? This helps with citation and “filling in the gaps,” which is important for clarity.
  4. How might the assignment divide the work, if students work in groups?
  5. How best to use the date/display date tools, given the nature of the text you’re working with? Evelina is sometimes dated (often not), and is organized by letter number.
  6. Add a title slide to your timeline by giving it the type feature “title”. “Era” types need a start and an end date. One could usefully define large chunks of the narrative by using “era”–for instance, Volume 1 of Evelina, or the time Evelina spends in London with the Branghtons.

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