TimelineJS & undergrad assignments

Timelines are popular among faculty as fairly simple to do assignments that start students down the path of understanding digital approaches to thinking about a subject. At Washington and Lee we have two timeline tools that we support. One is a locally developed timeline based on the open-source SIMILE Timeline. This is the simplest choice since a developer in the university’s IT division created a Web-based form that drives the data entry. However, the appearance of the published timeline still lacks some polish.

A slightly more advanced approach is the use of TimelineJS developed by the Knight Lab at Northwestern. TimelineJS offers a much richer visual display of the data. We have a tutorial on the use of TimelineJS on our DH website.

Timelines & DH Learning Outcomes

The goal of DH in undergraduate pedagogy is not about the students learning a specific tool. We want to show students how a tool or an information platform can aid in conceptualizing, interpreting, and analyzing research questions in the humanities. A timeline forces students to think about the organization and structure of information in ways that a short essay does not.

Preparing research for embedding in a timeline requires knowing how specific parts of that research maps to the areas displayed on a timeline. For example, TimelineJS has very specific fields like headline, text, and media caption that may not be entirely clear to a student until viewing example timelines. The SIMILE timeline uses different fields. At the core, though, students should understand that structured data provide the foundation for the visual display of information offered by the timeline.

Since TimelineJS is based on a Google spreadsheet, the tool forces students to organize each part of their research into categories. Students with good graphic design skills could certainly create static timelines in much nicer ways with Adobe Illustrator. However, the data in that case would not need to be structured. Either way, though, would present the student with opportunities for thinking about headlines, text, captions, etc.

The spreadsheet-oriented approach is a good time to introduce students to the concept that vast amounts of information can be organized into tables or fields. One can point out that such information structures form the basis for databases and digital tools.

While the process of writing a timeline is different than writing an essay, the student is required to compose explanatory prose for aspects of the timeline. The design of TimelineJS easily allows for 150-250 words or more on a single frame of the timeline. The challenge of writing small chunks of text for the Web is an essential communication skill that students need to master.

A timeline itself is unlikely to be an entire term project but makes for a suitable assignment that can be done either individually or in groups. Keep in mind that a TimelineJS needs to published on a web site that supports the embedding of iframes. That means a WordPress.com site, such as this blog, is not an option. Self-hosted WordPress sites can use TimelineJS, and there’s also a TimelineJS plugin for WP.

Update: Here’s an article I just posted on the university’s DH site about an undergrad British history class creating a timeline of the British Reformations in context.

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