By Amy Erickson
When I began studying literature in college, I distinctly remember feeling like I needed to know so much more than just what happened in a poem or between the covers of the book. I was eager to learn more about the authors and their lives. For example, knowing that Maya Angelou grew up in the segregated south often changes one’s experience of her poem “Caged Bird.”
In addition to learning biographical information, I felt it was equally important to understand what was going on in politics, art, and music. I wanted to understand all of this, despite what former Poet Laureate Billy Collins (1996) describes as trying to “torture a confession out of [a poem]” or “beating [a poem] with a hose to find out what it really means.”
During college, we were asked to select an author and create a collage showcasing historical events and artistic trends surrounding the author’s life. Today, one might use a Wordle or a digital collage; however, the goal of the assignment is still valid. In this month’s “Online Classroom,” Dr. Orlando (2017) brings this idea into the 21st century and shares a wonderful way to contextualize course material.
21st Century Timelines
Instead of a collage, Dr. Orlando (2017) uses digital timelines to highlight important historical events and contextualize current ideas in medical ethics. “I want students to see how each of the historic cases in medical ethics modified the profession’s view of its ethical duties. Thus, I situate the cases we study within a broad timeline, tracing the evolution of this vision of medical duties” (Orlando, 2017, para. 2).
Digital timelines would be a wonderful way to give humanities students an idea of historical occurrences surrounding various works. One could see, and perhaps better understand, how events influenced literature or music during specific eras. Students could see how an event like the Industrial Revolution influenced architecture and sculpture. Many of my students are veterans who enjoy reading about military history. I know they would appreciate seeing or designing a timeline outlining the events leading up to events like the Civil War, WWI, or WWII. A psychology course could examine changes to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” and consider how these changes influenced things like pharmaceutical sales. A nursing class could trace the events that influenced care standards and changes in nursing responsibilities. Timelines could work for every degree program in that they offer opportunities to highlight important background or show events that changed specific professions.
An example of a digital timeline created by Timeline JS, showcasing the history of Duke University.
I think that instructors could also use digital timelines as a way to create community in the classroom. Students are eager to hear about instructors’ experiences and what led instructors to the classroom. Think about the events that shaped your life and consider using a digital timeline to share that information about you in the introductions. I think my personal timeline would start out at about age seven, when my father asked me to memorize “If” by Rudyard Kipling. Timelines would be a fun and creative way for students to get to know their peers in an introductory discussion forum, too.
Your choice for digital timelines will depend on your organizational preference. I tend to prefer a timeline that runs from left to right, rather than top to bottom. Dr. Orlando recommends two resources, Sutori and Timeline JS. (The former is organized from top to bottom, the latter is organized left to right.) Both have wonderful elements allowing creators to add video, podcasts, images, and maps to the timelines. Sutori even allows instructors to create multiple-choice questions within the timelines. These timelines can be made by individuals or they can be a group project. Have a look at this timeline (from Timeline JS) of Nelson Mandela’s life, and consider how timelines could afford your students a new and broader perspective on course content.