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A Timeline Assignment

posted: 4.10.12 by Steve Bernhardt

My fellow Bits blogger, Traci Gardner, recently posted Timeline Tools for the Writing Classroom, wherein she points us toward useful design tools for creating timelines. She also points to a Bits blog from Jay Dolmage, which highlights his Favorite Week One Activity: Revisiting the Timeline. In his assignment, Jay has students construct a personal timeline, from birth to now, as a way of constructing life narratives.

These posts were helpful to me, as I had already planned a timeline activity for my class in professional rhetoric. Where Jay’s assignment was personal, mine was more academic. We had spent some time discussing and drawing concept maps relating various key terms in rhetoric with roots in the classical Greek and Roman traditions. I asked students to choose a single term or concept of enduring utility and map it over its history. Students chose such terms as oratory, argument, logic, rhetorical education, genre, epistemology, and Aristotelian rhetoric.

We talked some about major periods in Western history that might offer timeline divisions (Greek, Roman, medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, modern, contemporary). We searched out and shared both online and print resources for working across rhetorical history. Working in three-person teams, the students then proceeded to map their terms across history, identifying key figures, activities, events, and developments. Each team appointed a team leader, a lead researcher, and a graphic designer. I provided them with the links to the Bits posts so they could think about timelines and tools.

There was a lot I liked about the assignment. It gave students a chance to think broadly about the arc of history, and it allowed them to focus on a single concept and its associated practices. It helped them develop a sense for the span of time—what was going on when in Western civilization, something I would consider an important outcome of an undergraduate education. They could begin to sense what we inherit from the classical tradition and how certain ideas have continuity and usefulness even to the present day. They had to sort through information, and they had to work to shape the short but informative pieces of text that a timeline can accommodate. They had to think a lot about form and content—how a graphic depiction based on chronology can be informative about the history of an idea. I gave them a strict size limit of 8½” x 22”, so they needed to select and arrange information with efficiency. (Those who chose an online tool had no space restriction and could layer information within expanding nodes.)

On the due date, we posted our timelines, displayed a few in class, and did cross-team reviews, where students got to comment on the work of one another’s team. We talked about the tools they had chosen and about design challenges. I then extended the due date a week to give the teams a chance to use what they had learned from reviewing the timelines of the other teams. One week later, we looked at the much revised and redesigned timelines, with a lot of friendly commentary about clever ways to use Word, the limits of free online design tools, and the ways that visuals and text can be integrated into a whole, balanced composition.

Students are happy to have a writing sample for their ePortfolios that does not look like a school essay, and they are pleased to have something that demonstrates some background in rhetorical theory. The teams worked well and the opportunity to compare work increased its quality dramatically. I can imagine, as you can, dozens of other kinds of timelines in various subjects. The technology threshold is low, but the opportunity to develop clever designs is quite high.

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One Response to “A Timeline Assignment”

  1. Traci Gardner Says:

    What a fun assignment. You immediately made me think of similar activities like mapping the use of a literary term or movement through the texts that the class has explored during the semester. Could make a great final project, since it would ask students to look back at everything they’ve read.

    Also thought about mapping something through a single literary text. How about a timeline that tracked the use of a symbol through the “chronology” of a text?

    I do love Timelines so. Thanks for additional inspiration, Steve.