Assignment: The “American Century” Geospatial Timeline

For the last several years, I have been interested in representing time and space visually in the context of literature courses. During my final year as a graduate student, I was a fellow in Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching. There, I had the freedom to spend many hours exploring several web widgets for doing just this that were developed by MIT’s Simile Project and since spun off as independent Simile Widgets. I found the tools fairly powerful, but not especially well documented–particular for someone who was a coding dilletante at best. The result was that along with building several timelines, I also wrote a tutorial for building your own custom timelines.

Since I didn’t have a class to experiment on, I got in touch with Jason B. Jones, whose blog had first alerted me to the Simile Project. Jason was teaching a course on the Victorian period, and he quickly crafted an assignment using a timeline that I coded for his class. Jason wrote about our collaboration on his blog.

When I got my own survey class last year, I adapted lifted Jason’s assignment pretty much whole-cloth and had my students create a timeline to accompany our exploration of American literature following the Civil War. When I was given the chance to teach a similar course this semester, I wanted to represent not only time but also space. For last summer’s THATCamp, I had spent some time experimenting with Google Maps integration with the timeline, and I’ve now made some real additions to Jason’s assignment to incorporate the geospatial elements.

Why do I like using this assignment? I give my students three reasons.

  1. In a survey of American literature, one of the key goals is to get a sense of how the literature lies in context with everything else that is happening. These events shape the literature in question, and creating a timeline lets the students go beyond what I bring up in class to explore developments in art, technology, politics, and more.
  2. It lets me give them one less paper. (This is what really sells them, since I will have frequently thrown several other weird assignments at them that they aren’t sure about.)
  3. I believe that every student–even English majors–that graduates from college should be able to read and write HTML, to work in a spreadsheet, and to have a little experience with databases. Such literacy is frequently overlooked but will be vitally important in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to find employment with a liberal arts degree.

The timeline and map that we’re working with are now live with a few examples that I have provided. (You’ll need to scroll the timeline to the right or left to find a date. Or you can use the search box at right.) Students will be adding data in the coming month. I’m hoping that in this version of the assignment we not only get a sense of temporal context but also spatial context. Will we see that the events that we have chosen as important move Westward in connection with Westward expansion? Do particular decades have more important events in one portion of the country? We’ll see.

As part of my project to promote open-source pedagogy, I wanted to post the new assignment. And if you feel like tackling your own timeline, I’d be more than happy to answer questions.

Timeline Assignment


  1. Be sure that you’ve given me an email address that you actually check. By 1/30, you will receive an e-mail inviting you to collaborate with me on a Google Docs spreadsheet.
  2. Choose two years between 1865-2010. One year must be in the range 1865-1935 and one year must fall in the range 1936-2010. You can see the list of available years below. When you have chosen your years, edit our wiki page to strikethrough your chosen years (strikethrough is the option to the right of italics) and then email me your two chosen years. Do this by 2/5.
  3. Identify EIGHT historically significant events from each of your two years.  (Births, deaths, legislation, wars, inventions, publications, . . . ).  For each event,
    • find a related image online and get the URL for the image. Do NOT get the URL for the page on which the image appears.
    • find a link where one can learn more about the event (no more than half the links can be to Wikipedia)
    • find a location (city, state) for the event
    • find the latitude and longitude for this location using these instructions and Google Maps
    • write a ONE- or TWO-SENTENCE description of the event. Descriptions may not be longer than two sentences.
  4. In the Google spreadsheet, enter the FOUR most significant events for each year, filling out the various fields with the appropriate information.  (See below for details.)
  5. For each of your two years, send me an email with the full list and a two-paragraph document. The first paragraph should explain how you chose the full list of 8 events, and the second paragraph will explain how you cut it down to 4.
  6. The information from the first year must be posted to the timeline and the document emailed to me by 5pm on March 4. The information for the second year must be posted to the timeline and the document submitted to me by 5pm on March 25. Of course, completing the assignment early is always fine.

The Spreadsheet’s Fields

Using the spreadsheet is easy, but it also requires the data to be input in a very particular way.  For best results, follow these instructions exactly:

  1. Always add your information to the BOTTOM of the spreadsheet.
  2. The first field, “{label}” is the text that will be visible directly on the timeline.  It should be short: 3-6 words (where a title of a novel or poem can count as one word).  To make a title appear italicized, type it exactly like this (without the quotation marks): “AuthorName, <em>Book Title</em>”  Don’t worry about the fact that it doesn’t look italicized in the spreadsheet, and DON’T USE THE SPREADSHEET’S ITALICS FUNCTION!
  3. The second field, “{start-date}” is mandatory: when did the event happen?  Fill this in: yyyy-mm-dd.  You must use 2-digit months (01, 02, 03) and 2-digit days.
    • For example, April 8, 1999 would be entered 1999-04-08.
  4. The third field, “{end-date}” is optional: If the event happened over a span of time, when did it end?  Again, use yyyy-mm-dd format.
  5. The fourth field, “{description:single}”  is where you put your one- to two-sentence description.  Also, wrap the sentence–or some portion of it–in your “more information” link.  Here’s how to do it (the quotation marks in the pointy-brackets are REQUIRED!!): <a href=”LINKGOESHERE”>SENTENCE GOES HERE</a>
    • For example, General Ulysses S. Grant meets with General Robert E. Lee at the <a href=””>Appomattox courthouse</a> where Lee signs the terms of surrender that effectivley ends the civil war.
  6. The fifth field, “{image:url}” is where you cut-and-paste the url for the related image.
  7. The sixth field, “{EventType}” is where you identify what kind event this is: Politics, Military, Science/Technology, Economics, Literature, Arts, Biography.  Only use one Event Type. If you think that your event doesn’t fit into any of these categories, please email me before you start using a ne one.
  8. The seventh field, “{event_LatLng} is where you put the latitude and longitude that you strip from Google Maps using these instructions.
  9. The eighth field, “{event_place}” is where you put the city and state where the event takes place.
  10. In the ninth field, “{decade}”, please type the decade in which your event takes place. Please format these as 1860s, 1870s, etc.
  11. The tenth field, “{initials}” is where you put your initials, which will help me with the bookkeeping.
  12. After you have entered your information in the spreadsheet, make sure that it is displaying properly on the timeline and the map.

9 thoughts on “Assignment: The “American Century” Geospatial Timeline

  1. @mwnau: I have seen the Hypercities project and have played around with it for an hour or two when I’ve had spare time. It could be interesting to use it in a class on the fiction of, say, New York City.

  2. This fall I’m teaching a class on Digital History for NYU’s Archives and Public History Program and am interested in developing a timeline on the history of Greenwich Village on which the students can work collaboratively. I found your timeline tutorial of immense help, though I still haven’t gotten the site to work yet. I will likely create an assignment similar to the one you’ve described,hopefully that can merge time and place. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. I’m glad that you’ve found the tutorial useful to this point. If you have any questions, please contact me via email or Twitter so I can help get everything working.

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