Sunday, March 11, 2007

Timelines in History Texts

HistoryTalk: "The Unbearable Uselessness of Timelines

Timelines or chronologies are textbook staples. No major publishing house produces an American history survey text bereft of a timeline or some similar date/event display. And no publishing house can resist bemoaning how there are never enough pages for all the material that the authors wish to include.

Here's an idea: get rid of the timelines. Timelines take up valuable textbook real estate—usually one-half to a full page. Not only are timelines a waste of time (in more ways than one), but they are also a waste of space. They also violate practically every visual display princple, particularly Edward Tufte’s guidelines. What is the evidence that the timeline presents? Only that in any particular year there was a particular event or events. What is this evidence of? Time marching on? One damn thing after another? Where are the comparisons? Where is the multivariate data? What about the integration of words, numbers, and images? Does a timeline thoroughly describe the source of the evidence? And finally, what is the quality or relevance of timeline evidence?"

Paula makes some excellent points here about what is possible with timelines - especially online. I will disagree, however, that they should be banned from textbooks. Many of my students and even teachers that are graduate students find them a useful reference - especially as they learn new material. I'm working on the teaching materials for the new Berkin text, Making America, and the authors decided to expand the timeline to juxtapose global events with US events.

Although this appears to be a quite simple tool, it is an integral first step to help students better understand that US history did not occur in a vacuum.

But how to give them more depth and meaning is certainly something worth both pondering and discussing.

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