Collaborating on Geospatial Timelines with Students

While many debate the definition of the digital humanities, whither its political concerns lie (see Liu), and indeed “who’s in and who’s out” (Ramsay), what has largely escaped examination is how the digital has the potential to alter pedagogy.[1] As transformative as Franco Morretti’s distant reading and Paula Findlen, Dan Edelstein, and Nicole Coleman’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters” are for research in their fields, adapting their methods to the classroom allows literary visualization to reach and engage a much larger number of people.

In this electronic round table, I will demonstrate the interactive geospatial timelines that my students and I have collaboratively built using simple tools: HTML, Google Docs, and Google Maps. (For example, see timelines my students built in 2009 and 2010.) After choosing years to research, students in my survey of American literature classes identified events that had a broad effect on American life. For each event, students wrote brief descriptions, found representative images or video, and plotted locations’ latitude and longitude. As they added this material to our simple database in Google Docs, the students could see the timeline and its accompanying map updating dynamically. In addition to demonstrating the project, I will discuss the assignment and the students’ successes and failures. Finally, I will address (and hope to prompt a discussion of) the time required not only of the students but also the instructor in designing and integrating digital tools into coursework.

Giving our students digital assignments helps them understand form, rhetoric, and plot in new ways. But such pedagogy also provides the opportunity for them to learn new, transferable skills that—like reading, writing, and critical thinking—strengthen students’ ability to continue multifaceted examinations of literature and language, no matter what professional path they ultimately choose.

Works Cited

Forster, Chris. “I’m Chris. Where am I wrong?HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities.Alan Liu 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

Mapping the Republic of Letters.” Web. 1 Mar. 2011.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. Verso, 2007. Print.

Ramsay, Stephen. “Who’s In and Who’s Out.Stephen Ramsay 8 Jan. 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2011.


[1] An important exception to the contrary is a September 2010 definition of the digital humanities by Chris Forster, which makes pedagogy one of four ways to “do” digital humanities.

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