Revolutions in the Classroom: Digital Humanities and the U.S. History Survey

By Erin Zavitz

Screen shot of the Causes of the American Revolution Project featuring a painting and a timeline.
Project by Angel Fitzgerald. Click here to see the full timeline.

Last August, only weeks after being hooded, I started my first position at a small public university in Montana. Like many other newly minted PhDs, I scrambled to put together syllabi and lesson plans for courses I had never taught, including the first half of the U.S. History survey. Unlike, the majority of new faculty, though, I also faced an entirely new system: the block.

The University of Montana Western is the only public institution on the block system. Students take one course at a time and faculty teach one course (capped at 25 students) at a time. At UM Western, each block lasts eighteen days, and students take four blocks a semester. During each course, students attend class M-F for three hours a day. The block system fosters a non-traditional classroom and a re-envisioning of curriculum that is experiential not lecture based.

I turned to the digital humanities to help approach my first year and the question of how to do experiential education in history. Thanks to the work of Elizabeth Dale at the University of Florida, my program offered a pilot digital humanities seminar (now part of a larger university-wide Digital Certificate) before I graduated. One of the tools we workshopped was Timeline JS – a free program created by Northwestern University. The program uses a Google Docs spreadsheet to collect your data (dates, description of events, images, videos, etc.) and then generates a timeline (see student examples below). In terms of technological know-how, it’s pretty simple and user-friendly.

Timeline of the events leading to the American Revolution.
Project by Madisen Hamper. Click here for the full timeline.

My familiarity with Timeline JS was a primary factor in why I chose the timeline as a project for the survey. Pedagogical reasons also motived my decision. I wanted to find an assignment that would replace mid-terms and final exams. With only 18 days to cover all the material, every moment counted. And, exams can take up a lot of time. Yet to create an alternative assignment, I actually started with two standard essay exam questions: explain the causes of the American Revolution and the causes of the Civil War. Students would construct a timeline to answer the questions. In both cases, I would be able to assess students’ content knowledge (i.e. can they select events that ultimately led to the outbreak of both of these wars?) and their abilities to place events in chronological order, synthesize information from secondary and primary source readings, understand historical causation, and build a narrative.

I first used the timeline project in the fall. For the assignment, students had to create a timeline explaining the outbreak of the American Revolution with a minimum of 6 and maximum of 12 events and write a short essay explaining their rationale for selecting the dates/events in their timeline. To prepare the students for the project, we spent several hours in the computer lab workshopping the timelines so students understood how to insert both text and images in the Google spreadsheet and how to view the finished timeline.

Here is an example of a timeline from my fall class.

Timeline of the Great Awakening.
Project by Joanna Avery. Click here for the full timeline.

Overall, the timelines were successful; however, I ran into several issues and thus revised the assignment for my spring class.

First, I improved my framing of the project to encourage students to create a narrative that the general public would understand. To help them think about audience and coherence, I had students complete a short exercise on the samples provided by Timeline JS. They evaluated an example based on its ability to tell a complete and coherent story. We then discussed what they found in the samples that they could incorporate in their own projects (Note: many of the samples are by professional journalists, and I let my students know they are not being held to the same expectations). Seeing the examples and talking more about the parts of the project, such as title slide, headers, etc., helped demonstrate to students how the timeline functioned as a whole and that all the parts were necessary to tell the history.

Second, I controlled the sources students could use. In the fall, I provided digital resources on the American Revolution; however, many of these also included timelines that some students plagiarized. To avoid any temptation, I limited the sources to the course textbooks and primary source readings. We also covered how to cite in the timeline. There is no space for footnotes, but you can have parenthetical citations, so students can appropriately credit their sources. Moreover, there is space for media credit. While Chicago has a full citation for digital images, for the survey, I chose to use an abbreviated credit to help students focus on the fact that they needed to credit image sources. In upper level classes, where students have a better grasp of citation styles and when to cite, I require full and correct image citation. I allowed the students to use images from any source, since we were not publishing their projects (though now I am using several examples with permission, so perhaps I will improve this next fall).   

Third, I added a presentation. In place of writing an essay for the American Revolution timeline, I had students present a draft of their digital projects. This helped them see how the project fit together and allowed their peers to comment on strengthens and areas that needed improvement. Moreover, it provided a space for revision in case a student missed part of the instructions. For example, in the fall several students made timelines of the American Revolution and not the causes. By presenting a draft, I could ask students why they began or ended with a certain event. Their peers also got involved which created a more productive conversation about the origins of the American Revolution.

Here is an example from the spring class.

Timeline of the causes of the American Revolution.
Project by Connor McKillop. Click here for the full timeline.

The timeline projects are one example of how digital humanities can help us to re-think traditional assignments and still assess students’ content knowledge and skills. In place of furiously scribbling down an answer in a blue book, students had to take the time and think about the historical event they were recounting in the timeline. This process and reflection on causation, chronology, and narrative honed students’ critical thinking skills. The project also developed communication skills by challenging students to think about audience and how a general reader surfing the internet might understand their timeline. Through the project, students “experienced” being a historian. They attempted to put together a narrative argument that explained why the thirteen colonies ultimately went to war with Great Britain. And with the help of Timeline JS, they generated a multi-media timeline that combined print and images to explain these causes. 

Erin Zavitz is assistant professor of history at the University of Montana Western. Her research focuses on 19th and 20th century Haiti, in particular the construction of Haitian national identity and memory of the Haitian Revolution. You can contact her at or tweet at her @erinzavitz.

Title image: Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the signing of the Constitution1940.

Further Reading

American Historical Association, Bridging Cultures, on other projects to re-think the U.S. History survey

Ben Wright, Teaching United States History blog,  on collaborative timeline projects with Timeline JS.

Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), digital edition available.

3 thoughts on “Revolutions in the Classroom: Digital Humanities and the U.S. History Survey

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