How do we encourage our students to think of the past not as a grand narrative to be learned from a textbook (or a teacher), but as a complex constellation of events, values, personalities, and ideas that can be analyzed and understood from a variety of perspectives and that can be used to construct multiple possible stories about the past?
This is a challenge that I face when teaching a one-semester “Ancient History” course that is meant to cover the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome from pre-historic times to the conversion of Constantine. As I have shared earlier on this forum, I begin the semester by emphasizing the fragmentary nature of our sources from and for the past, and the ethical responsibilities we have as historians to fill those gaps humbly and honestly – and to allow some of them to remain uncomfortably empty.
At the end of the semester, I try to leave my students with a similar message of caution and empowerment. Throughout the course, they have acquired tools of observation, analysis, and synthesis. With these new skills, they can approach the textual and material remains of antiquity in order to write their own narratives of the past. There is no single correct way of reconstructing the past, I tell them. There is no grand narrative. Rather, there are many compelling ways of understanding history and putting together the historical fragments into coherent narratives, just as one might compose a variety of mosaic images from the same set of tesserae. (We also discuss that there are incorrect ways of interpreting the pieces and putting them together – but historical integrity rarely results in a single possible narrative.) I emphasize that their understandings of the past will always be enriched when they incorporate a diverse set of voices from the past and present into their re-tellings. History, I explain, is at its best when it is a collaborative enterprise.
Creating a Digital Timeline
In order to experiment with these ideas and to demonstrate how they work in practice, we ended the semester by collaboratively creating a digital timeline. Ahead of the last day of class, I asked each student to choose a historical moment, text, or period from our studies together. Each student was required to write a brief reflection about their theme or event of choice. They were also encouraged to find a piece of related modern media (an image, audio, video, and so on) to pair with their historical moment.
The students brought all of this materials to class (the title of their timeline slide; a caption; and a web link to the piece of media) and, together, we entered it into a shared google spreadsheet, each on our own laptops (those without laptops worked in pairs). Within a matter of minutes – and with the help of a program designed by a lab at Northwestern University – we incorporated each of the students’ individual contributions into an interactive online timeline. Simple and straightforward instructions for working with the program can be found on the program’s website: https://timeline.knightlab.com
For example, one student decided to dedicate her timeline slide to the Akkadian Myth of Adapa. In her reflection, she wrote about the major themes of the text and how they relate to similar ideas in biblical as well as Greek literature. She paired her reflection with an audio recording of a recitation of the Myth of Adapa in the original Akkadian, to reflect on the aural dimension of ancient stories. Another student chose to dedicate his timeline slide to Justinian’s Digest. He paired his reflection about Roman law with a presidential tweet about the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on same-sex marriage in order to highlight the ever-evolving dimensions of law. Another student paired Pausanius’ account of the ancient Olympics with a spoof about the modern games. Yet another student displayed a map of ancient Alexandria alongside the Letter of Aristeas.
Here is a sample of some of the individual slides:
Here is the complete timeline we created together:
After we had created the digital timeline, each student presented their contribution to the timeline to their classmates. Through these presentations, we were able to appreciate how the events and texts from the various regions we studied over the course of our semester – the Ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome – overlapped and related to one another, which can be challenging to grasp in a course that covers such a broad chronological and geographical span in a short semester. We also learned how students connected the events and themes from some of the readings to contemporary concerns. Most importantly, this narrative was one that they constructed (albeit out of the materials I had assembled on the syllabus – more on this below), and that they understood to be subjective, tentative, and open for revision, as all narratives of the past are.
Using New Technologies to Reflect on Ancient History
Most practically, my students learned how to use an innovative digital technology with which they had not been familiar. They also experimented with producing online content rather than simply consuming it. We discussed the new insights we had gained about the production of history by using a modern technology to order and organize ancient materials. One of the questions we asked, as we assembled our timeline, was: how might we use contemporary technologies to understand more fully, and construct compelling accounts of, the ancient past?
The digital format also gave us an opportunity to reflect on the history of visualizing the past (yes, even timelines have a history, my students were excited to learn). We compared our timeline with those collected in Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton’s Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010). We asked many questions: What kinds of conceptions of history are emphasized by the linearity of a timeline? How does a digital timeline reinforce or complicate this linearity? What are other visual possibilities for imagining the past and the interrelationship of different events and histories? This conversation led to a fruitful reevaluation of the course and the underlying values embedded in how we approached the past throughout our semester.
History as a Collaborative Enterprise
The digital timeline that resulted was a truly collaborative effort: each student contributed a single moment to the timeline; students with more technological savvy helped their classmates troubleshoot during the data-entry session; and each person shared a new insight from which the others learned during the presentations that followed. It was a fun and effective way of reviewing the material from the semester.
We also came away with a deep understanding that no one person owns the past, or the right to tell its history, but rather that historiography ought to be a collaborative process, with many voices and perspectives taken into account, and conflicting ideas wrestled with and considered. History is better – more thorough, more nuanced – when it results from collaboration.
(Indeed, I learned about this timeline tool from a colleague of mine during a pedagogy workshop: without pedagogical collaboration, I would not have considered such an assignment. And here I am now, sharing these ideas with you, too.)
A digital timeline is not set in stone, as are the cuneiform tablets or ancient marble inscriptions that we studied together in class. The excel spreadsheet remains accessible to students, and when they encounter new materials or have new thoughts, they can go back into the system to change, add, or delete their entries. This ability to revise teaches them that there is no single set story, but that our ideas about and understandings of the past evolve with time.
The historian Victor Brombert recently wrote in the New Yorker: “Revision (literally, seeing again) is inherent to memory. It can signify correcting, altering, transforming – and may even, in its extreme form, imply modes of denial. Rewriting our past is what most of us tend to do spontaneously. The future is unpredictable, but the past, up to a point, can be said to be unpredictable, too. Perhaps the tendency to reshape the course of events speaks of a desire to resist necessity and fate. New events alter the perception of previous ones. The archeology of remembrance makes it difficult to decipher or interpret accurately what lies beneath the layers of the past. Even diligent digging brings up fragments at best” (“The Permanent Sabbatical,” 16 January 2018). “The past, as perceived in time, is subject to mutations,” Bombert continues. Brombert wrote these words about the act of remembering one’s own life, but they apply just as much, he implies, to practices of history and historiography.
This leads me to the part of the assignment I would revise next time I teach this course. When I first conceived of the assignment, I asked the students to choose an item for the timeline that we had studied together. I thought that this was an ideal way of reviewing the course material and concluding the semester. And it was. But it also necessarily limited the narrative we created, and was based – not in full, but in large part – on the texts and stories that I had curated when I constructed the syllabus. In this way, the resulting timeline was antithetical to the broader ideas about the production of knowledge and history that the assignment was designed to underscore.
Moreover, when I scrolled through the timeline, I also realized that ordinary people, non-elite people, marginalized people were all not featured prominently enough in the course, and thus did not make it into the timeline, whereas Julius Caesar appears several times. I could have included more of their stories and remains – those found in far more abundance than we often assume in epigraphic materials, literary sources, archaeological remains, amulets, and art – in my teaching, and put their narratives at the center of historical inquiry. In the future I will make sure to do so.
Teaching itself is a learning process, however. The finished timeline underscored for me what I might change and add to my courses in future semesters. It also helped me figure out how I would alter the timeline assignment to counterbalance the weaknesses inherent in a single course, which cannot possibly include all aspects of the past. Next time, I will begin the project in the same way that I did this first time: each student will contribute one slide based on a moment we covered together in class. But in addition, I’ll ask my students to contribute an additional moment from the time period of the course that we did not study together. Such new entries on the timeline could stem from geographical regions that the course did not explore, a source or figure that was not included in the syllabus, even a reflection on what is missing that cannot easily be recovered. This second step of timeline-creation would encourage the students to use the analytical skills they developed in the course to identify and study new material, make sense of it on their own, and relate it to what they have already learned. As they begin inserting these additional slides into the spreadsheet, they would start to see how the timeline created out of the course materials has shifted and morphed into something different – again, no less accurate or true, but more complete, more complex, more colorful, and necessarily also more complicated.
This assignment could extend far beyond our semester together. For example, students could continue adding moments they learned about in other courses or encountered through their own explorations. The timeline could include the medieval and modern periods, and evolve with their own learning. Especially with this particular cohort of honors students, who study together in a core curriculum, such a digital tool could serve to connect dots and carry the conversation forward in their remaining years of study together. By the end, they would have a robust timeline they created together, one that is collaborative, multi-vocal, that embodies the idea(l) of history beyond a single grand narrative, and that approaches history as a process of continuous revision and nuance.
Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Assistant Professor in Fordham University's Theology Department.