Timelines and Ethics

Hello again! As promised, I’m back this week with a discussion about ethics and portraying history.

Timelines are a really great way to put a lot of information into an easily understandable linear format. They can help us visually portray trends as well as changes and progress. Timelines, however, also can be very misleading. To demonstrate this, I have a meme:

Do not use this for a world history exam!

I have no comment on the historical accuracy of this video. While it does cover actual historical events, its primary purpose is humor and entertainment. What I do want to comment on is how fast the narrator has to speak to cover everything and that he resorts to witty remarks to encapsulate entire chunks of time. Even though this isn’t something like Timelinejs, it is going over a timeline of events, and when covering a large swath of time, you lose a lot of nuance. For the purposes of this video, that’s okay, it’s supposed to be funny and while you can learn from it, that isn’t its primary goal.

When you’re using a timeline for educational purposes, however, you have to be more careful. This is especially true if you’re covering a history of violence or colonialism. Timelines are a neat and streamlined way to express information, and, as such, have been used to erase the stories of the less powerful. The ethical concerns with timelines are the same ethical concerns with writing any history, they are only exaggerated by the necessary brevity of any explanation on a timeline.

TimelineJS, for example, doesn’t have a strict character-limit on their platform, but they do advise to keep descriptions brief. This is because anything too wordy would be hard to follow on a timeline. TimelineJS also recommends keeping timelines below 20 events. People can get easily overwhelmed by a timeline with a lot of events to cycle through, not to mention that loading takes longer the more information to put in.

At the end of the day, timelines can reinforce dominant narratives or they can work against them. The TimelineJS recommendations are just that, recommendations. History, especially the history of violence or colonialism, demands context. If you feel you need more than twenty slides to do something justice, then take up that challenge!

See you all in two weeks and have a Happy Fall Break!

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