All posts by thowe

Teaching Toolbox 2018


Do you have students work with timelines in class? Do you teach surveys, or long texts that have substantial narrative components unfolding over time? Have you used Northwestern University’s Knight Lab’s Timeline JS?

I am developing an assignment that uses Timeline JS to recreate a novel with enriched digital resources.

TimelineJS is an open-source tool that enables anyone to build visually rich, interactive timelines. Beginners can create a timeline using nothing more than a Google spreadsheet [and experts] can use their JSON skills to create custom installations, while keeping TimelineJS’s core functionality.

Here is a sample timeline using Timeline JS to explore the history of Women and Computing.

It uses Google Sheets to organize the information and an open-source javascript code that renders that information in an easy-to-use timeline. Timeline JS can incorporate media from many sources to help you develop rich timelines for a variety of purposes–teaching or learning content, studying for exams, learning about research and writing, and much more.

TimelineJS can pull in media from a variety of sources. Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Dailymotion, Google Maps, Wikipedia, SoundCloud, Document Cloud and more!

I am testing what this might look like in an assignment focused both on understanding a novel–Frances Burney’s Evelina--and learning how to research using quality, reliable, freely-available materials online. My task is complicated by the fact that Evelina is an epistolary novel, which means it is told entirely in letters, and the dates are not always confirmed.

My ideal use of this tool would be in EN340: Major Women Writers, which is LT-2 and WI, but I could also imagine incorporating it in a history or a survey course.  By sharing the google sheet on which the timeline is based via Canvas, students could be assigned letters or chapters to add to the timeline.

Some things I’ve discovered so far are that you can add entries in the timeline to groups, useful for visualizing the epistolary network of who writes to whom, and you can also use simple numbers instead of dates in the year category–by doing that, coupled with providing a “display date” that can be a text string, one can create a non-date-specific timeline, useful for a novel. Here is a link to the working timeline, which is embedded below.

Things to consider when developing the assignment:

  • How and when to paraphrase or excerpt a representative quote from the letter? This might teach identifying importance, a notoriously difficult skill for students to learn.
  • How to identify what makes a relevant media resource linked explicitly to the letter? This is useful for teaching research and information literacy.
  • How to cite and caption that media resource? This helps with citation and “filling in the gaps,” which is important for clarity.
  • How might the assignment divide the work, if students work in groups?
  • How best to use the date/display date tools, given the nature of the text you’re working with? Evelina is sometimes dated (often not), and is organized by letter number.
  • Add a title slide to your timeline by giving it the type feature “title”. “Era” types need a start and an end date. One could usefully define large chunks of the narrative by using “era”–for instance, Volume 1 of Evelina, or the time Evelina spends in London with the Branghtons.

Here is my working sample; the link above will take you to a full-screen version:

Teaching Anne Bradstreet through deformance

This evening in EN340 is the first class of full-on literary analysis, and we are reading several of Anne Bradstreet’s poems. I love starting with Bradstreet in this class because we’re discussing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women’s writing as a political and self-conscious act that is in some ways always about its status as “women’s writing.” So we are starting with Bradstreet, paying special attention to how she theorizes her agency as a writer–we’ll probably spend most of our time looking at “The Prologue” to The Tenth Muse, and “The Author to Her Book,” though I really hope we get a chance to talk about her poem to her husband, Simon Bradstreet, who is “Absent upon Publick Employment.” Rereading it today paints such a home picture of her passion within Puritanism:

In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?

I don’t have children, but…. I get her point! At any rate, this is a course that fulfills our LT-2 core requirement and is also writing intensive. So, I have no English majors or minors, and few with recent experience in close reading. I will start with an overview of Bradstreet, and then spend a bit of time discussing how to read poetry, using the piece by Edward Hirsch, which I find conversational enough to be compelling without being formulaic. Then, we’ll discuss one or two poems, and finally, I’ll have an activity where students work in pairs to enact a deformance on “The Author to Her Book.”

My goal with this activity is twofold: first, to help students feel more competent with close reading through some fairly mechanical activities that can reveal unexpected things about the texture and the content of the language, and second, to get into a broader discussion of how Bradstreet is imagining her agency as a writer and as a mother. What rhetorical strategies does she use, and why? Are there any fissures or points of friction between those rhetorical strategies? What images can she (and can’t she) use, and under what circumstances?

From my handout:

“Deformance” refers to a mode of altering or “deforming” the text so that you can see something new about it–it’s a neologism combining “deform” and “performance”. This is often done with computers on mass scales, but we’ll do it by hand today and only with one poem so that you get the hang of it and begin to see why it might be useful. It is also a helpful technique in general to look for the way that nouns are being used, or the kinds of verbs at play, or whether there is a preponderance of prepositions or conjunctions, and so on.


Here’s a sample from “The Prologue,” where I eliminate all words but nouns from one stanza:
Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 4.28.29 PMIf students aren’t sure of what part of speech something is, I direct them to google’s define:xxx feature:

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 4.10.52 PM

  • Group 1: Nouns only
  • Group 2: Adjectives only
  • Group 3: Verbs only
  • Group 4: Adverbs only
  • Group 5: Prepositions and articles
  • Group 6: Pronouns (possessive, demonstrative, and regular)


Demo Timeline: Evelina

Have you used Timeline JS to recreate a novel with enriched digital resources? I am testing what this might look like in an epistolary context, using Frances Burney’s EvelinaBy sharing the google sheet on which the timeline is based, students could be assigned letters or chapters to add–some things I’ve discovered so far are that you can add entries in the timeline to groups, useful for visualizing the epistolary network, and you can also use simple numbers instead of dates in the year category–by doing that, coupled with providing a “display date” that can be a text string, one can create a non-date-specific timeline, useful for a novel.

Things to consider: how and when to paraphrase or excerpt a representative quote from the letter, identifying what makes a relevant media resource, how to cite and caption it, using groups (how many can be used?), how best to use the date/display date tools, what is the “type” feature.

Major Women Writers: London, Chawton, Bath

Next week my upper-division writing intensive literature class on women writers before Austen is going to the UK for an extended Spring Break field trip. We’ll be spending the first few days in London, with a day trip to Strawberry Hill (I know, I know… I just couldn’t help myself!); then we’re off to Chawton; and last but by no means least, two days in Bath. Among the many fun things we’re doing are a letterpress and early printing workshop at the St. Bride Foundation, and a visit to the Chawton House Library, both of which I’m particularly eager about. This is a group of non-majors, for the most part, finishing their core requirements, and that is in many ways a boon–we are more beholden to finding interesting ways to engage the material, and one of the things I’ve tried to do is incorporate more elements of material culture, which is perfect for a study abroad opportunity.

By this point in the term, students have discussed coterie manuscript writing (and we’ve learned how to letterlock!), amatory fiction, and the domestic novel, and they’ve also had the chance to see a few 18th century conduct books. Our special collections just received a grant to purchase some more books, and we added Nivelon’s Rudiments of Genteel Behavior and Allestree’s The Lady’s Calling, in addition to a few other wonderful materials. Everyone should have read a few poems, in addition to Behn’s “History of the Nun” and two works by Haywood, “Fantomina” and Love in Excess. We also read excerpts from Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter in conjunction with (substantial!) excerpts from Burney’s Evelina. This week, we’ll be reading Austen’s Lady Susan during our travels! After our return, we’ll have some drama by Burney and Behn as well as some more poetry and a bit of Wollstonecraft and Astell on marriage to round out the term.

Publicity Flyer for EN340GC SP17

@AustenSays twitter bot

With the help of Zach Whalen’s extraordinarily clear instructions, I set up my first twitter bot, @austensays, which tweets out a single sentence (provided it’s 140 or fewer characters) from Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. I was teaching the novel last term, and while this started out as a form of procrastination, it actually turned out to offer some interesting insights about tone, style, and voice.

I procured a copy of Mansfield Park from Project Gutenberg, and then ran some regular expressions to separate it out into individual sentences–I looked for the ends of sentences, as indicated by periods, and then added a line break after each. This I could then copy directly into a google spreadsheet, which was much simpler than I’d anticipated, as each paragraph became its own row in the spreadsheet. The data preparation I did does not register exclamation points or question marks as line breaks–more robust regular expression searches would help me do this, and look for capital letters after such punctuation, but for the time being I chose to simplify this way. If you’re curious about the data, here is the spreadsheet.

What I was surprised by the way that genre of “the twitter post,” with all its restrictions, proved perfect to capture the sense of distance, even isolation, in much of the novel. It also offers an opportunity for readers to see, in a microcosmic way, how Austen’s irony works. For instance:

Many of these tweets, for instance, exemplify the use of passive voice, and the fraught simplicity of the verb “to be.” The broad sparseness of the sentence structure employed injects an element of loneliness in the language, which is embodied in Fanny’s experience. Other patterns we might notice include the use of the comma to balance, in a strangely imbalanced way, sentences like these:

It is as though you can hear the pause of a sigh in each comma. With more refined data, I wonder what else this kind of algorithmic reading can reveal? Ultimately, then, this was not quite as much about procrastination as I might have initially thought. 🙂