A review of Timeline of Empire, a student-generated timeline of U.S. empire, directed by Katrina Phillips
Timeline of Empire
Katrina Phillips, Macalester College
Jason A. Heppler, George Mason University
I’m a history professor at Macalester College in Minnesota, and my main teaching areas include Native history, the American West, the U.S. Empire, public history, and representation and performance. Macalester moved to a module system for the 2020-2021 academic year; rather than two 15-week semesters, the calendar shifted to four seven-to eight-week modules. The compressed schedule was intended to give the college flexibility among ongoing COVID uncertainty. Given this change, coupled with the knowledge that my students would potentially be learning remotely, in person, or in a hybrid model, I reworked my entire curriculum. The first class I taught in the module system was a first-year course called, “The Empire Strikes Back: Resistance in the U.S. Empire.” Most students in my classes have little or no prior engagement with my main teaching areas, which makes syllabus creation a challenging endeavor in a typical semester. The prospect of creating a modular syllabus seemed an impossible task, especially when adding in the uncertainty of potentially teaching in multiple modalities.
So I turned to the students themselves. I devised a module-long project that students would be able to complete remotely, if it came to that. I knew I would not be able to cover as much material as I normally would, so my students collectively built what we called a “Timeline of Empire.” Each student picked 10-15 historical events to research — and the only requirement was that they had to tie it to the creation, growth, or maintenance of the U.S. empire. My students wrote 200- to 500-word entries, sourced images to go along with their events, and learned from each other along the way. I worked with our research librarian to create a course research guide, our college archivist to help my students find digitized primary sources, and our Academic Information Associate (AIA) to build the timeline through Timeline JS. Our AIA, Ben Voigt, created a Google form for students to input their entry information before he finalized the timeline.
This was a very introductory digital humanities project, and purposefully so. In this first-year course, I wanted to give my students the opportunity to engage with self-directed historical research, digital humanities, and public-facing scholarship without overwhelming them. My students learned how to turn their historical research into accessible timeline entries, and the collaborative nature of the project gave them the opportunity to create connections and build relationships with their classmates. The timeline project worked so well that I’m replicating it in three other courses: “Native History to 1871,” “Native History since 1871,” and “Imagining the American West.” It has made historical research and digital humanities accessible for my students, given me the opportunity to introduce students to the best practices of digital humanities project management by drawing upon our library’s vast technical staff, and created a tangible, shareable, collaboratively-built final product that underscores the importance of public and digital scholarship.
Jason A. Heppler
This student-generated timeline developed by Katrina Phillips is wonderfully rich and thorough. Created as part of coursework on resistance to U.S. empire, the timeline covers nearly six centuries of imperial excursions across the continental United States, Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and other U.S.-held territories. With a particular focus on race, empire, inclusion, and citizenship, the project admirably tackles the messy place of the U.S. on the world stage. By taking this approach, the project reinforces Daniel Immerwahr's point that, through the lens of empire, “race has been even more central to U.S. history than is usually supposed.” This history is not only one of Indigenous or Black histories, but “about Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan, and Chamoru” as well (Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, 12).
The project is built using the Knight Lab’s TimelineJS project, an easy-to-use platform driven by Google Sheets and hosted online by the Knight Lab. The tool creates a timeline with two sections: a narrative section covers the upper two-thirds of the screen, while the lower third gives an overview of the entire timeline that can be panned, zoomed in and out, or reset to the starting panel. Users can then swipe through the timeline to advance from event to event or select an event in the lower third timeline to jump to a particular point.
Each of the points in time within Timeline of Empire are driven by narrative text, archival photographs, videos, and bibliographies — although these can sometimes be uneven in their use, thoroughness, and citations. The narratives situate an event or period into historical context by exploring the causes behind U.S. expansion and, more importantly, the responses to expansion by those subjected to it.
As users move forward in time, it becomes clear how rapidly and thoroughly the United States pursues its imperial ambitions. The students provided over 100 events in the timeline, giving readers a chance to deeply explore their themes: from the purchase of the Virgin Islands in the 19th century to CIA operations in Vietnam in the 20th century to Keystone XL activists in the 21st. Importantly, the timeline includes not just events we might consider extra-political anti-imperial activities through violence but also the election of Indigenous leaders to political office. Resistance to empire, as the timeline makes clear, does not always mean direct political action but can follow traditional avenues of politics that seek to right or overturn entrenched systems of domination.
The one downside to an approach that aggregates entries by students is readers do not know whose voices are being read since there are no bylines or attribution to the students themselves. As one might expect, writing style and voice can be quite different from one narrative to another and the shift can be slightly jarring. One potential solution might be a style guide to help guide students towards a consistent structure. Such a guide might include the number of paragraphs and the minimum number of bibliographic citations — not with so much specificity that the students lose the ability for their own voice to come through, but just enough structure to keep the experience of reading each of the essays consistent. Furthermore, the inclusion of the student's name (or nom de plume) would likewise help indicate changes in the structure or voice of a particular entry.
But this limitation should not detract from the achievement here. Phillips and her students produced an engaging and detailed timeline of empire that was undoubtedly useful for her own pedagogy but can also be used in K-12 and college classrooms as an interactive textbook.