My Southern Literature students created a timeline as they read Absalom, Absalom! this semester, using Timeline JS. While it is not as extensive as this timeline hosted by the University of Virginia, it has evolved into a useful resource, and more importantly, a useful assignment.
There are nine students in the class: eight undergraduates and one master’s student. As they read, all nine students used a collaborative spreadsheet (on Google Drive) to input dates, titles, quotes from the text indicating where the information was found, and tags. I had made a couple of initial entries to demonstrate, but otherwise, the timeline is entirely student-generated.
Having completed the assignment, there are a few changes I would make. First, as I entered the demo items, I assigned tags according to the character, so that information about Thomas Sutpen was tagged “Sutpen” and so forth. As the timeline grew, I quickly realized my tagging system was a mistake. Timeline JS limits items to one tag per entry, so we had to choose whether Charles Bon’s birth was an event in Sutpen’s life or in Bon’s life–but it could not be both. More importantly, tagging events by character isn’t particularly helpful to a reader. What would probably be more helpful is to go back and assign tags according to the narrative from which the item comes, so that a piece of information readers get from Jason Compson’s telling would be tagged as coming from him, while information from Miss Rosa’s telling would all be tagged as such. I don’t know how easily this could be done, and again, where there are correspondences among multiple narrators, only one could be tagged. Perhaps next time I teach Absalom, Absalom! I will take that task on as a project. For now, the tags are not to my mind particularly useful.
Second, we used different editions of the novel, and so while each entry is identified with a page number, those page numbers do not correspond to any one version of the text. Some are from the Modern Library edition, some are Vintage International, and some are yet another edition. In a class where everyone is required to have the same edition, this would not be a problem, but for this timeline, I will have to make edits to bring all of the page numbers into alignment.
The great success of this assignment was that it forced the students to read very closely and gave them an objective for doing so, and it clarified the narrative. Reading a novel that shifts through time and among narrators, students may be tempted to throw up their hands and declare it indecipherable; this assignment helps them sort out the chronology largely on their own (although they were welcome to use whatever sources they could find), proving to them that not only can it be done but that they can do it themselves.