I Know What You Read Last Summer

Creating my own version of a “chronography” or “time map” as part of my research into the development of writers…in Cabo.

I just spent an amazing month traveling with two weeks on the sleepy side of Cabo at my own DIY Writer’s Retreat. (I left feeling lucky, blessed, tan, centered, and validated for the way I budgeted this last year.)

Much of this “writing,” however, was spent thinking and reading, rereading and thinking. Isn’t this what we all look like on vacation?

(I also wrote about my month “as a disconnected educator” here and here.)
Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline

While at my retreat, I finished the book Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline. Even if time isn’t your current obsession (as I may be guilty of myself—here’s a post on its role in teaching and learning, and here’s a tweetchat and archive I hosted on the role time plays in contemporary composition, and why not, here’s another link to another’s post on time in education that I recommend), I don’t know of another book I could recommend more than this one. (Maria Popova of BrainPickings feels similarly.)

Picture yourself in one of those movies based on a Austen-type novel—one that features some kids sneaking into the captain’s library and taking big beautiful, intricate atlases or hand-drawn bird identification books and hiding under the table to crack the spine, or rushing out of the room and out onto the large estate gardens, laying down and opening the book under the bright sky. This is the exact feeling I had every time I opened Cartographies of Time. Mesmerized and contemplative, I was one giddy geek.

From single-digit centuries to contemporary times, the authors, Rosenberg and Grafton, traced the ways time has been represented in print, and equally fascinating, how it has been conceived of as a concept. Wait, wait…don’t let me lose you there. If that idea doesn’t capture you, I promise the images of these graphic representations across time will. It’s currently my favorite picture book! Don’t try to convince me that these contrasting images of ways time has been represented in history (as posted in the New York Times and The Morning News reviews of this book) don’t leave you wanting more…


Without further ado, here are four of the many insights I am still thinking about:


Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a 19th century leading pedagogue known for promoting play in learning, utilized and promoted a highly-abstracted blank grid template in her instruction of history. On the template, youth made color-coded demarcations depending on type of historical event. Location on the grid was determined by the century and duration of event. Now, if you are like me, this kind of classroom activity sounds nothing like a “play is learning” kind of pedagogical decision; however, she found that using these templates shifted the focus of historical study away from memorization of dates (which apparently Mark Twain thought was nearly impossible) to an interpretive exercise, one of discussion and—get this—creativity. Her students’ grids were never filled in similarly, demonstrating their interpretations of events, causes, effects and significance. This was social studies in the 1800s. Who knew?


The quantitative, measured, linear, and very popular conception of time is a relatively recent metaphor applied to the idea. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that “the idea of a single uniform fabric of time” (p. 180) was a functional in society. The authors explained (emphasis mine):

The timeline did not precede our other ways of representing historical time, nor has it ever embodied the pure value neutrality that many have wished to attribute to it. It arose as a new way of expressing and quantifying chronological relationships (p. 244).

I won’t pretend that quantifying time has not instigated incredible advances in science and technology, but like other approaches to conceiving of time, a linear measurement of it is just another metaphor—one that has never sat well with me when trying to understand how humans experience time in their lives. In order to map experience onto a measured, linear time, experience must be flattened, quantified and sanitized. This works well for seeing some patterns that matter to humans like rates of disease and economic trends, but not for relationships, learning, and other such human experience. When it comes to human sense making, chronology is only one type of connection between events. We act based on our perception of chronology in relation to our experiences, not because of its measured pace.


In July, @dancohen and I had a short exchange on Twitter about the calendar as an early innovation of print, considered a hybrid space in which people could literally write their personal and family events into the histories of religious and royal events that dominated the representations of history at the time. Hybridity in text and composition is such a hot topic now; it’s fascinating to remember that like multimodality, hybridity is not new.


I am completely enamored of Marjolijn Dijkman’s installation project Wandering Through the Future. The installation included a timeline of future events as predicted in fiction. This was posted across a shed, and inside the shed on large screens, clips of futuristic films were presented as scenes of our future as patrons walked along time.

This got me thinking about the guys who took part in my dissertation research. Similar to these anticipated scenes of future reality playing on screens while patrons walked along in the present, the guys in the study had moments of future reality currently active in their lives. What they were scared of, and anticipated, and expected, and hoped shaped the actions they took in the present. In studying their development as writers, it was not sufficient to  merely map the dates and times of observed writing events and products on a timeline. Rather, how the youth experienced their pasts and futures in the present was integral to understanding what fostered, enabled and constrained their development.

So, what did you read this summer?

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