Annotated Timelines and the Biography of an Idea


Biography of an idea

The United States is an individualistic society, one that teaches that you alone can do anything if you work hard enough. Yet, collectivist societies would disagree, believing instead that you can’t accomplish anything by yourself. These are two ends of a spectrum with varying degrees of understanding about human agency and a range of cultural beliefs about innovation in between.

What happens if you take a collectivist idea and implement it in an individualistic society?

Edward Clapp advocates that we need to shift the focus on creativity from individuals to ideas. “For decades, creativity researchers have employed the biographical method as the means to tell the story of individuals who are often heralded as genius for their feats of greatness” (Clapp, 2016, p. 91). By not focusing on the individual, but rather the evolution of ideas, it is possible to shift from the perception of individual creative genius to a reframing of creativity that resides with the collective as a distributive and participatory process.

Yet, this challenges the individualistic notion that someone should be recognized and celebrated for their achievements and accomplishments. “From a traditional perspective, the locus of creativity is thought to lie within the individual. From a more systems-based perspective, the same concepts become socially rearranged and literally redistributed: individuals enact their agency throughout the creative idea development process, but no one individual or group has ownership over any one creative idea” (Clapp, 2016, p. 92).

With this reframing and focus on the biography of ideas rather than the biography of individuals, it becomes possible to reimagine the terrain of innovation. “Reframing creativity as the biography of an idea combines social science approaches to the case study and biographical methods with narrative storytelling to detail how creative ideas emerge, with an emphasis placed on the social factors and chain of events that leads to invention and innovation” (Clapp, 2016, p. 93). Pedagogy that encourages the adoption of the biography of an idea is student-centered; contextual; participatory; interdisciplinary; inclusive, dialectical, and visual.

What might the biography of an idea look like in the classroom?

One way faculty across disciplines can deploy this reframing of creativity and innovation is through the generation of annotated timelines. Timelines explore  context at micro and macro levels, help construct detailed arguments, and adopt dialectical perspectives, illuminating ideas that both foster and challenge creativity along the way. Timelines could cover the span of an event, the conceptualization of an idea, or the development of an entire field of study.

Annotated timelines

Annotated timelines are a great way to think about charting the narrative of a course or exploring the evolution of a topic. Students can add text, audio, video, and other sources to a timeline, creating an interactive and multimedia learning experience. Annotated timelines can help students across disciplines reorganize topics often discussed in isolation into a comprehensive understanding of how an accumulation of events, ideas, or topics are interconnected in way that leads to creative innovation. 

Designing the structure and requirements for an annotated timeline assignment can take a myriad of formats. As a best practice, I generally include three specific instructions for each assignment that set expectations and provides clarification for students. One, recognize the distributive and participatory nature inherent in the biography of an idea and communicate the number of entries each student must contribute throughout the term or for the duration of the project. Two, ensure students include a paragraph about why the item or entry is important, in which students need to argue how it contributed to the evolution of the idea. Three, let students know they need to include a link to a resource to learn more about the entry or a graphic that provides additional context for the entry.

A timeline can take a variety of forms – textual, interactive, visual, or some combination of all three. Most importantly, you don’t need to learn new software for this assignment, but the software or platform must foster a space for collaboration. Faculty and students who are comfortable with spreadsheets could use Google Sheets to generate timelines that include links to source documentation. Sutori, Timeline JS, and TimeToast are online platforms for creating collaborative presentations in the classroom and approach learning through storytelling, including features for creating responsive, interactive timelines. Classes focused on making their thinking visible can utilize a variety of visualization tools in Google Drawings, Canva, or other online design platforms to create graphic timelines.

Several sample annotated timeline assignments follow.

  • Students can explore opposing views on a topic through the development of an annotated timeline. Many academic disciplines are fraught with debates, so choose a topic that elicits polarized views as evidenced in the literature or media. Assign student groups a particular perspective on a topic and then compare the timelines created by each group or create a master timeline to foster a more nuanced and dialectical understanding of the idea.
  • Students can research one aspect of the topic and post a specific number of items to the timeline over the course of the semester. If a class is exploring solar power or refugee education, students can research those topics from economic, social, cultural, political, or identity perspectives. Structuring the assignment in this manner fosters a truly interdisciplinary timeline of the biography of an idea.
  • Students can use a timeline to chart a study abroad experience to share their evolving perspectives on a topic throughout their time abroad, using their experiences to innovate creative solutions for social injustices or problems encountered that are part of the fabric of their home culture as well. Using a timeline to chart experiential learning emphasizes an inclusive and participatory approach to the assignment.
  • Timelines can help students analyze the ways various media sources cover a current event or set of events from multiple perspectives, illuminating dialectical constructs and providing the space to challenge polarized thinking. As a result of a nuanced understanding of the topic, students can recognize shifting contexts and facilitate a dialogue or design a workshop to bring individuals with various perspectives together to learn from each other.
  • Students can explore digital photography by generating a timeline of the technological advancements that served as a foundation for digital imagery today, using that information to create new technologies or innovative uses for existing technology.


Providing students the space to reflect individually or in groups on the annotated timeline provides opportunities for critical thinking.

  • Are there elements of the timeline that surprised you?
  • Are there events shared that you don’t necessarily see as impacting the topic?
  • What did you learn from the timeline about the interdisciplinary nature of the topic?
  • Are there reoccurring themes in the timeline?
  • Are there aspects of the topic excluded when examined as the biography of the idea?
  • What questions does the timeline raise for you?
  • Are there points on the timeline that reflect both contributions and challenges in the biography of the idea?
  • Are there other interpretations of events or points on the timeline that are important to consider?

According to Mark Twain, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” Some of us may agree with Mark Twain, while others of us may not. However, reimagining the idea that ingenuity, creativity, and innovation are isolated events born solely out of creative genius allows for the expansion of educational terrains of possibility. The interconnected nature of societies, cultures, and institutions provides the opportunity for a reframing of creativity, and annotated timelines are a pedagogical approach that can be used across disciplines to explore the biography of ideas.

Terra Gargano is a faculty in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. Throughout her 25-year career in international higher education, she has managed dozens of institutional collaborations worldwide, conducted workshops for faculty at domestic and international organizations, and learned alongside her students. She was selected as a Faculty Fellow with the Center for Teaching Research and Learning, where she developed and presented seminars to foster pedagogical creativity and has won numerous university awards for her innovation in teaching.


Clapp, E. P. (2016). Participatory Creativity: Introducing Access and Equity to the Creative Classroom. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.

Clapp, E. (September 11, 2015). Creativity as a Participatory Process. Ted Talk.

Phillips, K. W. (October 1, 2014). How Diversity Makes Us Smarter. Scientific American.

Picard, D. & Bruff, D. (2016) Digital Timelines. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

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