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Integrating the Digital Humanities into the Second Language Classroom

reviewed by Svjetlana Curcic - July 19, 2021

coverTitle: Integrating the Digital Humanities into the Second Language Classroom
Author(s): Melinda A. Cro
Publisher: Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC
ISBN: 1626167761, Pages: 90, Year: 2020
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Digital humanities encompass different projects such as visual anthropology; digital ethnography; digital (digging) archeology; topographies of literature and culture, including mapping texts, places, people, and their social networks; and visual and digital interpretations of the writings of Darwin, Shakespeare, Dante, and more. With such a wide span of digital humanities investigations and applications, it is useful that Cro introduces, first of all, several definitions of digital humanities. While various authors do not uniformly agree on one definition, Cro summarizes the most important points, which characterize digital humanities as an endeavor to employ digital and computational methods in conducting a humanistic inquiry, culminating in open and publicly accessible artifacts.

The first three chapters are centered on digital humanities pedagogy in second language learning classroom instruction. Chapter 1 delineates the ways in which humanistic digital pedagogy differs from the use of technology in classrooms as usually encountered: for example, using technology or assistive technology in second language or foreign language instruction to improve vocabulary acquisition, instruction in digital game-based environments, mobile learning, and computer-assisted learning (e.g., Zhang & Zou, 2020; Golonka et al., 2014). Pedagogy in digital humanities goes beyond text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and instruction with grammar software. Digital humanities start with a humanistic inquiry and with the teams of investigators and learners who are involved in a project-based learning. Learners are involved in practices that require them to explore certain cultural topics as opposed to practices in which they are expected to master speech and grammar. The topics might range from literature, linguistics, and art to history and the history of linguistics. Group and project-based learning provide opportunities to master both content and language, which is why the selection of a topic is important. In Chapter 2, Cro provides an example from her own instruction in an advanced French seminar on 17th-century French literature in which she and her students explored the relationship between the text’s structure and the geographical movements of the author studied, Jean Chardin.

The selection of topics and tasks should correlate with the linguistic ability of learners and their multimodal literacy proficiency. Ideally, the proficiency in digital and multimodal informational literacy would enhance students’ study and understanding of both second language and the digital reality of the target language and cultures being studied.

Students’ characteristics and approaches to course design are further explored in Chapter 3. The five Cs standards (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities) are discussed through the concepts of project work, the characteristics of learners, course design, and assessment, including feedback. Project-based work may span from a single activity to a multistep project, or even a series of projects. In each of these cases, project creators should explain not only the rationale for the project but also the process of its implementation and the creation of new knowledge. The students’ role shifts from the consumers of digital knowledge to collaborators and generators of knowledge. Within this context, Cro suggests including activities focused on defining authorship in digital humanities projects (e.g., UCLA’s StudentsCollaborators’ Bill of Rights). While holistic rubrics are recommended, formative assessments are considered particularly effective as they support a growth mindset rather than a way to punish those students who might not have all the necessary digital skills at the beginning of a project.  

Chapter 4 might be of most interest to the readers because it provides specific examples of digital humanities projects as activities conducted in and outside the second language classrooms. As an example of a cultural comparisons theme, Cro suggests activities conducted individually, in small groups, and/or whole-class, with students interviewing target-language speakers while researching specific cultural topics. For example, citing van Compernolle and McGregor (2016), Cro makes two points of interest: first, while native speakers have been traditionally privileged in communicative approaches to the second-language instruction, non-native speakers might also be valued resources in learning a second language, as they might provide an insight into varied ways in which speakers align with, or diverge from, expected norms of speaking. The authenticity of a speaker is established not only based on their ability to speak a certain language, but also on their ability to communicate in different contexts. Second, with digital tools (email, videoconferencing), an investigation into different speakers and contexts can be expanded beyond local contexts. Digital humanities projects go beyond speaking and listening in a second language to exploring cultural topics, and within this context, both native and non-native groups of speakers constitute authentic cultural sources. Learners might engage in comparing their own perceptions about certain cultural topics with those of native and non-native speakers, including material and digital resources available locally and across the borders of one state or a country.

Teaching and learning a second language has always had a goal of achieving linguistic competency and performance that included cultural competency. However, a traditional approach to achieving second language competency has been usually focused on speaking and writing as a set of skills, without much exploration dedicated to the five Cs standards mentioned earlier. When the instruction happens in one classroom, following one textbook, the possibilities of exploring cultural topics seem to be limited. Digital humanities expand the vision of teaching and learning a second language because project-based learning might incorporate sharing knowledge through blogging (e.g., through a user-friendly Word Press platform), web publishing (e.g., Scalar, a free open-source web-based tool developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture), videos to be posted on YouTube, or wikis (as hypertext systems), including Wikipedia.   

As opposed to a focus on “close reading” of the texts (proposed in K–12 literacy standards), the focus from the digital humanities perspective is on “distant reading” of the texts (p. 54). The distant reading of texts allows for a large-scale literary analysis of genres and other questions related to inquiries that span across long stretches of time and space. For example, visualization and spatial mapping across time and space might contribute to the insights into the communication of ideas across several centuries and countries, and different patterns of genre and authors’ writing. Finally, as Cro notes, the “digital” in digital humanities, does not replace “humanities,” but rather it offers opportunities to “critically engage” and “enhance humanistic inquiry” (p. 65). It is worth noting that the activities proposed in this book not only offer a participatory mode of student engagement, but also new pedagogy tools in second-language instruction.


Golonka, E. M., Bowles, A. R., Frank, V. M., Richardson, D. L., & Freynik, S. (2014). Technologies for foreign language learning: A review of technology types and their effectiveness. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27(1), 70–105. 


van Compernolle, R. A., & McGregor, J. (Eds.). (2016). Authenticity, language and interaction in second language contexts. Multilingual Matters.

Zhang, R., & Zou, D. (2020). Types, purposes, and effectiveness of state-of-the-art technologies for second and foreign language learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning. https://doi.org/10.1080/09588221.2020.1744666

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 19, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23795, Date Accessed: 7/27/2021 1:24:59 AM

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About the Author
  • Svjetlana Curcic
    University of Mississippi
    E-mail Author
    SVJETLANA CURCIC, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of Mississippi. Her research interests include instructional approaches to reading and writing and approaches to incorporating technology in literacy instruction for students with learning disabilities and second language learners.
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