Breaking Boundaries: Global Perspectives, Digital Humanities-Inflected Pedagogy and the Teaching of Italian History and Literature

Spring 2022 Fellow: Zhonghua Wang


This project entails the incorporation of Digital Humanities (DH)-inflected pedagogy into the Italian history and literature curriculum. DH methods facilitate a laboratory-based learning environment that values collaboration, creativity, and transdisciplinarity, and serve as a meaningful analytical approach to rethink the Italian literary canon, and to challenge methodological nationalism and Eurocentric paradigms. 


  • Why global perspectives?

We live in a globalizing and globalized world. The cross-border connections and interactions of people, things, and ideas have increasingly gained scholars’ attention in recent two decades since “the global turn” that has changed the intellectual landscape. The ongoing globalization is steadily reshaping our economic, social-political, ethnographic, epidemiologic, cultural, and educational environment, and it has posed fundamental challenges to the social sciences, literary and historical studies. In particular, the “methodological nationalism” and the Eurocentric underpinnings of the modern academic disciplines are found to be defective in explaining the realities of a globalized world characterized by “movements, flows, and circulations” across borders and boundaries. Global history thus was born as a revisionist response to such challenges and “to the demand for a more inclusive, less narrowly national perspective of the past” (Conrad 2). It especially constitutes an attack to the nationally organized histories that reigned supreme during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, and serves a corrective to internalist historical thinking that tends to explain the histories of nations and cultures as in isolation. 

Many historians argue that the early modern period (roughly 1400 or 1500 to 1800 CE) was the first truly global era, or in a cautious manner, an age of “proto-globalization” (Bentley 96). The interest in the entanglements of people, texts and knowledge in the early modern age embeds my drive to train myself as a global historian and early modernist. Again, what lies under the global perspectives is a general insight that no society, nation, or culture exists in isolation, which I believe was not sufficiently addressed in my undergraduate curriculum when I was learning Italian as a second language. Therefore, during spring 2022 I’ve been designing a new advanced Italian literature and history course that embraces “the global turn” to challenge methodological nationalism and Eurocentric paradigms in modern academic disciplines that are no longer sufficient to pose the right questions and generate right answers to explain the globalizing and globalized world. 

On the theoretical and conceptual level, in addition to global history I also draw on the framework of “new mobilities paradigm”. It emphasizes both the actual and the imagined movement of people, information, texts and images on local, national, and global scale, and involves places and infrastructures as well as the borders or “gates” that organize, channel, and regulate such movement. Mobility studies thus challenges “notions of wholeness, teleological development, evolutionary progress, and ethnic authenticity”, and the illusion of fixity, stability, coherence, wholeness, and autonomy of culture (Greenblatt 1-7). The global turn and mobility turn allow us to institute a more “symmetrical knowledge” rather than “asymmetric knowledge”, where it’s not about the triumph of the West over the East, the civilized over the barbarian, but rather it’s about the political, economic, intellectual, and cultural complexity of all the “transfer points” and “contact zones” along the itineraries of movement.

  • Why Digital Humanities?

The use of technology in education is becoming even more prominent nowadays, as the COVID-19 crisis increases the need to access information remotely. Consequently, the pandemic has prompted a range of reflections and resources related to DH, which is characterized as inter- or transdisciplinary in nature as Modern Languages, both dealing with various subjects like history, literature, art, philosophy, technology, etc. DH approaches are diverse and varied, ranging from projects like Danteworlds, a multimedia and interactive platform on the Divine Comedy, to Mapping the Republic of letters, which investigates early modern intellectual connections by creating corpus-scale datasets and processing them by digital network analysis and visualization tools.

Steeped in a methodology that values collaboration, creativity and interdisciplinarity, the nature of DH parallels the methods valued in the L2 learning. DH is thus a meaningful approach to enrich the L2 literature and history course by highlighting best principles in the L2 pedagogy, particularly in terms of communicative, collaborative, content-driven and task-based approaches to language instruction, and helps students to embrace the potential for interdisciplinary, critical and creative approaches to linguistic, cultural and literary studies. In fact, one major concern of language pedagogy over the past decades has been an incorporation of more thematic, literary and cultural perspectives into the curriculum. DH methods can enhance and facilitate the pedagogical approaches already at play in many L2 classrooms. Additionally, inflecting DH methods in language, literature and history courses corresponds to the societal need for digital literacy, which is an important metric in today’s technology-oriented world yet remains overlooked in pedagogy. A DH-inflected pedagogy (Harris 2013; Cro 2020) would be a much-needed intervention in order to increase digital literacy among students who need to learn how to read, learn and produce new knowledge online, and ultimately facilitate their transition into the post-academic world. 

Despite the increase in the attention given to the DH-inflected pedagogy, scarce resources are available to deal with DH methods in L2 literature and history classrooms. During the BLC Fellowship project, I explored available DH tools applicable to L2 courses, developed recyclable learning media and materials to introduce basic DH methods, and scaffold hands-on DH-inflected activities to teach literature and culture in Italian language courses. The assignments that I’ve designed for my new course follows what Cro calls a “medium inflection” DHL2 method, where parts of a course’s assignments are based on scaffolded DH projects (2020: 29-30). In an advanced L2 literature and culture course, such a strategy allows instructors to introduce DH methods to the students without transforming the whole syllabus, making it feasible for L2 courses especially considering that acquiring DH skills could be time-consuming. These materials and activities are not only applicable to L2 courses of various languages, but also to literature, culture and history courses in general.

As we well know, when we come to the dynamics of transcultural exchanges, it usually involves complex trajectories of individual and collective agencies whose perspectives and activities are often mediated by class, education, profession, local context, political pressure, structural constraint, and information channels accessible to them. On a methodological level, many digital humanities approaches are especially useful to detect, visualize and analyze such complex cultural relationships on macro, meso and even micro level. As I shall show later in the sample project and students’ work, DH methods can be employed as a valuable analytical approach that meets the need of the theoretical formulations like global history and mobility studies and allows them to be fully operationalized. 

Course Overview

Global Early modern Italy: Exchanges and Transitions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

  • Focus: how Italy exchanged goods, people, ideologies, and culture with the wider world, and how indigenous societies in Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, Asia and Southeast Asia influenced Italy and Europe.
  • Themes: Renaissance(s); the Reformation(s); State-building, the Scientific Revolution; Globalization and European expansion; Impact of Slavery; traveler and traveling, Catholic overseas missions; the Enlightenment, etc.
  • Course level: upper-division course in Italian; R&C course; L&S breadth course

Throughout the course, I’d like to emphasize that Italy and Europe alike between 1500 and 1800 was not an isolated area. Instead, it was economically, politically, religiously, and ideologically connected to other parts of the world. Therefore, it’s important to understand the many facets of Italian history and culture in a variety of cosmopolitan and transcultural contexts. In particular, we explore how Italy exchanged goods, people, ideologies, and culture with the wider world, and how indigenous societies in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Southeast Asia influenced Italy and Europe. Students explore themes such as Renaissance(s); the Reformation(s); State-building, the Scientific Revolution; Globalization and European expansion; Slavery; traveler and traveling, Catholic overseas missions; the Enlightenment, etc. It’s designed to be an upper-division course in Italian, but most of its components are transferable to be a R&C course or a L&S breadth course taught in English. As a way to incorporate DH-inflected pedagogy into the course and to get students familiar with basic DH tools, I’ve developed several tutorial and practice activities divided into different units, including network analysis (see in the sample final project section below), digital mapping and text analysis. The course is then scaffolded into various assignments that culminate in a midterm DH project and a final DH project instead of  individual assignments like exams or writing a final paper. 

Learning goals

1) Identify major events in early modern European history (the Renaissance(s), the Reformation(s), the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, etc.) and reposition them in Global History. Identify evidence to show why what used to be seen as European movements were not entirely home-grown movements.

2) Confidently cite and analyze primary source documents from early modern Italy and beyond: describe the works examined, their historical context and the importance of these works in relation to the themes, principal figures and events.

3) Develop intellectual and critical skills to identify and analyze patterns and phenomena of cultural mobility – movements and interactions across linguistic, literary, ethnic, national and cultural boundaries

4) Capable of applying basic Digital Humanities methods, such as network analysis, digital mapping to conduct literary/history/cultural analysis and present research findings.

Sample final project

  • Project design
LogisticsThis assignment is due **/**/**. It is worth 30% of your overall grade in the class. The workload for the project is designed to be completed by a group of 3-5 students. Only one member of the group has to submit, but please make sure to add the other team members to the submission. You are free to use any network analysis softwares to complete this assignment.
Working with teammatesYou’ll work on this project within a group of 3-5 participants. You are free to form your own groups. Feel free to search for teammates on bCourses/ this Piazza thread. If you would prefer to be randomly assigned to a group, please email the instructors by */*.
Your tasks
In this project you will deep dive into network visualization and analyses to investigate an aspect regarding the connections between the Italian peninsula and the globe.  Your work can be based on a pre-existing dataset or a dataset created by your group to investigate an aspect of the globalizing/globalized world. To do so, you need tochoose a topicselect a target data setdevelop a series of research questions to ask of the data based on network modelsdevise a strategy for addressing those questionsMore concretely, your objectives are as following:Conceive visually the connections between the Italian peninsula and the globe, discussing at least two communities on political, historical, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual issues. You can choose to work on materials of any time period: Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern, Modern, and Contemporary.Establish criteria to determine which data (including but not limited to textual, visual, aural materials) will be included in the project as well as what information will be included, related to the scope chosen by the team;Prepare appropriate citations for each data point;Develop a network of selected data in order to analyze the relational features of the selected subject;Present your research findings in a clear and compelling manner in the class.Get inspired: explore ideas for final projectBrowse network-related articles in Journal of Cultural AnalyticsTake a look at the case studies of Mapping the Republic of LettersStanford Large Network Dataset Collection
  • How does it work?

Before getting started with the final project, instructors should spend some time in lectures or discussion sections to get students exposed to network theory and how to build simple networks with softwares like Gephi. In order to provide an example of the potential for network analysis, I shall show a collaborative work done by a group of 5 students. In their final project, students decide to work on the Grand Tour of the 18th century so they investigate British architects and their experience in Italy. None of the group members join the course with previous expertise in network analysis, but they were able to do background research, identify meaningful questions about the Grand Tour, such as:

  • Can network-driven approach, including both macro and local views, offer insights to the complexities in positioning Italian culture in relation to the rest of Europe in the context of the Grand Tour? 
  • What hints can network analysis offer to help us tell a better story about the Grand Tour?

Then they worked together on their target datasets, designed strategies to transform the data into networks, in order to address their questions.

Breaking Boundaries: Global Perspectives, Digital Humanities-Inflected Pedagogy and the Teaching of Italian History and Literature

Figure 1. The initial dataset (partial)

On the macro scale, the students visualize the most visited places, such as Rome and Florence, and the least visited ones, such as Torino, etc. So, they quickly get the general picture that the Grand tour was an urban experience. Travelers preferred to visit cities and towns rather than the countryside. Republican Florence and early Christian Rome began to assume a much more prominent place in travelers’ imaginations.

Breaking Boundaries: Global Perspectives, Digital Humanities-Inflected Pedagogy and the Teaching of Italian History and Literature

Figure 2. The Most visited places

Breaking Boundaries: Global Perspectives, Digital Humanities-Inflected Pedagogy and the Teaching of Italian History and Literature

Figure 3. Less visited places

On the micro level, the network also helps students to capture some unique experiences. For example, they found out that There are 75 places that were only visited by one traveler, most of which were in the Kingdom of Naples. Willey Revely, for example, was the one that visited the largest number of places in the dataset. Probably we will easily miss this case in a traditional reading activity considering that Willey Revely was a lesser-known architect so we may not pay much attention to him. The Grand tour project could help trace the trajectories of British architects in Italy, and further explore how their travel experiences may affect their profession and artistic styles back in Britain. 

Breaking Boundaries: Global Perspectives, Digital Humanities-Inflected Pedagogy and the Teaching of Italian History and Literature

Figure 4. Willey Reveley’s itinerary

  • Why networks and why humanities scholars/instructors should bother?

The visual language of networks has significant implications: it rejects hierarchies but embraces connectedness. The emphasis on connectedness and relations between entities matches some important theoretical developments such as global history and mobility studies. These theoretical developments do not necessarily involve elaborate methodological counterparts, especially digital methods, but (computational) network analysis, with its focus on relational features of data and the ability to cut through hierarchies, can be employed as a valuable analytical approach that meets the need of these theoretical formulations and allows them to be fully operationalized. The network approach enables us to see social structures and experiences based on social networks that would otherwise remain inscrutable, it’s capable to move between macro and micro scale, to add quantitative analysis to qualitative one, and combine close reading with distant reading. 

A network is always metaphorical and abstract in nature (Ahnert et al. 2020: 13). The representation of networks as a collection of relationships (edges) between defined entities (nodes) and their mathematical description is largely detached from the concrete phenomena they describe. In other words, constructing network representation from the real world is a process of abstraction, networks only represent a formal structure of relations; it dismisses all their contents (Painter et al. 2019: 540). As a result, it’s possible to define almost anything of interest to be the nodes. While the universality of the metaphorical and abstract language facilitates the seemingly universal applicability of networks in various disciplines, in the humanities it’s never “natural” to discover network patterns. Rather, the networks we analyze in the humanities are not discovered, but created. In order to apply network analysis to the study of texts (or historical phenomena described in texts), the prerequisite is to derive network data from textual data.  Scholars need to define a specific corpus of texts in their own domain, establish rules of how to turn information from the sources into nodes and edges. The process of abstraction requires thoughtful planning, critical evaluation, careful interpretation, and deliberate tradeoff: what information to prioritize and what to neglect. Human interpretation of the “data,” either at the macro, meso or micro scale, remains essential. And critical frameworks developed in the humanities would carry considerable weight in improving current assumptions about data collection, processing and analysis: for example, how to deal with uncertainty, incompleteness and biases in data, and how to interpret the result. Incorporating network analysis into humanities curriculum can provide students with a wide range of transferable interpretive, critical and digital skills, but also answer the calls for scholars to re-engage with literary, historical and cultural studies in terms of “interdisciplinary turn” and “digital turn”.

Summary: potential benefits

Reframing upper-division Italian courses through a DH-inflected pedagogy facilitates a lab-based learning environment that adds collaboration, experimentation and creativity to reading and interpretation. Such a communicative, collaborative, content-driven and task-based approach to historical, cultural and literary studies has potential benefits:

First, it facilitates new ways of knowledge production. It repositions students as necessary and integral collaborators in the knowledge-making processes. It could also bring new mindset and analytical tools to traditional literary/historical/social analysis, thus enabling the students to see and know what they could not see or know before.

Second, students could potentially achieve objectives that go beyond the scope of a traditional literature or history course, considering that DH-inflected assignments transform passive reading experience to an active and critical one. By engaging with the technologies that necessitate a read-research-evaluate-design-build-experiment-interpret/analyze-present process, more analytical skills are required along the way than simply reading texts and writing essays alone. Students could also learn effective presentational skills that are transferable to other disciplines and professional careers.

Third, it has the potential to increase students’ engagement with literary and cultural materials. It prioritizes students’ contribution, collaboration, and hands-on practices. It encourages students to be more playful, creative, and adventurous with the course content. 

And finally, scaffolded digital projects allow students to create a product that could be easily shared with a broader audience on websites or social media. So, students get the chance to make interdisciplinary and real-world connections that they may not have made otherwise.


Ahnert, Ruth, et al. The Network Turn: Changing Perspectives in the Humanities. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Bentley, Jerry H., ed. The Oxford handbook of world history. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Conrad, Sebastian. What is global history?. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Cro, Melinda A. Integrating the Digital Humanities into the Second Language Classroom: A Practical Guide. Georgetown University Press, 2020.

Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. Cultural mobility: A manifesto. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Harris, Katherine D. “Play, Collaborate, Break, Build, Share:“Screwing Around” in Digital Pedagogy.” Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal 3.3 (2013).

Painter, Deryc T., Bryan C. Daniels, and Jürgen Jost. “Network analysis for the digital humanities: principles, problems, extensions.” Isis 110.3 (2019): 538-554.