Editorializing the Classroom: Teaching Collaboratively in the Digital Age

Stock photo taken from @souomau on Unsplash.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, educators and students were faced with the precarity of a post-Covid, post-Zoom classroom and are now tasked with answering the question: “What does it mean to teach and learn during the digital age?” In an undergraduate course, at the University of California, Riverside (an R1 institution for very high research activity), we used technology as both a pedagogical tool and a point of critical analysis to unpack the complexities of living, creating, researching, and working on the internet. The goal was to interrogate the digital age by highlighting the voices of folks who use social media the most (i.e., students) and to let these students use similar social technologies to share and disperse their research. Turning toward the techno-humanist classroom, we began to see digital tools as an object of study and a lens through which to study it.

In essence, this course asks the following questions: What is the language of social media, and how does it permeate our everyday lives? In the digital age, how have we begun to change how we communicate with each other both locally and globally? Does it matter? In this course, we found these questions were complex and rooted more in the ways we view social media in our own lives than the ways we view social media as a global technology. As life is mediated more and more through the technologies we consume, we are becoming the cyborg of Donna Haraway’s (1991) theorizing. However, in this course, we found that TikTok, and other digital spaces, unlike Haraway’s “post-gender world,” replicates the real, tangible, and material world. “Real world” American racial and gender ideologies are replicated on these platforms.

This course took “The Digital Age” to task in our own ethnographic research that ultimately culminated in collective writing and editorialization using digital tools. The result was a five-week summer course (which met four days a week) called “Viral Languages: Language, Power, and the Digital Age.” In this piece, we hope to demonstrate how collective editorialization of our work helped us to not only understand how to engage with wider academic communities (outside of our own research), but also to understand The Digital Age as multi-vocal, multi-sided, and deeply collaborative. Therefore, in editorializing the classroom, we were able to demonstrate the multivalence of social media in our academic practice.

Below, we will give a detailed account of our experience in the classroom that led us to creating an edited volume of our practice and research of social media (particularly TikTok). We will then demonstrate how digital editorialization has led to a wider understanding of the topic at hand as well as academic collectivity as a generative research practice.

The Theme: TikTok and Social Media

In the manifesto of the inaugural issue of the Viral Languages edited volume, the Linguistic Anthropology 123 Collective states, “We have gathered our research and perspectives to create a journal that seeks to better understand language and the current state of communication through social media, and how we can perceive them both linguistically and anthropologically in a modern setting” (8). The critical ways in which youth culture and social media come together are largely criticized in popular culture, mass media, and cynical members of older generations. Concerned about global exploitation and corruption, many view the social media generation as largely naïve and self-centered. Selfies, influencers, hashtags, followers, endless doomscrolling: these are linguistic markers of our current digital age, and our own current livelihoods and lifestyles.

Cover design of edited volume Viral Languages. Original image from Canva by Russia Tver, which was then edited by the entire class for the final cover.

We chose to focus on TikTok because we see it as a relevant social media outlet that has gained popularity in the last few years, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, that has helped accomplish a new way of talking and communicating. The demographics on this app are diverse and allow for different beliefs and attitudes about language and its use (language ideologies) to meet, entangle, and even create whole new language ideologies that are shaped by this social media platform. Because of the massive popularity of this app, we see new linguistic stylizations, structures, and slang created and used throughout videos, captions, and even comments, among many other areas as the social media platform continues to change and update periodically. The reactions to anything shared or uploaded on this platform have inspired a new form of communication. Growing TikTok vocabularies vary from a combination of emojis that refer to something specifically, to just a one-word reaction that embodies different meanings. Collective participation on this platform becomes a linguistically diverse, while simultaneously homogenized, way of speaking (from shared musical trends, to hashtags, to discourse among uploading and observing participants). Not only do we see Tiktok as a field site rich in meaning, but it is also a field site we can all access equitably.

Assignment Type 1: Graphic Representations

Throughout the class, we were tasked with illustrating our notes. As we consumed and analyzed readings and articles, we reinterpreted our notes by drawing out the main ideas. We organized our thoughts and commentary from the articles into a collage of drawn or found images that attempted to illustrate main ideas and theories. These graphic representations required us to explain each of the authors' critical theoretical concepts utilizing various visual tools such as photos, diagrams, charts, and concept maps. Using these representations, we could display complex arguments in concise and visually engaging formats. Each assignment also required us to actively engage with the material by creating at least two questions: one to seek clarification on complex issues and another to spark discussion and critical thinking. This requirement fostered a greater understanding of the readings and facilitated more meaningful class exchanges. While some comments were hand-drawn or generated by a machine, they needed to be photographed or scanned to be legible. This process ensured that every aspect of our visual interpretations was properly communicated. Once completed, students would upload their graphic responses and questions to the Canvas discussion board at the start of each session on Monday and Wednesday, synthesizing the two previously assigned articles. During our class discussions, we commented on our peer’s graphic representations and questions, which we might attempt to answer. We went over individual analyses and interpretations offered in the graphics, collectively adding to our compilation of detailed course notes and understandings of the readings.

Assignment Type 2: Field Notes

Example of Field Note assignment. Pictured here is Simmone Hudson’s (one author of this article) Participant Observation Field Note, called “Bracing Myself.”

Our field notes are composed of our observations of different TikTok videos where we analyze TikTok language’s effect in cultivating a multifaceted media culture. From a multitude of video content, we study the content creators, users who create videos, their audience, the content itself, and how TikTok promotes such content. We derived our information using several ethnographic methods; Clifford Gertz’s ‘thick description’ (1973), interviews, participant observation, transcription, media analysis, and engagement with theory. At the end of each week, we turned in these Field Notes. For example, at the end of week 2, Simmone Hudson conducted participant observation as she scrolled through TikTok content. In her fieldnotes, she writes about “bracing myself” as a type of participant analysis when consuming an abundance of videos about “Black activism and commentary.” Through the usage of these methods, we sought to capture varying beliefs and perspectives not only about TikTok but social media in general. Field notes encompass opinions from people of several age ranges and various backgrounds who are familiar with social media and who consume it differently. Using this methodology, we illustrated the building blocks of language and media ideologies within a platform like TikTok and how these ideologies affect us.

Assignment Type 3: Final Paper

At the end of the course, we were tasked with writing a short critical paper about our course theme. For this paper, we chose and analyzed a linguistic phenomenon that occurs on TikTok. We considered the following: What is happening with language on TikTok? Why do these new linguistic phenomena exist? What are their social implications? What is at stake? Noting, it is not enough to choose “a hashtag” or “the comments,” but we must delve deeper into nuance and specifics. For example, after cruising TikTok, Jazmin Ibarra noticed a term “No Sabo” used to describe “a person with Hispanic heritage who cannot speak the language [Spanish] or can speak very little of it” (Ibarra 2023, 35). In her final paper, “The No Sabo Spectrum,” Ibarra discusses how content creators reify this term through derisive and often derogatory commentary. As a Spanish speaker who is also “first generation, daughter of immigrants,” Ibarra contends with what this new term means to her.

Although the paper length requirement was comparably short, the paper had other requirements. Each paper needed to use at least one ethnographic method (interviews, participant observation, etc.). Each paper needed to utilize data found on the TikTok app. And finally, every final paper required the use of five sources: two citations from course readings, one citation from outside the class, and two citations from our peers.

Citing each other meant that we needed to reference the Field Notes of our peers as well as mediate how social media platforms are experienced differently by everyone. More importantly, citing each other within the journal we produced created one cohesive text that felt supportive and cooperative. Although we included the three academic sources in our references section after each paper, citing each other looked different on the page due to our work appearing within the same journal. Often this meant citing each other within the body of our essay (ex. “Earlier in this text, Jazmin Ibarra focused on the TikTok comment section, noticing both English and Spanish comments” (38)).

Editorializing the Classroom: The Inaugural Issue of Viral Languages

In terms of compiling a succinct journal manuscript, we began to choose which Field Notes we wanted to add to the journal. We realized many of them had similarities, and we grouped them into chapters within the journal: Thick Description, What are We (They) Saying on TikTok?, Interviews, TikTok explains…, TikTok Talks, and finally Participant Observation. We found that the topics of our final papers similarly fit into these categories.

Pictured above are examples of selected chapter titles and field note assignments. Students designed these pages on Canva. Used with permission.

Final paper titles and Field Note titles were all organized in a Google Drive, while our organizational team navigated the overall structure of our journal in one Google Doc. We decided the Field Notes on Thick Description worked as a great opener for the chapters because they shine a light on how TikTok videos work for someone who might not be familiar with its concepts (like hashtags or search bars). The middle chapters included the way folks communicate within the social media app. These sections include critical observations about hashtags, comment sections, and content creation. We also included interviews in which we explore the reasons people do and do not use the app. In the last chapter, Participant Observation, we demonstrate how social media usage is also embodied practice. Some students chose to write about creating content while others chose to write about where they are and what they are doing while they consume content. We felt this was a perfect fit for the last chapter of this volume as it demonstrated not only our usage of ethnographic methods, but it also highlighted the ways in which we think about consuming media as happening somewhere else, despite how it is felt in the body, similar to watching television or reading books. The entire journal was editorialized and designed on the website Canva, which allows multiple student designers to create content at the same time.

Our favorite part of this edited volume was the collective introduction, which we called our “Manifesto.” The manifesto (and introduction) for the journal Viral Languages with a special title of "A Field Guide to TikTok" was collectively written by the entire summer 2023 Linguistic Anthropology class.

Designed on Canva, pictured above is the student’s co-written introduction to the entire edited volume. Used with permission.

In this critical introduction, we discussed the need for a critical engagement of social media from the very demographics who use it most (youth). Through collective research of both literary and research journals, we found it was necessary to include the following in our introduction: our language, media, and cultural backgrounds; an explanation for why we are the right people to edit this volume; how we are contributing to current anthropology discourse; how language and media ideologies often blend together; an outline of why we chose TikTok as our field site; and finally we defended our own editorial choices throughout the journal. Editorial choices include the use of real or fake names, the use of images throughout, as well as how we cited each other’s work.

Classrooms in the Digital Age

The digital age, though, has given us a unique set of tools through which to think and create. This course helped us to think through the complexities of our current techno-world. Through collective and collaborative practice, we were able to carve out a small space for us to share and contribute our perspectives in seemingly infinite networks. In essence, our digital world is a radically humanist project, which mirrors human ideologies. Important to us, as students and educators, was to understand how to build a collective experience in an increasingly solitary world.

Although many of us are idealistic about technology (yes, we read Marshal McLuhan), we do hold conflicting opinions about what technology can and cannot do for us in the present and in the future. Some of us looked to social media for our news, hoping to catch a glimpse of the world before it is mediated by corporate and national agendas. Some pointed out that everyday content creators on social media do not have the ethical training and integrity of journalists nor enough historical and cultural context to make truth claims about others. Some exclaimed that social media platforms are created for profit and therefore play an active role in what can and cannot be consumed. And some were hesitant about their own dependency on social media or the internet at large. Many students demonstrated through their research that racial, gender, and class ideologies are created and reinforced on social media. But nearly everyone agreed that social media and the digital world brings people together while it keeps people apart. These conversations persist among us now, long after the course has finished.


Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. 1991. “Cyborg Manifesto.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Linguistic Anthropology 123 Collective, eds. 2023. Viral Languages, A Field Guide to TikTok, no. 1.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Bantam Books.