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Skidmore College

The Power of Words

July 26, 2022
by James Helicke

How was I ever supposed to know that word?

Many of us know the frustration of unsuccessfully attempting to solve a crossword puzzle filled with unfamiliar lingo and cultural references.

But that experience, says Skidmore College Associate Professor of Psychology Erica Hsiung Wojcik, is particularly alienating for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, who are especially unable to find their own experiences and knowledge reflected on many crossword grids.

There’s a reason for this lack of resonance: Many crossword constructors use the same reference materials and tools in constructing puzzles that are often filled with references to the likes of Ed Asner, Frank Sinatra, or an epee — a fencing sword and one of many overused puzzle answers.

“Let’s be honest: We’ve been assuming that the person solving the crossword is a white person of a certain age who has certain literacy and cultural references,” she said. “That’s just super limiting.”

Wojcik, who has created crosswords for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, has sought to make crosswords more accessible to everyone by broadening their scope to include experiences that often haven’t traditionally been reflected on crossword grids. Wojcik is also sharing her knowledge and experiences by creating a database for other crossword constructors that seeks to expand the crossword lexicon and broaden the appeal of puzzling to new and more diverse audiences. As she wrote in a New York Times “Gameplay” blog, she is “making a crossword puzzle that looks like me.”

Try solving one of Erica Hsiung Wojcik’s crosswords yourself! Wojcik has created this original education-themed crossword puzzle for Scope magazine.

A similar commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion also cuts through Wojcik’s research, which focuses on early childhood language acquisition, and her teaching at Skidmore.

“If we want to actually understand how babies learn language, if we want to teach students well, if we want to write crosswords for people — to do a better job at all of those — we have to be more inclusive,” said Wojcik. “We have to recognize that there’s much more diversity than we’ve typically acknowledged. That’s the exciting challenge now of research, pedagogy, and crosswords:

There’s so much exciting variability in human experiences. We can write crosswords that are more fun for a wider range of audiences. We can teach classes that don’t just inspire a handful of students but that hopefully inspire the whole classroom.”

Wojcik is one of many Skidmore community members — faculty, alumni, students, staff, and administrators — who are engaged in scholarship, creative endeavors, and other initiatives that are rethinking, diversifying, and expanding their work — and the reach of a Skidmore education — in innovative ways while breaking new ground.

The College is also making diversity, equity, and inclusion a top institutional priority. The Racial Justice Initiative, announced on President Marc Conner’s first day in office, is taking important steps on campus, in the community, and across the curriculum toward building a community of trust. Skidmore’s newly dedicated Wyckoff Center offers a dedicated space for connecting people and programs that underscore the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.

Take Wojcik’s research, for example. Earlier in her career, Wojcik says her research — like that of many psychologists — was almost exclusively based on experiments conducted in a laboratory, which she describes as an artificial setting that can also make assumptions about childhood experiences.

“If we really want to understand how language learning happens, in my opinion, we need to look at a ton of intracultural and intercultural differences. My kid’s language environment is really different than the kid down the street, which is really different than a kid in another country.”

One interesting way Wojcik and colleagues are engaging in a more naturalistic approach to understanding language development is by gathering data through head-mounted cameras worn by babies that record their experiences and gain a unique window into language development. Focus on the project was invigorated by constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, when many labs were initially closed. Associate Professor of Psychology Jessica Sullivan spearheaded data collection.

Wojcik quickly realized the innovative method had the potential to shed light on the many unique experiences of babies and the ways they acquire language.

“My goal with the head cameras is to work with data sets that are more diverse. I’ve given up the idea that there is a universal way that kids learn words, because I think the environments that kids are in are so different,” she said. “There’s no typical baby, just like there’s no typical Skidmore student, and there’s no typical crossword solver.”

Wojcik, a recipient of a 2022 President’s Award for Leadership and Service from Skidmore, also works hard to ensure that insights from a range of perspectives make their way into the classroom. She is the moderator of a database of more than 1,500 psychology papers authored by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals that helps instructors at Skidmore and elsewhere diversify course syllabi and encourages them to think about voices, topics, and questions that might be missing from their classroom.

Associate Professor of Psychology Erica Hsiung Wojcik works with Meghan Pierce ’22 to process data on early childhood language acquisition. The research sheds light on the diverse experiences of babies and ways they acquire language.

Associate Professor of Psychology Erica Hsiung Wojcik works with Meghan Pierce ’22 to process data on early childhood language acquisition. The research sheds light on the diverse experiences of babies and ways they acquire language.

Wojcik also brings a similar commitment to equity to her other passion: crossword puzzles. The Expanded Crossword Name Database, which she created and continues to update, is a crowdsourced resource for crossword constructors. It is filled with names of women, nonbinary and trans individuals, and People of Color, as well as organizations, works of art, and monuments, that represent groups, identities, and people that are often excluded from crossword grids.

“The point of the database is to give people the kind of proper nouns, names — primarily of people — that are often underrepresented in crosswords,’” said Wojcik, whose list suggests crossword con-structors consider WNBA top scorer Diana Taurasi, sci-fi great Octavia Butler, or the 14th-century traveler Ibn Battuta, for example, instead of the same clues involving 1950s white American celebrities and European royalty.

Bringing attention to these broader experiences on a crossword grid not only affirms their importance, it also helps to broaden the appeal of the puzzles to broader audiences.

The idea of more inclusive puzzles seems to be catching on. Earlier this year, for instance, The New York Times announced the inaugural class for its Diverse Crossword Constructor fellowship. The five individuals will work with the New York Times puzzle team, including editor Will Shortz, to prepare puzzles that reflect the range of their experiences.

After a long day of teaching and research, Wojcik solves a puzzle every evening with husband Tom Yoshikami, assistant director for engagement at the Tang Teaching Museum, who first introduced her to the puzzles. In creating new puzzles for broader audiences, Wojcik strives to eliminate “crosswordese” — terms that only seem to appear as puzzle clues — and ensure that when there’s a tricky clue, overlap-ping words are manageable, so the puzzle can be solved by everyone from every background.

That’s certainly her hope for all her puzzles, including the one featured in the summer 2022 issue of Scope magazine.

“My hope with this crossword is that it’s really doable for anybody and that there’s nothing that feels like that experience that I had with crosswords when I first saw them in The New York Times, where I’d ask ‘What the heck is this? What is this word I don’t even know? How was I supposed to get that?’” Wojcik said. “I don’t want people to have that experience with this puzzle. I want them to be able to say, ‘I totally get it, and I had some fun solving it, too.’” 


This story originally appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Scope magazine. 

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