Scholarly papers are notoriously dense and difficult to understand if you’re not already immersed in academia. Fordham’s Demystifying Language Project (DLP) is working to break down that barrier—–particularly for young people.

“They’re writing for the academic audience, but what about us high school students?” asked Suvanni Oates, a high schooler from Bronxdale High School who is an intern for the project. “What about us students who can’t receive that message that they’re trying to send in that way?” 

From June 14 through 16, Fordham welcomed 12 scholar-authors from multiple universities alongside local New York City high school students and Fordham undergraduates for a writing workshop where they could all learn from each other. 

Creating New Articles—and TikTok Videos

“High school students were introduced to undergraduates [and they are]working with linguistic anthropologists, our authors. We prepared student teams to each read one author’s paper and give feedback on what they understood, what they didn’t understand, what spoke to them,” said Ayala Fader, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at Fordham and founding director of both the Demystifying Language Project and Fordham’s New York Center for Public Anthropology, which is launching next year. 

During the workshop, held at the Lincoln Center campus, teams of undergrads and high school students worked with their author to “transpose” previously published articles into two-page digital pieces in language teens can understand. Students even spent a day making TikToks that conveyed the main messages of the articles.

“To hear [the authors’]perspective and actually work with them in person, that was the cool part,” said one of the Bronxdale high schoolers, Athalia McCormack.

The resulting 12 papers will be published as a multimedia open educational resource on the website for Fordham’s New York Center for Public Anthropology.

“Our long-term goals include housing these 12 digital pieces on an interactive website that will be free to use,” said Fader. “We hope that this is going to be a resource for high school teachers to use in existing curricula and also for high school students to experiment with social science, especially linguistic anthropology, which is not part of most curricula in NYC public schools.” 

Fordham Students See the Impact

Sitara Vaidy, who graduated from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in May with a psychology and sociology major, was one of the Fordham students working on the project. She said the workshop “allowed the high school students to better understand the significance of fields such as anthropology, sociology, linguistics, etc., and the interesting and important work that they produce.”

Theater and anthropology major Ashira Fischer-Wachspress, FCLC ’23, who also worked with the teams, said she appreciated the justice aspect of the work.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to have met so many fascinating, driven people working for social justice,” she said. 

Expanding into Communities

The DLP is also planning to use the short articles in a summer institute for high school students, where they will study language and power in their own communities. The following summer they plan to host a teacher-training institute. 

“By demystifying students’ own experiences with language, the DLP strives to create a grounded, hands-on, potentially life-changing set of social justice tools for high school students and teachers and the faculty and undergraduates who collaborate with them,” Fader said.  

The DLP has been externally supported by a Spencer Conference Grant and a Wenner-Gren Workshop Grant. Internal support comes from an Arts and Sciences Dean’s Challenge Grant and Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning, who hosted the pilot project in 2019, and will be collaborating on future programs. Fordham members of the organizing committee include Johanna Quinn, Ph.D. (sociology); Britta Ingebretson, Ph.D. (MLL); and Crystal Colombini, Ph.D. (the Writing Center), who were joined by Mike Mena, Ph.D. (Brooklyn College); Justin Coles, Ph.D. (UMass); Lynnette Arnold, Ph.D. (UMass); Bambi Schieffelin, Ph.D. (NYU), and high school teacher Scott Storm (Harvest Collegiate).