Dustdevil Diversity Spotlight: Dr. Adam Kozaczka
This is part of a series of interviews highlighting diversity at TAMIU. This week’s interview features Dr. Adam Kozaczka, TAMIU Assistant Professor of Humanities.
Sharing and Embracing Diversity in a New Environment
Tell us about yourself, where are you from and what you do here at TAMIU?
I teach literature, composition (writing), and women’s and gender studies here at TAMIU and coached the university’s debate team in the Spring of 2020. I’m originally from the Syracuse, N.Y. area.
When did you join TAMIU?
I joined the TAMIU community in August of 2019, so I’m still pretty new here.
Tell us about your experience living here and familiarizing yourself with the Laredo community.
It was an interesting move—I went from a region known for record snowfalls to one known for heat; from near the US-Canada border to near the U.S.-México border; from a red part of a blue state to a blue part of a red state. I’m really enjoying the area: I run in North Central Park, eat at Danny’s, and have fallen in love with the lonely desert drive on 59 from Laredo through Freer and out to Corpus Christi.
Can you share about your research interests and how you became interested in your area of study?
I work primarily on cross-overs between literature and law, especially in terms of character: how ‘character’ works in novels and how ‘character evidence’ works as a paradigm in the criminal courtroom. I primarily focus on 18th and 19th Century British literature, but also work with American texts and texts from the former British colonies (India, the Caribbean, parts of Africa, etc.). My interest in these time periods and areas of study stems from major shifts taking place from pre-modernity and early modernity to modernity: the rise of modern courtroom procedure, the solidification of modern identity categories, and the rise of the novel as a legitimate literary form.
I was drawn to these topics because I’ve always believed that our identities, behaviors, personalities are a mix of conscious and unconscious roleplaying—all of us use the elements of fiction when putting together who we are. If you pay attention, you can actually spot people imitating characters from popular culture at work, in school, and in public. This not only applies to things like racial and gender stereotypes/performances, but also to political ideologies and professional identities: what does a doctor act like? How about a police officer? When it comes to the legal side of things, the characters we enact are closely tied to that eternal ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ question. As many scholars have argued, court cases are much less about the alleged crime and much more about the characters of the accused person, the alleged victim, and the witnesses: trials aren’t about specific incidents, they’re about judging the life stories of the people involved and about their ability to act out who they are for the court.
How do you feel your contributions impact TAMIU, the community and world around you?
I love teaching at a University where English, Writing, and Literature are taken seriously by the student body. Too often do students and administrators discount the importance of the Humanities, but I feel that at TAMIU there is a real commitment to the door-opening potential of learning about language and culture. Both as a teacher and a researcher, I derive satisfaction from working to open as many doors for students as possible and from crafting new ways of looking at old problems.
Who has been your greatest inspiration and why?
I’ve always been inspired by adult students—that is, by students who are significantly older than ‘college age.’ It takes a lot of dedication and courage to leave a career, lifestyle, or social group to enroll (or sometimes re-enroll) in higher education. Older students impress me because their choice to go to school is rarely a calculation to see how much money they can make with a given degree, but often is a genuine pursuit of knowledge.
Please share your proudest accomplishment to date.
Possibly earning my Ph.D. or publishing scholarly articles, but I don’t really like talking about my own personal accomplishments—I generally feel, as an educator, that my role is to facilitate and encourage others to accomplish great things, and that doing this well is its own reward.
Tell us what you’re doing today academically, career of life-wise and what your future plans are.
I’m currently working on a book project plus two unrelated articles. The book is on character studies, and it hopes to propose a new way of reading character both in novels and in courtrooms.
What are some of the aspects of your culture or tradition that you celebrate or appreciate the most and how meaningful are they to you?
My family comes from Poland—my mother was born there, and my father is of Polish extraction. As a child and later as a young man, I spent my summers in Poland visiting grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Growing up bilingual and knowing that my mother is an immigrant who became a U.S. Citizen meant that I switched between languages, codes, and cultures from an early age. I don’t feel too out of place in Laredo as a result, and I’ve found that these experiences give me some common ground with my students here at TAMIU.
When it comes to an aspect of culture or tradition, I could name something like pierogi or kielbasa or vodka (spelled with a ‘w’ in Polish), but I’d rather go for a culture-informed attitude. Kombinować—pronounced kom-bi-no-vach—is a verb that gained currency during the communist time. It is a more-or-less cognate that translates as “to combine” or “to contrive” though generally it is defined as finding an unusual solution to a problem. In its usage, however, the term means much more than that. It describes a sort of work-around, a way of bending or avoiding the rules without necessarily breaking them. It was a way of life in a time when there was a rule for everything, but it ended up being a strength that carries over into today’s world. It means not following orders word-for-word, but using one’s own discretion to generate a better result, and it means that Polish people tend to be independent thinkers who provide unexpected solutions when posed with problems.
In your opinion, what are some of the notable contributions by people in the culture or traditions that you represent?
There are many: Polish writers and composers, contributions of Polish-Americans to the workforce in the United States throughout the 20th century, or the exciting history of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, general in the Continental Army who helped to win U.S. independence during the American Revolution. However, I’d rather talk about another culture-informed attitude, this one being shared by Poles with the people of other Central and Eastern European nations. The ‘Slavic Soul’ refers to a well of deep feeling shared by people from places like Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. It is a dauntless approach to life’s struggles and an ability to accept and live with tragedy and suffering. It is conditioned into a region of Europe where it gets cold and where, once upon a time, life was cheap.
The Slavic Soul is an approach to reality that differs from the much lighter humors of Mediterranean cultures or the more regimented and organized attitudes of northern and western Europe. Though you won’t see Eastern Europeans laughing as often as do people from the Mediterranean countries, we approach life with a stolid determination, emotional resilience, and an in-born awareness that even though we don’t always get what we want, that’s OK. It is a sort of pessimistic optimism, or perhaps optimistic pessimism, that manifests in expressions like jakoś to będzie (pronounced ya-kosh to beng-djeh). One says it in response to a mishap, and sometimes one says it before taking a risk. It means “somehow, it will be,” and it’s a good response to the difficulties the world is going through in the age of COVID-19.
How do you think they can continue to increase their visibility and impact here and in the world?
There are many still-vibrant Polish-American communities especially in the Midwestern and to some extent in the Northeastern United States. An oft-cited factoid is that there are more Polish people in Chicago than there are in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. In Texas, they are much less visible, though there is/was a Polish-American community that founded Panna Maria, more-or-less on the route between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. Polish Americans have tended to assimilate into the American mainstream over time, living in ethnic enclaves for a few generations before mingling with the rest of the US population.
There is a relatively current conversation among scholars regarding the roles of “white ethnics” in America and in the world at large. It’s complicated. Whereas a white ethnic certainly benefits from and, given language learning and social mobility, can blend in with the American mainstream, he or she brings a different set of experiences, cultural traditions, relationships with history, and linguistic forms that complicate his or her place in America’s ethno-racial landscape. This is especially true for immigrants from significantly impoverished regions of Eastern and Central Europe.
Is diversity important at university campuses, in the workplace and overall? Why?
Diversity has been a source of strength for the United States since its inception, and one of the elements that most strengthens the growth of communities. As literary critic and social theorist Georg Lukacs explains, the rise of modern consciousness occurred as a result of mass movements of populations and the dissemination of news across great distances. We learn most about ourselves when we are forced to leave our hometowns and meet people who don’t look like or talk like we do. Yet, traveling around the world is not always possible, especially in the uncertain era of the pandemic.
Here at TAMIU, the goal is to bring the global range of experiences to the student body, and diversity is one of the primary ways of broadening the mind. Whereas diversity is often articulated as a moral imperative, I see it in more practical terms: no student will have a successful experience in higher education without encountering a diverse mix of cultures, languages, narratives, and ideas. This means challenging our learned assumptions about race, gender, class, and other social categories, and it means nurturing an environment where students, faculty, and staff are comfortable expressing their views and showcasing their cultural backgrounds.