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Expanding the horizon. Interview with Małgorzata Mazurek (Columbia University)

Series: Polish studies internationally

Paulina Gulińska-Jurgiel: When we first contacted you regarding your interview for Pol-Int’s academic Polish Studies Blog you wrote that you preferred to know less in order to create your own idea of Polish Studies. What do you mean by that?

Małgorzata Mazurek: The very term ‘Polish Studies’ assumes a nation-centered form of knowledge. In the United States, Polish Studies are often located at Slavic Departments. They focus on Polish language instruction and culture that is founded on Polish language. My story is different: after several years of searching for an official affiliation of the endowed chair of Polish Studies, Columbia University decided to locate it in the History Department. I am a historian of communist societies and a sociologist, who has been trained in Poland, so I was not familiar with a tradition of Polish Studies as cultural studies. As a historian of modern Poland and East Central Europe, I am aware of the fact that Poland is a kind of moving target – it’s a nation-state, it’s a cultural space (Polish lands), but it is also a homeland for statehoods, peoples, and cultures that are not identical with, or even alien to, the current Polish-language national culture. I am a proponent of an extended definition of Polish Studies that covers non-ethnically Polish cultures and connects East Central Europe (another nebulous idea) to the history of Europe, imperial powers, Cold War, globalization, trans-continental migration flows etc. I often collaborate with colleagues from Jewish Studies, the Slavic Department, instructors of Polish language, or historians of modern Europe, sociologists, and political scientists, whose ‘fieldwork’ is Europe’s East, because our research and teaching interests often intersect.

You are our third interlocutor in the series Polish studies internationally, but the first and the only one who is originally from Poland. Apart from Polish language as your mother tongue, would you say this makes for a different starting position in comparison to Polish Studies scholars who come from other countries?

The intellectual differences appear when foreign researchers study topics that are vital and vibrant in their home cultures, but want to apply them to, say, the Polish context. Of course, Poland is part of the global economy and global politics, but I like to tease out differences, while assuming that my country shares civilizational challenges with other countries and people under the banner of modernity, globalization, and other secular processes.

But consider the perennial problem of race that concerns both Poland and America. In the U.S., race is the problem. This means that racial ideology is the central ideology that people and institutions live by, enact daily, and learn seamlessly from a young age. In East Central Europe, ways of imposing cultural difference or, in the worst-case scenario, dehumanization, more often than not rely on social status, religion, language, nationalism, historical discourse (i.e. the atrocious rhetoric about the de-Nazification of Ukraine). Casual racism is one of many components of othering. What it means in practice is that I urge students at Columbia not to project or impose their experiences and sensibilities, because the assumptions behind racism in the U.S., which have justified the exclusion of native peoples and African-Americans from the realm of constitutional rights since the late 18th century, do not easily translate into other contexts, including the Polish context.

At the same time, my research agenda is very much impacted by the fact of living abroad. I understand much better that ‘foreign researchers’ need to explain the specificity of the Polish and/or East Central European experiences to their home audiences that know nothing or very little about the region. If you are a Polish scholar working in Poland, you don’t have to do this kind of explanatory work and can frame your subject matter as simply interesting or understudied. This kind of framing does not work in U.S. academia, where you are hard-pressed to provide strong arguments why the geographic area or topic that you research matters and why somebody should spend their precious time learning about it. I think that the necessity to give importance to my agenda has benefited my research, and it’s not just an exercise in rhetoric.

You have lived in the U.S. for ten years. Before that, you spent four years living in Germany. To what extent did your stay in Germany influence your concept of research on Poland?

During my post-doc years in Germany, I learnt how to historicize my work – I learnt my current trade. In Poland, I had been trained first and foremost as a sociologist. This has much to do with the fact that when I went to university, sociology attracted the best students. It was a competitive field with a record of international cooperation and a long-standing intellectual dialogue with the West.  Personally, I was interested in how people enact and experience something bigger than their individual lives. For example, in my Ph.D. thesis, I studied how individuals form and reflect a society based on economic inequalities that were proper to shortage economy under communism. In Germany, I learnt how to keep my structuralist and sociological thinking in check and to appreciate the aspect of contingency, chance, and the fundamental malleability of life forms. And, after all, I started to appreciate that biographies do matter: in my current project, I deal with the lives and work of two Polish-Jewish economists, born around 1900, Michał Kalecki and Ludwik Landau. I hope to demonstrate that their stories can tell us something new about the political economic problems of interwar Poland and East Central Europe, and about politics of development in other parts of the world, where their ideas circulated. My German experience was thus very instructive in my self-formation as a historian and a methodologist of human and social sciences.

Do you think there is any regional specificity of this kind of research?

It’s hard for me to say. In Germany, I worked at a research institute, not at the university, but I noticed that, in Germany, scholars of East Central Europe put a lot of stress on learning East European languages, such as Russian. I came to Berlin from a country that had got rid of compulsory Russian at school after forty years, and I had learnt English, German, and French instead. I realized that my training is not ‘Slavic’ enough for German standards, where Polish Studies are squarely situated in a regional perspective of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. I see Polish Studies as part of European history writ large, but I do teach regional history of East Central Europe, although I always feel slightly insecure about the meaning of this term and how to explain it to my students.

How did the U.S. influence your research focus?

Most of all, I learnt that I can study whatever I want. I learnt that I don’t need to follow any trends and ‘turns.’  What matters is the originality of my research questions. If my work is transnational – great, if it isn’t – that’s fine, too. This approach is very liberating, because it gives you intellectual confidence: your job is not to ‘fit in,’ but to be a scholar in your own right. I never ask my Ph.D. students to emulate what I am doing or to follow my methodological approach.

At the same time, my workplace – Columbia University – is quite unique, because it puts a lot of emphasis on liberal arts education and training. I spend half of my time teaching so-called ‘service courses’, mostly a class called Contemporary Western Civilization. This discussion seminar is obligatory for all Columbia undergraduates and discusses original works by Plato, Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an, Christian theology, and early modern and modern philosophy, mostly European and Anglo-American. This teaching experience vastly expanded my horizons, and made me much more self-reflective about my field methods (or, you can say in a more fanciful way, epistemology).

I am also under the spell of New York, with its global, multi-ethnic citizenry and the prevalence of Jewish life, secular and religious, across the city. This urban experience helped me better connect stories from East Central Europe to histories from other parts of the world and insist on the inclusion of Jewish studies/the history of Eastern European Jewry (not just Holocaust Studies or studies on Polish anti-Semitism) as an essential part of ‘Polish Studies.’

Is this still Polish Studies or maybe European Studies after all? Does Poland look very different from New York than it does from Warsaw?

Of course, Poland is a tiny speck on the map of the world, if you see it from the viewpoint of the “global university,“ which is the brand name of Columbia University. Moreover, European history is a declining field across the whole country. European history has lost its cultural standing as a self-confident “bearer of civilization.” At the same time, we see very clearly that Europe matters, Ukraine matters. Russia has just unleashed a war on the European continent that has global consequences and is perceived as such. In New York, Poland can easily be studied as a locality that generated ideas and historical events. Historically, nation-building in Eastern Europe, as John Connelly recently wrote, prefigured similar processes in other parts of the world (“decolonization”), and remains a location from which we can study the fate of the nation-state and the small-power sovereign state. Or it’s a place from which to study transformations from capitalism to socialism and ‘back’; or it’s a place from which to ponder, sadly enough, on the nature of violence and power: illiberal democracy, genocidal dictatorships…to name just the hottest topics of the day.

You chair Polish Studies at the Columbia University in New York. What is the history of this chair, how is it financed?

The Chair of Polish Studies was founded by private donors from the U.S. and Poland in the late 2000s. The collected money was transferred in form of an endowment to Columbia University, which manages the fund. The donors, however, have no control over the ways in which the funds are spent and who is the chair. The funds cover my salary and that’s basically it, so I don’t hire a regular research assistant, nor do I sponsor any visiting professors who’d like to teach at Columbia. As I said, this is entirely a one-person show.

2014, in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza, you said that earlier, your young age and gender were seen as a problem or invited inappropriate remarks in your career in the hierarchically oriented academic society in Poland. In Germany, they were a reason for positive discrimination. Did this change in the course of time and how did this look at the beginning of your U.S. chapter?

I still think that tokenism (hiring one woman to cover up the broader problem of male privilege in the workplace) is quite damaging and that you need very strong nerves to endure situations in which you are cast as the ‘female factor,’ rather than a highly qualified human being with interesting things to say. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote more than seventy years ago, unlike men, women have to prove they are human. But I have no idea how to achieve gender equality without tokenism, to be honest. I guess you need to educate men about the implications of tokenism for their perception of, and at times resentment toward women.

The situation in U.S. academia, in comparison to what I experienced in Poland and Germany before 2012, is much better in that regard. But when you get promoted – i.e. you get tenure and are much more involved in the administration – you can see that gender discrimination persists, albeit in small, barely visible doses. For example, more often than their male colleagues, women are asked to do service and then agree to do it; they also do a lot of emotional labor, i.e. mentorship work, which is invisible to systems of academic evaluation and remains unpaid. Faculty of colour also face an environment which has been historically dominated by white male faculty. Despite the widespread rhetoric about diversity and equity – liberal ideals of the Ivy League; American progressivism – the entrenched structures of power change slowly. You see it when you aggregate data about work hours or pay, and study the problem statistically. On an individual level, you don’t usually experience blatant or thoughtless discrimination. Gender discrimination still exists but it is less blatant than the German institution of the Quotenfrau. And finally, my male colleagues don’t comment on my looks or my age, which used to be a commonplace back in Europe.

Speaking of your decision to go abroad many years ago, you mentioned your impression was that you would lose contact to your Polish colleagues; that, in a way, the academic community in Poland was saying goodbye. Has that really happened?

I keep in touch with a group of colleagues, though I stopped travelling to many conferences and giving many talks, because my work at Columbia is very intense. Europe is too far to travel when I teach, which is most of the year. I would say that I do care about keeping in touch with selected scholarly communities, but this contact is a bit erratic and too sporadic.

I hope that my forthcoming book, which I write in English, will also be published in Polish. That’s quite important to me.

Do you miss anything in New York with regards to the topic of your research area?

Absolutely not! New York has the capacity to hold anything and anyone!  

Would you tell us a little bit about your current ideas or research plans?

In my current book project, Economics of Hereness. The Polish Origins of Global Developmentalism (1918-1968), I have moved away from a focus on ‘ordinary people’ toward the history of Warsaw-based assimilated Jewry, who constituted the business and commercial elites of Russian Poland. I study two representatives of this milieu and their obsession with economic progress and national development. My protagonists saw the post-Versailles Polish national state as a key site for understanding the predicament of the non-Western world. This comparison was based on the premise that World War One, plus the Great Depression, had leveled Poland and rural Eastern Europe to other “depressed world regions.” In the early 1930s, Ludwik Landau and Michał Kalecki pioneered and theoretically justified the notion of full-employment economy to address a specifically Polish problem: how to imagine poor rural lands that could include both Jews and non-Jews. The idea of full-employment economy went against politics of eliminatory nationalism that saw ethnic minorities as expendable and as an obstacle to national economic development. I follow the fate of the Polish economists during and after World War II, when multi-ethnicity was no longer a central issue, and locally produced scholarship became a de-territorialized theory and a set of techniques for postcolonial countries (so-called development economics).

I can’t wait to read the book, fingers crossed for the project! And for now: Thank you very much for this interesting conversation!


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