Agnieszka Beyond the Screen

Image: © Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet

 

Authors: Timon Musy, Katharina Schwarck

 

Earlier this semester, Agnieszka kindly accepted to sit down with us over Zoom: the perfect occasion to get to know the person she is beyond the screen!

 

Hello, Agnieszka. Welcome. Thank you for sitting down with us!

You have been at UNIL for fifteen years, is that right?

 

I guess so! I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. This year it will be fifteen years.

 

So, who are you? Where are you from? Where have you worked? What are you currently working on?

 

I come from several different places, which currently makes me a person with three nationalities: I am Polish, American, and Swiss. I was born in Poland, I grew up in California and had most of my education there. Then I spent twelve years in Geneva before coming to Lausanne. I’ve been here for fifteen years now, that’s true! I sort of lost my sense of time, partly because I’ve just enjoyed being here, in Lausanne, so much. I think it’s a really great department and it’s allowed me to have a lot of freedom in terms of what I teach and what I research, and really to blossom in a lot of ways, intellectually. So, I have very much enjoyed being at Lausanne and I look forward to being here until I retire in about another thirteen years. 

 

Well, the other thing I am – I should mention this : I’m a really different person than when I first arrived. I had a huge thing happen to me three years ago: my son died. He was about to start the university. He was going to be at the faculty, like you guys, maybe even in the same year. So, that has completely changed me and remapped my world. It maybe doesn’t look like it so much from the outside because I’m still working and doing the same things, but I think that on the inside I’m very different and I’m doing those things differently and they mean different things to me. It’s certainly made me put a lot more of myself into my teaching. The fact that my son would have been at the faculty… It’s a huge sadness of mine, that he never actually made it to the university. But it makes me see the students that I’m teaching as reflections of what he could have been here, and what I would want to give them maybe flows a little bit from what I would have wanted him to find here.

 

In terms of my parcours and major research projects: I’ve always been interested in the relationship between society and literature and how social issues can be engaged with in literature, how they filter into literature and what literature can do to think about important political and social issues. My first book was about the nineteenth century gothic and how major writers like Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and Henry James used the gothic in various rich and subtle ways to engage with the huge issues of their time like slavery, class, gender, and capitalism. The gothic is a strain of my research that is still there. I’m working on several essays even right now.

 

My second book was even closer to home, as an Americanist: it was about war and how we tell stories about war through popular culture. The United States is a very militaristic country, but it has not won a war since 1945, and even then, arguably, it won the war only because of the Soviet Army on the Eastern front. It may not have been able to win all by itself, and the fact that it dropped these two terrible bombs on civilians in Japan shows that it has not won a war because of great or effective fighting, – whatever that would even be – which I don’t believe in, in the last seventy years. It’s been engaged in one destructive war after another, killing people abroad, killing Americans, destroying economies. And yet, America continues to think of war as a worthwhile endeavour, as a glorious, important test of a people, and of individuals, and of a country. I think that a lot of that work of persuasion to see things in that way is being done through Hollywood, and through popular culture. That’s what my last book was about, about looking at how the formulas that are used for that come from literature more generally and have a long history, like melodrama, or adventure, that are used to make war seem exciting and meaningful. That book just came out a couple of months ago, I’m still in the process of promoting it and getting reviews and so on. It took me a long time to write it because I was interrupted by being Head of Department, and then I stopped working really effectively for a couple of years after my son passed away. So, it took me about six years to write that book. 

 

My next project is going to be about ecology, the environment and the planet, in some way or another. I’m not quite sure what the corpus is going to be, or what the research question is going to be, but that’s where I’m headed for the next book.

 

Congratulations on your book! And we are very excited about your new project.

We are currently going through hard times and we wanted to know how teaching online has been for you.

 

That’s a great question. I have to say, personally, I had to adapt and learn how to do it very quickly but I have not found it to be as disruptive as I think it probably is for students. I really feel for how lonely it is for students to be alone at home all the time. That’s really not what university is about. University is not just learning, it’s also the whole social environment, it’s making friends, it’s changing and becoming a different person in those three or five years. You can’t do that alone in your room. You really have to do that as a part of a class that you’re going through, with your volée, as part of an environment and all the different things that are impacting you. That’s been a tragedy for students. 

Now, as a teacher, I have found it to be not so bad! I actually enjoy being able to see people’s names and faces up close and I find that the break-out rooms work really well, I find that using the chat as a support while I’m talking to the class has been very helpful. I’ve found that I’ve had to prepare more and be more engaged in my classes, while the students seem to be as well, so it’s more intense and tiring, but sometimes I feel like it’s better teaching in terms of some of the discussions and interactions, especially since my classes in the last few years have gotten really big. There are sometimes forty or more students, and it’s very easy for forty people to just become really passive, whereas when you’re on a screen, you’re very visible with your face. I try to discourage having your video off, because then I don’t even know if somebody’s there or not! It’s sometimes easier to get shyer people to talk. The dynamic has been different. I find that it hasn’t been necessarily detrimental to teaching. I certainly enjoy being safe: I’ve appreciated the fact that I don’t have to worry about catching COVID in the classroom or wearing a mask while I speak and I can just focus on teaching. I also appreciate the extra time it’s given me, you know, the time I would spend showering, getting dressed, commuting. I have more time to read, to take walks, to be with my daughter or my partner. That’s been the good side of teaching online, but I do recognise that for students it’s been very difficult overall.

 

What is the favourite class you have ever given?

 

There’s different kinds of favourite classes. *She laughs* I love teaching the master’s class in “New American Studies” because I put a lot of my intellectual history and engagement into that class. I can see how, when students learn some of the things, and they get these tools, I see them going off and writing master’s papers or mémoires and it’s very exciting to see them taking things that I’ve brought to them but then running with it and doing things I hadn’t even thought of. So, I’d say that the recurrent annual master’s class I teach in “American Studies” is probably the most fun and exciting regular class that I teach. 

 

Then there are more occasional classes that I thought to have been very interesting. I taught a class on feminism once with Isis Giraldo, when she was still here. That was a class that felt really… dangerous to teach. I remember getting nervous, my heart beating, before going in. We were giving students texts to read from the 1960s and the 1970s that were extremely critical of male writers and patriarchal structures. I just never knew how students would react and I’d get scared, almost, before class, going “oh my god, what am I doing?”. And then a student told me once, when I said this, “you know, I do too! I get scared the night before class, I’m really nervous”. But it feels like there’s something really important going on, but something dangerous, that really affects people personally a lot and makes them question their entire way of being in the world. So, I don’t know if that is my favourite class but it is definitely one I will never forget and that was very important to teach.

 

Since you’ve been around Lausanne for quite a while, how have you been liking it? Is there a place in the region that you really like, and that you’d want us to go to and see?

 

Well, I do love being here, especially for the department, I have to say. It is really the most collegial, friendly,  open department I’ve ever been in, and I have been in various universities and various departments. I love the students, they’re curious and eager to learn. I have never had a discipline problem in all these years of teaching, I mean… maybe people whispering a little bit too much in the Anglo-American literary survey sometimes, but that’s the worst of it, and I know people who teach in high school who tell me horrible stories. So I feel very lucky in terms of students and how much extra work they do, all the extra-curricular activities they do, like MUSE! It’s just amazing how people get so involved or are so excited about language, and literature and the community that we have. I love the department for all those reasons, and the region is beautiful. 

But, I grew up in California right along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and I have to say that I really miss the ocean, I miss the beach and I miss the horizon. I miss the fact that you could go to the beach when you’re sad or on a winter day and just look into infinity. When I first moved to Switzerland I felt very hemmed in  by the mountains. Now it has been twenty-five years since I live in Switzerland – I came in ninety-four – and I have learned to love the mountains and to love the lake. We’re really privileged in terms of the natural environment. I have a little forest right near my house, and I talked with a park ranger once who told me that eighty-five percent of the Swiss population has a forest within ten minutes walking distance from their home. That’s really nice.

 

One of my favorite places is a walk in Crissier called the “Sentier de la Cascade”. I go there several times a year and it’s always different because of all the different colours; in winter there is more light, in summer it is more green and cool, and it’s just a beautiful walk along a river that goes to a waterfall. That’s my favorite place within a ten-miles radius.

[Note from the interviewee: Since we had the interview I have discovered the Venoge and the walk alongside it between St. Sulpice and Bussigny and this has definitely become my other favorite place along with the Cascade walk!]

 

What is your favorite book of all time ?

 

That’s a tough question. That’s a cruel question. *She laughs and pauses* Well, a book that I come back to as a teacher, my favorite book that I teach over and over again is Beloved by Toni Morrison. But my favorite book of all time… I can’t give you a single book but there is an author that I love reading and re-reading, and that’s Louise Erdrich. She is a Native American writer and I never get tired of her books, and whether I read it for the first time or for the fifth time I always find so many new answers and richness. I also find her vision of the world so balanced between the gritty and difficult, the luminous and quirky, the sexual and witty, and it is just such an interesting mix of everything that I find inspiring. So I would say that any book by Louise Erdrich would be one of my favorite books.

[Note from the interviewee: In rereading this interview I thought of several more that have profoundly marked me and I’d like to mention them: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Nancy Huston’s Dolce Agonia, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Tim Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.] 

 

Is there a piece of advice you were given that you think is very important and that you would like to share ?

 

I don’t remember getting a lot of advice when I was younger. Maybe I should have gotten more! The one thing that really stands out of my mind is something my mom told me. She was a dentist – my family comes from Poland – and under the communist regime women were encouraged to get higher education and a lot of women were able to get into good skilled professions. So my mom said to me – she said this when I was quite young – that the most important thing in life for a woman is to be financially independent, to never depend on a man for your livelihood, as it always makes the relationship totally skewed. So you have to be free and independent, to be able to enter any relationship with your full free-will and to stay independent within it so that you can leave if you have to. That was a piece of advice that I took to heart and I continue to find very relevant when I look around the world and I see the situation of women in general. Around the planet most women are in various degrees of servitude and a lot of it has to do with not being able to be financially independent and make their own choices. 

 

What do you think would be the most surprising scientific discovery imaginable ?

 

Parallel universes. I’m very interested in physics and all the wonky, weird stuff that goes on, contemporary physics looking at dark matter that makes up ninety-five percent of the universe, and the weird ways subatomic particles behave, the way they get paired and then they start to behave in a way that is talked about in Only Lovers Left Alive as “spooky action“, which is the way time and space get folded into one another… Just all the magical stuff that seems completely surreal, that physics is about. So if there was some kind of definitive proof of parallel universes or other dimensions or that time is just an illusion, that would be pretty surprising!

 

If you could add anyone on Mount Rushmore, who would it be and why ?

 

First of all, I think it needs a woman up there and I’d say it’s about time that people of color in the United States start to get some celebration and recognition. So, I guess I would put up Harriet Tubman. She was the runaway, the escaped slave who helped other slaves to escape along the “Underground Railroad”. She’s being put on the twenty dollars bill hopefully soon, but I could definitely see her mixing things up on Mount Rushmore.

 

Have you ever tasted the Migros Ice Tea and what do you think of it ?

 

 *She laughs* I don’t really drink ice tea anymore because it’s too sweet, but I have tasted Migros Ice Tea and I agree that it’s probably the best in the world (although I wish they would make an unsweetened version of it). 

 

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