Release date: August 24, 2023
This interview is a part of the Polish and Flourish series—where we speak with inspiring individuals living in the US who are Polish, have Polish roots, or have lived in Poland and are deeply inspired by it.
In the interview with Maja Steczkowska, Acting Director at the Polish Cultural Institute New York, scholar and author Justyna Wierzchowska speaks about her time in the US first as a Fulbright scholar and most recently as a Research Fellow in the Bekker NAWA Programme. Learn more about the field of Maternal Studies, REMS Research and Education in Maternal Studies, the challenges with financing humanities-related research, and the differences between academic life in Poland and the US. Justyna Wierzchowska also speaks to how passion and mentorship are key in the careers of aspiring scholars.
Maternal Studies is a niche yet to receive its due recognition in the academic world. For Justyna Wierzchowska, it is a realm where personal experiences seamlessly blend with intellectual pursuits. Her insights not only shed light on this under-represented field but also touch on the broader shifts in academia and culture. She started her journey as a professor of neo-philology, focusing on Cultural Studies, a field that began developing in the 1960s. Motherhood Studies, also called Mother Studies or Maternal Studies, are almost invisible in the field of Cultural Studies. The absence of dedicated institutes, departments, or significant publications makes the field almost imperceptible.
Justyna Wierzchowska’s personal journey into Motherhood Studies began upon becoming a mother. Motivated both personally and academically, she aimed to bridge professional and personal worlds. She is also an activist, working to place the field on the academic map. Her scholarship has been extensive, with the most significant recent research trip to Yale University in New Haven. The book she is finishing now is entitled “Related for Life: Mothering in Contemporary Visual Art” comprising six chapters, each devoted to a different artist, including the likes of Georgia O’Keefe.
When asked about the academic disparities between Poland and the US, especially from a female perspective, Justyna Wierzchowska highlighted the vast differences even within different US cities. “NYC is a place of privilege,” she stated, recounting stories of professors outside NYC whose students cannot afford textbooks. There is also a pronounced difference in motivation, with the American education system’s commercial nature, where students expect practical skills, contrasting with Poland’s taxpayer-financed approach making education very accessible and allows students to experiment with different fields of study.
Discussing the financial constraints within humanities, she pointed out the challenges in comparison to the hard sciences. Humanities often do not translate into direct commercial use, making it difficult to secure funding. She also touched upon the massive post-colonial shift witnessed in recent years in the US academic landscape, emphasizing the importance of keeping abreast of these changes for scholars everywhere. However, it’s not all challenges. Justyna Wierzchowska’s time in the US has provided her with unparalleled opportunities. One of the most significant was her invitation to the Executive Board for the International Association of Maternal Action and Scholarship. Collaborating with international scholars, they aim to forge a truly international perspective for the field.
To aspiring scholars, she advises unwavering passion, persistence, and the ability to learn from failures. Highlighting the importance of mentorship, she said, “You have this one person who believes in you and tells you to stand up, get back on your feet, move on.” There’s hope for a paradigm shift in academia, one where competition is replaced with teamwork and a focus on care rather than individual success.
Justyna Wierzchowska is Associate Professor at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. She is the author of The Absolute and the Cold War: Discourses of Abstract Expressionism (2011) and co-editor of In Other Words: Dialogizing Postcoloniality, Race, and Ethnicity (2012), special issue On Uses of Black Camp (2018) and Texts, Images, Practices: Contemporary Perspectives on American, British and Polish Cultures (2020). She is currently working on two books: Related for Life: Mothering in Contemporary Art and Self-Writing: Critical Theory after World War II. Prof. Wierzchowska is the recipient of the Fulbright Commission Senior Scholar Award and the NAWA Bekker Scholarship thanks to which she did research at New York University in 2019-2020 and 2022-2023. Her research is in motherhood studies, affect theory, psychoanalysis, attachment theory and visual art.
The aim of the Bekker NAWA Programme is to support the international mobility of PhD students, scientists and academic teachers in pursuit of scientific excellence by enabling them to conduct their research in renowned foreign institutions around the world. The Programme is open to PhD students and scientists representing all fields and disciplines of science as well as artistic disciplines. There are also no restrictions regarding countries where the Host Institutions are located.
Research fellowships (3 to 24 months) shall allow scientists to stay in recognized research centres and to implement the Projects together with eminent foreign scientists and scientific teams as well as establish long-term relationship with foreign scientific teams. For young scientists, the Bekker Programme will be also an opportunity for postdoctoral fellowships while for PhD students it can be the part of their education.
The Programme provides funding to cover scholarship holder’s living expenses related to the stay in the foreign Host Center and the mobility allowance as well. The amount of the funding may be increased if the grantee’s spouse and their underage children participate in the trip. It also applies to assistant of a scholarship holder with a severe or moderate disability.