This semester Illinois State University (ISU) welcomed Instructional Assistant Professor Tayna Diaz-Kozlowski to campus as part of Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS), but her impact has already gone beyond the program.
Prior becoming a professor, Diaz-Kozlowski grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and pursued a career in student affairs after studying at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and later at Eastern Illinois University. Her passion for building communities led her to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) where she realized her true calling to become a professor. She received her PhD. in education policy, organization and leadership (with a minor in Latina/o Studies) from UIUC in 2015. Currently Dr. Diaz-Kozlowski teaches at ISU and also as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Latina/o Studies at UIUC. At ISU this semester, Diaz-Kozlowski teaches two sections of Gender, Sex and Power (WGS 120) and Chicana Feminism (WGS 391). In Spring 2018 she will teach Queer Theory (WGS 392).
As a first generation, working-class Chicana, Diaz-Kozlowski’s experiences inside and outside of the classroom demonstrate the unique position of Latinas in our world today. As part of the Latin American and Latino/a Studies Program’s Conversando Entre Nosotros: LALS Brown Bag Series Lecture event in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, Diaz-Kozlowski recently shared her work exploring this unique position in relation to being a professor at a predominantly white institution and how using Chicana feminist pedagogies helps her overcome obstacles while teaching intersectionality. Engaging an audience of nearly one hundred students and faculty, she discussed her ideas about how to overcome students’ resistance to difficult and challenging material, how to spark genuine reflection and growth in the classroom, and how to harness that energy to work for the world we hope to live in.
In the midst of one of her busiest seasons, Diaz-Kozlowski agreed to share her experience with us this month as our first Faculty Spotlight of the semester. Check out these highlights from our conversation to get a peek inside her mind on a variety of topics related to higher education and why she wants students to join the Latin American and Latino/a Studies minor!
On becoming a professor:
“I wanted more. I felt like I was just coasting. There was something missing. I felt this itch that I needed to challenge myself to do something more. I’m very introverted and introspective. I was missing some of that interior development element that I think academia offers and being around people that can push me to grow.”
On schooling and independence:
“If I had listened to all those people who said I was nice but I just was not good enough, I would not be here right now. It’s never been something where I had someone holding my hand, or telling me to do this or that. I always had to try to figure it out on my own. I had to find the people who I thought were doing what I wanted to do. I was never like ‘I want to be like so-and-so,’ but the way that they would do it had me thinking that there was somebody I needed to know. I became very aware of other people. It became a very important skill to navigate where I wanted to be.”
“The students bring knowledge to the classroom. It is not just about you filling their brain with it. It is a partnership, and that is a very different way to approach learning. Many students come in, sit down and are like ‘teach me.’ But they are not a blank slate! This generation has grown up with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and this pervasive neo-liberal, high stakes testing doctrine. We now have almost two generations of young people who are terribly afraid to make mistakes. They believe their merit is based on their ability to take tests. So students come to my class and they are yearning for something else. But when push comes to shove, and I say that this is not a test taking class, they become very uncomfortable. They do not have the skill set to be able to engage in a way that I am asking them to engage. I never ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. So I cannot ask them to be vulnerable unless I’m being vulnerable with them. In general, students are afraid of being wrong in the classroom, not having the right answer. But I tell them that doing that is not the way you should go through life.”
On the classroom:
“I prefer smaller groups of students because I want to build a one-on-one relationship with them as well as encourage them to develop a relationship with one another and for me to be a part of that process. You can’t do that if you have more than 30 people in a classroom. It has to do with the construction of the systems we place ourselves in, and we can change that. Fifteen weeks is not enough time. If I ruled the world, I would change that. It would not be about grades. It would be about developing competency and growth. It is really about those qualitative intangibles that are going to help you when you leave here and be yourself.”
On identity and self-care:
“It can be difficult as a queer woman of color to constantly endure micro aggressions because I am a person. Having to endure those in a predominantly White institution wears on you and your spirit. So I think being able to take care of myself, being able to learn positive coping mechanisms and reach out to colleagues and friends is important. We were not meant to survive, which is why we are still trying to be here.”
On students and learning:
“If you get an A or B in my class that is wonderful. You are going to graduate and move forward. But if you take nothing from my class I want you to at least grow as a person. I want them to take the material from class and apply it to their life so they are better community members, family members, and so on. I also want to help them develop more complex reasoning skills. If you go in to become a public relations professional and then you’re sitting in a meeting and somebody wants to make a Pepsi commercial with Kendell Jenner and you have not learned anything from taking my class, then I have failed you.”
On teaching Queer Theory (WGS 392) next semester:
“The material is intense, and you can’t just do the readings. You really have to come prepared to mentally focus and be engaged with the material. Sometimes it is really challenging for students to do that because they are overwhelmed, and they are doing way too much. So I am trying to get them to focus and I am asking them to risk being in that space by themselves. I am asking them to be alone with themselves and wrestle with something that they don’t understand because that’s a part of life. Queer Theory will bring that out because it’s challenging norms. It is challenging the construction of the binaries that we hold dear, structure our lives and help us know who we are. Students will begin to question who they are, and it starts to make them uncomfortable, and then if they don’t have the skill set and the competency to articulate that, there can be a lot going on inside. They have to be able to get to what is underneath.”
On students considering the Latin American and Latino/a Studies minor:
“I would encourage them to take the intro class, to talk to other students, and to come into the Latin American and Latino/a Studies office to study, spend time with other students, and use the resources. You have to put yourself in those places to take risks and to find out what it’s about, not just focus on social media. I would also encourage them to take advantage of going to the events and to not just consider what it can do for you as a resume builder, but also to think about how the minor will help them in their own personal interior development as a person. If you identify as a Latino, it can help you learn about yourself and to appreciate that because our programs continue to be scrutinized and under attack. The fact that this program exists is an act of resistance. You need to contribute because this is your legacy.”
For more information about the minor, please contact Acting Director Juliet Lynd or adviser Janet Claus or see our website at latinostudies.illinoisstate.edu. You can apply for the minor directly from your myillinoisstate page.