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Interview with Dr Anna Matczak

By Dillon Ashmore and Sarah Jacobs


To many, the lives of lecturers beyond the classroom is a fascination. Students are eager to know more about those entrusted to teach and prepare them for their future careers, myself included. So naturally, when the opportunity to interview one of the SSMS lecturers arose I jumped at it, and I immediately knew who I wanted to interview. For those of you in the later years of SSMS, this lecturer may not require an introduction but for those who are newer to the course allow me to introduce Dr Anna Matczak. As a lecturer in comparative criminology many of you may know Dr Matczak from her first-year classes on the theories of crime causation and the lifespan of crime, however outside of this what do you know about her? If you are as curious as I am to learn more about the person behind the lecturer, I push you to read on and learn, as I did, many things about Dr Matczak, her research, interests, and experiences.

Before you became a teacher in the Hague, could you describe what other areas you’ve worked in and your life before moving to here?

The Hague University of Applied Sciences is the fourth or fifth university I’ve worked in. I have been in academia for the past twelve years and that’s quite something, I only realised this today. I’ve always been connected to academia but in different roles. My very first academic post was purely about research and that was in an international project on domestic violence. Then later on I moved to teaching a little bit, but teaching was never my full-time post until I joined SSMS. I also worked while I was completing my PHD as a police and court interpreter in England. That was the only time I did a different line of work other than an academic position.

Did you always want to be a researcher or was there a moment that say prompted you to follow this route?

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. In my life I never had a Plan B, any other alternative options were never considered. I always knew that I wanted to be an academic, I think I never had any specific preferences whether I would like to be involved in research or teaching. I believe you can’t be one without the other to be honest, but I think you can be inspired or get inspirations from your teaching and do better research or it can make you a good teacher through doing research informed teaching. I think that’s probably the best combination if you immerse yourself in both worlds to some extent but no, I never considered doing anything else. I have always been sure that this is the thing I want to do.

You mentioned that being a researcher and a teacher complement each other. What would be another aspect of working in academia that you value most about it?

I have to think about this question because there is plenty of things, I am critical about when it comes to academia. I rarely think about what it is I really value. Well, when I think about research, I think about this activity that is truly liberating but probably less than when I was a PhD student. When I was a PhD student, I would tend to romanticise this, and I thought that research is so valuable that everybody should appreciate research. Now that I am on the other side, I believe that this is not always the case and not everyone’s research is of equal change making power, there is a lot of good research out there that is not being acknowledged as it should be in my opinion. But that is what I think that is what I praise research for that it can be liberating. Research gives you so much joy when it is recognised and brings change. That is probably the most rewarding experiences any academic or researcher can go through.

When it comes to teaching of course the interactions with the student population and then what is the most rewarding aspect of that is when you have fun with teaching and you see how some students progress but also if you are interested in learning in why some students don’t progress and you are interested in rectifying this, it can be an interesting learning curve for a teacher.

I tend to be quite critical of academia, I think this is one big aspect of being in this world, criticism is your default position eh so yes when it comes to research this feeling of liberation and some translation of your research outcomes into the policy arena and when it comes to teaching how you can contribute on a very small scale, I believe you can contribute to the learning experiences of students.

Was it also always clear for you that you wanted to do research in the fields of criminology or were there also other fields you considered working in?

My answer to this question is no, it was not always clear to me that criminology would be my direct academic pathway. Actually, when I graduated from my first university, the University of Warsaw when I moved to London to start my studies at LSE (London School of Economics), I remember that the research proposal I submitted was very much related to social policy, there was nothing related to criminology really. It was during my first year at LSE when I had to choose also a course for my elective space something you also have to do in year three, that I decided to fill my elective space with a course called criminal justice. It was delivered by a number of different well known in British criminologists.

It was life changing I have to say. I think what was really interesting about this course is that every single lecture was delivered by a different lecturer, and they would talk about different topics and strongly relate the content of their lecture to their own research expertise and experiences. They had strong interests in activism, there is this misperception of academics that we are confined to the academic walls, and we don’t do anything beyond academia. Nowadays this is in most cases not true, many academics are engaged in a number of initiatives beyond their typical academic commitments. Back then at the LSE, it felt very genuine to me that my teachers were not only very passionate about their research topics but also, they were also craving for change in their respective fields of study. So that was very convincing.

Can you think of a project that was possibly the most challenging of your career?

I think the most challenging research agenda that I pursued and am still pursuing is my interest in restorative justice, in my home country which is Poland. Actually, my career, the beginning of my academic career was built on my interest in the viability of restorative justice in Poland. I’m not going to bore you with why that was the case, but I only realised how difficult it would be to translate this interest and the knowledge into the practice once I started collaborating with the practitioners and when I wanted to lobby a little bit more for restorative solutions in the Polish justice system. Also, the timing was probably not the best because that was also the time when the Polish Justice System at the time received a lot of attention due to very controversial justice reforms pursued by our current government, which raised significant concerns around the rule of law in Poland. that the current political climate in Poland also limited opportunities for disseminating research findings regarding restorative justice but as you must know this very well-known saying: never waste a good crisis. What actually managed to materialise during this difficult time is that we still managed to infect this passion for restorative justice but more on a regional level, in one particular city in Poland, Wrocław, which later on joined a network of restorative cities. I almost see this as a miracle, but this miracle would not have been possible without the political will of the mayor of Wrocław. You might have a wonderful research idea, you might have loads of research evidence and you are certain that you are proposing something solid, beneficial but without the political will that will never materialise.

Aside from restorative justice, which you have your keen interest in, what is another area within criminology that interests you?

So, I think the other area of my research interest is policing. This is probably because in my role as a police and court interpreter I worked a lot with police officers or other actors involved in performing policing tasks and that was a very good collaboration actually. Even when I was critical of how things were delivered or how certain actions were taken by the police, I had plenty of interesting, insightful conversations with police officers that gave me the boost that this topic could also be an interesting line of research inquiry. So that’s the second research interest and the third one would be, probably inspired by my very first research experience which is the topic of domestic violence, the situation and positioning of female offenders in the justice system.

Are there any misconceptions about criminology that bother you or are there common things that people get wrong about it?

Plenty and I don’t think we have enough time to cover this. I think criminology has become a buzzword that of course gets a lot of attention but most of the time for the wrong reasons. I have this year 1 criminology course in our programme and sometimes I feel that there is more need to explain what criminology is not rather than what it is. Another thing I feel I should be doing is to dispel certain myths about crime and around crime because there is so many misconceptions and misunderstandings. In my teaching I often use the visualisation called “the life of crime” to explain that there is so much more to crime than just the crime scene.

What would you recommend to SSMS students who want to become researchers later on in their careers?

Well, if I say you have to do well in your research methods courses that would be a good starting point, but the other suggestion is to change the way you think about research. This is my assumption and I’m not sure how valid it is but when you think about research in SSMS probably you think of APA and groupwork and deadlines and all that is stressful. I think that everyone involved in teaching research methods in SSMS wants to demystify this a little bit and show you that this can be fun as much as it can be. In a way you do your own research on a daily basis when you sit somewhere and observe people how they walk past you, you already do some sort of observation. When you talk to your friend, and you mainly ask questions that almost feels like an in-depth interview because you just let your friend talk. When you check the news in the morning and you get irritated by a certain comment by a politician and you think more about this comment and why it triggered you, you’ve already done some discourse analysis. I think it is safe to say you will be doing research in your professional life, maybe not with such strict expectations, maybe your line manager will not expect you to write a final report and provide your references in APA, but you will be engaged to some extent in research. If you then want to become a researcher, I think this is a clearly defined path so that you need to do a master’s degree and then if you see yourself in academia whether that is to do research or to teach then at some point you should consider doing a PhD. But it is also very good to talk about this with someone who will be very honest with you and tell you what the advantages are of being an academic but also what are the disadvantages, what the challenges are that come with this profession. I’ve had such a conversation recently with one of our SSMS graduates who is considering doing a PhD and it was I think it was very good to hear that even after sharing my criticism the student still decided to pursue a PhD.

Is there something you would improve about SSMS for the future?

I think what could potentially be improved is that we as teachers can explain better what the connections between different parts of the curriculum are. So, it would be great to always explain to students at the beginning of every single course and project, why are we here? What’s the purpose of learning and studying this discipline? What’s the purpose of studying Sociology? Why do we have Research Methods in our curriculum? Why do we have Professional Skills? And also, how do these different elements connect? They do connect in our minds but sometimes I think we don’t articulate this well enough to students. Even in some sort of visual and interactive form. I guess that’s something that could be improved. We also have to be very responsive and open to what students are interested in and where they would like to do their internships. For instance, right now, I see a lot of interest in cybercrime and environmental crime, and I think we have to be ready to jump in with this and also offer more internship placements in these areas.

To which countries have you already travelled, and how do you deal with the culture shock, if there is one?

I think my answer will surprise you because the biggest culture shock I have experienced was in my own home country, in Poland. The research I have conducted so far was either in the United Kingdom or in Poland. When I was conducting my doctoral research in Poland, at that time I had already lived in London for a number of years. I got used to certain ways of doing research and also of communicating with people; and then, when I moved back to Poland for a couple of months to do my fieldwork, that felt strange. There is a specific term for this, and it is well documented in the literature as “native anthropology”. I guess that was the most challenging experience. I thought that if there’s no language barrier, it is going to be just so fine or even better than in England, but the opposite turned out to be true. Once you leave your country for a while, you tend to romanticize this country a little bit more. You kind of tend to think that the country remains the same as it was when you left it.

What are your interests outside of work? Your hobbies, for example?

I try to have a life, yes. Like any other person, I also have my friends. Of course, right now, it is very difficult to meet with them, so, it is the typical online communication that we have. And my friends are from different countries, spread across the globe, so, I wish I could visit them. I cook and I bake a lot. During the pandemic, I learned how to bake my own bread, sourdough bread. And I meditate. I started meditating five years ago, I usually meditate a little bit more around the grading time. That helps me to stay relaxed but also focused. Hm, what else…most recently I bought a car. So, my current challenge is to drive from point A to point B in The Hague.

[interviewer] Traffic in the Hague can be horrible.

I am terrified of cyclists, and I am a cyclist myself, you know? (laughing) I was one of these cyclists who think that they always have priority, but my perception has changed a little bit. But I think I feel much safer driving in The Netherlands than driving in Poland. Driving in Poland is much more reckless than here.

As you mentioned meditation, I’m curious, do you also have a motto or a mantra you try to live your life by?

“Be the best version of yourself” or “Learn from your mistakes”, and “you never know what these things are good for”.

If you have to pick, what would be your three favourite books? It can be anything, just something you really enjoyed reading.

Okay, my top three books may be…the two books I have recently read, and they were fascinating. One is called “Ecocide” by David Whyte, who might also be known from another book called “Safety Crimes”, but this is the book I really enjoyed. Then, the other book is “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert. I read this book at the beginning of the pandemic, and that would be another one that I would strongly recommend. It’s not an optimistic book, but it’s well-researched. And the third book…something that is not academic… Well, something without pandemics and crimes…okay, something I like… I am currently reading a book by one particular Polish science-fiction author, his name is Stanisław Lem, and the book is called “Solaris”. This book served as a basis for two movies with the same name. The author of the book was very intellectual but also very prophetic.

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