Profiles in Language Teaching at UT: Dr. Tatiana Kuzmic
Tatiana Kuzmic (Ph.D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2008) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches first and second year Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language classes in addition to literature courses on Tolstoy, Slavs in Western Imagination, and literary theory for upper division undergraduates and graduate students. Her current research on the Balkans focuses on the re-interpretation of the Yugoslav literary canon in the post-Yugoslav period.
Today’s independent Southeast European states of Bosnia,
Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro were united for most of the twentieth
century – together with Slovenia, Macedonia, and Kosovo – into the
country of Yugoslavia, whose official language was Serbo-Croatian.
The individual languages that emerged in Yugoslavia’s break-up are
nearly identical to each other in vocabulary and grammar (one textbook
author compared the difference to British and American English);
however, they use different alphabets. I often joke with my students that taking my BCS class gives them three languages and two alphabets for the price of one.
Each student is free to choose one language for a focus, but quickly
learns that this does not prevent him or her from having a conversation
with a student who is focusing on a different language. I
make sure that my students get exposed to all of the regional variants
through the recorded dialogues that accompany the textbook as well as
through various popular culture features readily available on Youtube.
The complexities surrounding the nuances between the languages of the former Yugoslavia mirror the richness of its culture. As it was situated between the super-powers of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires for most of the 19th century and between the capitalist west and communist east for most of the 20th, the territory came to symbolize a bridge or cross-road between civilizations. I have enjoyed watching my students explore this richness by listening to music – both folk and contemporary – and making food that is representative of the different regions and their history.
My own research in the area of Russian literature has informed my teaching approach to language. The Russian Formalist school of literary theory emphasizes “defamiliarization” as the primary role of a literary text, one through which “art removes objects from the automatism of perception” (Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 1917). While Shklovsky uses Tolstoy as the main example of an author who manages to achieve this effect, I have come to believe that the method is also an inevitable component of foreign language instruction. Studying a new language “defamiliarizes” English as the students quickly learn that word-for-word literal translation does not necessarily produce meaning in the other language. Learning the peculiar constructions of a new language, however, allows us to think and express ourselves in new ways while giving us a fresh view of our original language. Since the case system in Slavic languages allows for a more liberal word order, I like to use poetry and shorter works of fiction at the end of the second year to practice grammar while simultaneously delving into the history and the art of the cultures that house the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian languages. These culture moments tend to stick with my students the most, especially when they travel abroad and find themselves familiar with the historical figures for whom streets and squares have been named or when they recognize the issues being debated in the newspapers (and occasionally send me clippings, which I very much appreciate).
Office: Calhoun 7
Campus Mail Code: F3600