In Focus: Sarah Alyn Stacey on following your research path
Dr Sarah Alyn Stacey, Associate Professor of French at Trinity College Dublin, joined Trinity in 1996 and was recently honoured by the French State as a Knight of the National Order of Merit, in a special ceremony which took place in Trinity with French Ambassador to Ireland, Jean-Pierre Thébault.
Professor Alyn Stacey has a first class (joint honours) degree in French and Italian (University of Hull) and a PhD researched under the supervision of the distinguished Renaissance scholar Professor Pauline Smith. Before taking up her lectureship in French Renaissance Literature at Trinity, she held posts at the Sorbonne (Paris IV), the University of Saint Andrews, and the University of Wales, Swansea and has since enjoyed an expansive research career at Trinity, where she is also the Director of the Trinity Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
In an interview with the Trinity Long Room Hub, she spoke about her career as a scholar, gender challenges, and the new research environment for academics.
You were recently named a Knight of France’s National Order of Merit, what does that mean for you and for Trinity?
It’s the second highest award that the French give, and it’s been awarded to me on the grounds of my contribution to French, in terms of my research and my teaching. The award is only given to a small number of people each year and it’s a competitive process. The nomination must come from somebody with ministerial status so for me to be recognised in this way means an awful lot. In terms of international reputation, it’s very significant for Trinity as well, because I’ve been recognised outside of Ireland and by the country on which I do my research.
Tell us about your area of research and what projects you are currently working on?
My main area of expertise is 16th century France, and the Court of Savoy. I also have published on the 17th century but literature is the main field that I work on. I’ve also worked on Franco-Irish relations, such as the Irish in World War II and contemporary women’s writing. I run the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies here in Trinity, which is a Trinity Research Centre. My focus is to promote research in the early modern period across the disciplines, and that is a reflection also of my own research, it’s quite inter-disciplinary in that respect.
What attracted you to the study of languages and literature?
Perhaps because I travelled a lot as a child. I was interested in European culture; my primary degree was in French and Italian and both degrees were very much weighted towards literature of the renaissance in both countries, as well as modern, because in that generation we had to do everything from the early period right up to contemporary French and contemporary Italian. I saw the richness of the culture and I think that’s what attracted me.
What advice would you give to young researchers setting out on this path?
I think young people have a great difficulty starting out in a research career now, and particularly in obtaining a permanent post. That is heart-breaking and might make them question whether they are following the right career path. But they have to really follow their conviction, if they do so, they will get where they want to be. But this might not always be recognised by the institution in which they work, but recognition can come from beyond the gates of whichever institution they end up working in, and that’s what they have to keep focused on. They need not focus solely on trying to obtain a promotion but just following their heart with regards to their research.
Speaking from personal experience, what would you say to women seeking to build their careers as researchers and academics?
There are huge challenges for women because of childcare, bringing up a child and having to juggle that with a career. My generation felt that we had to do both jobs – be as good as the men in the workplace by not asking for time off and be the primary care giver in the home. The context has never really accommodated women and child care and it still has a long way to go. That’s why I enjoy working with WISER, and with Eileen Drew, because she’s doing such important work drawing attention to what needs to be done in the professional context. I had to take my child with me when I went on research trips abroad to France and I often had to find childcare when I was abroad. Again, it was a question of following my conviction about my research. You need a huge amount of energy and drive, which isn’t always easy to find because you’re really fighting on two fronts. You have to be extremely organised, and childcare is the primary area that you have to invest in, it can’t be skimped on because if your child isn’t well looked after, then you can’t get on with your research. In my experience, I could never compartmentalise being a mother from being a researcher.
What can universities like Trinity do to help women move forward in their academic careers?
I think what WISER is doing, by drawing attention to unconscious bias, is very important. Universities have to be very careful that they’re not just paying lip service to policies about ensuring greater equality for women in the workforce. I think one of the key things is to ensure there’s always a dialogue. Women aren’t asking for a soft option - they’re just asking for their position to be understood better; they don’t want to be seen as having a favour or tokenism just because they’re women. I think the College should invest more in mentoring, ensure that there is a proper mentoring procedure in place for men and for women, the men need it as well. All early career researchers need a mentoring programme and one that is taken seriously. That would be key.
What would you say about the state of the arts and humanities in Ireland?
From an institutional perspective, it’s very clear that money isn’t going into the arts and humanities. The money is going into sciences, which is extremely unfortunate and the impact of that is that we are not getting the renewal of personnel. Classes are getting bigger, quantities of marking are getting bigger, we’re attracting more students. The arts and humanities are really under-financed. There’s an argument that it’s cheap and we don’t require big grants to get our research done but what we do need is time for reflection and that has been eroded hugely. Administration loads have increased greatly, which is detracting from our research, so I think the arts and humanities are in an appalling state. The reason my medal means so much to me, and I hope it means a lot to the Trinity community, is because it’s a medal in recognition of the quality of the arts and humanities here at Trinity, despite all the challenges.
What changes have you witnessed in the research environment in the arts and humanities since you first joined Trinity in 1996?
There’s no comparison between the research environment now and the research environment then. When I first came to Trinity, there was so much time for research and when the rankings came out we were doing well. Now we are given two months in the summer and we can still be contacted to sort out administrative issues; there is no proper provision made for research now in the way that there was when I came to the College and we had nine week terms. We’re becoming increasingly teaching intensive. There is still no official sabbatical policy. We’ve got to take research more seriously for everybody, not just junior staff, but mid-career staff and senior staff, have got to have proper provision made for them to do their research. We need to look at the organisational patterns which have emerged in the last 21 years and see the collation between our drop in the rankings and research output, and the lack of time for research.
What have been some of the most enjoyable projects you’ve worked on and why?
My research is very much focused on French literature and I’ve never really moved out of that area. I think my work on Savoy continues to be a rich theme to exploit, I’m going back to that too, and I’ve got one of my doctoral students working on the Waldensian collection in Trinity Library. That’s an ongoing project. In the coming academic year, I’m going to be focusing on a project on political poetry which is funded by the Trinity Long Room Hub. That’s a very exciting project because it brings in colleagues from various universities to look at the impact of literature on areas such as diplomacy and negotiation in the early modern period. That excites me because it reflects the extent to which literature engages with the disciplines and is so relevant to constructions of Europe, and particularly at a time like this where the whole question of Europe is under debate. The work that I was doing on World War II was also very exciting because it had been such a taboo subject – the refusal to recognise the Irish contribution to World War II - and that research was vindicated by the French government deciding to give a Légion d'Honneur to all the Irish veterans who fought in France, so I felt that that research had a real impact. As to whether the College will agree to have a monument to honour the Trinity ward that fought in World War II - I’m working on that!
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