Profile with Marilynn Richtarik

Marilynn Richtarik (Kansas & Jesus 1988) is an English professor at Georgia State University and an authority on Northern Irish theatre. She holds a DPhil in English from the University of Oxford and an undergraduate degree in American History and Literature from Harvard University. Her most recent book, Stewart Parker: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2012), puts the career of the Belfast playwright in the context of his personal history and that of the late twentieth-century Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rhodes Project: Where did you grow up?

Marilynn Richtarik: Lawrence, Kansas.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book that you read for pleasure?

Marilynn Richtarik: I love reading with my son - he’ll be nine this week. We’ve been reading together all of his life. Right now, we’re reading Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It’s a historical children’s novel about Thomas Jefferson’s other family. He had a long-term relationship with one of his slaves and had several children with her. This was known for a long time, but it’s only recently been talked about in the mainstream. Bradley does a good job of examining the situation from the perspective of the children growing up. It teaches an awful lot about the complexities of race relations at that time and beyond. My son is fascinated. There’s a Smithsonian exhibit visiting the Atlanta History Centre on slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello, so after we finish reading it I’m going to take him to that.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you held?

Marilynn Richtarik: I started baby-sitting when I was about thirteen. That was the very first job. But the first real job with regular hours and a paycheck was working, the summer before I left for university, as an assistant in the government documents depository at Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. There are places like this all over the country, where every government document produced in the United States is placed for public reference.

Rhodes Project: If you weren’t at your current job, what do you think you might be doing instead?

Marilynn Richtarik: I think I would probably have gone to law school. I got the impression from my parents growing up that you could go to law school or you could go to medical school, and I knew that I didn’t want to go to medical school. I picked law because I realized early on that you could study whatever you wanted before going to law school, and I’ve always loved history and literature. That’s what I majored in at university, and that’s what I still do now.

Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?

Marilynn Richtarik: The best part is the fact that I get to set my own agenda. I get to decide to a very large extent what I am going to do, when I am going to do it, how I am going to do it, where I am going to do it. I love that flexibility and the autonomy that a professor has. I also think the variety within my job is enjoyable. What I do in front of students in a classroom is very different from what I do in a professional conference setting, which is very different from what I do in my study producing the scholarship. I like all of those parts. It’s the variety and the autonomy that I enjoy.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?

Marilynn Richtarik: I think it often happens that the things we like the most are also the most challenging. The hardest part is balancing all of the competing demands on my time. I always feel that if I am doing one part of my job really well, it’s at the expense of another part of it.

Rhodes Project: What is the hardest thing that you have ever done?

Marilynn Richtarik: I think being a parent is the hardest thing, as any parent would probably agree. It's a long-term, constant commitment, and you never feel like you're doing the responsibility justice. In my case, though, a close second would be researching and writing the Stewart Parker biography. This project, too, represented a sustained commitment--nearly twenty years--and it tested every part of me. The effort involved in learning about my subject (through the historical record and his personal papers as well as through talking with his friends and relations) called on very different talents and skills from those involved in writing up my findings in book form. Now, promoting the book requires yet another skill set. In each area, I have been stretched beyond what I could have imagined at the outset.

Rhodes Project:   If you had unlimited resources to solve one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Marilynn Richtarik: Education is the key to progress in just about any context, global or local, you care to name. This is true everywhere, and certainly true in the United States. I heard a shocking statistic on the radio the other day: the US is the country with the highest correlation between parents' socio-economic status and their children's future prospects. This means that social mobility is becoming less and less possible, despite the American belief in equal opportunity. And a child's educational attainment can be predicted to a very large extent by his or her parents' address. If I had unlimited resources to put toward a problem, I would want to focus on making sure that every child had access to a first-rate public education. And central to this goal is attracting and retaining excellent teachers.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do outside of work?

Marilynn Richtarik: I love to travel, and my husband and son fortunately love to travel, too. We do a fair bit of that. I love to have dinner parties and have six or eight people over to talk and have a good time. I love to go walking and biking. I love just hanging out with my family, playing games - we play a lot of card games and board games.

Rhodes Project: What are you looking forward to?

Marilynn Richtarik: We’re going to Ireland this summer - my whole family is - and we’re really looking forward to that. I have a conference in Belfast, which is where my subject was from. That will be a lot of fun. This fall I’m giving lectures at Princeton and at Oxford, and I’m looking forward to those as well.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the greatest joy in life?

Marilynn Richtarik: My son, Declan. When he does something that shows that he is growing up to be a sensitive, compassionate and generous person, it brings me great joy.

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