Profile with Siofra Pierse



Síofra Pierse (Ireland & Trinity 1994) is a Professor (lecturer) in French and Francophone Studies at University College Dublin. She has taught Early Modern French at Oxford Colleges, and was a Maître de Langues at École Normale Supérieure, Paris. She holds a DPhil in Modern Languages (French), M.St in Research Methods in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Oxford and a BA (Hons.) in Italian and French from the University College Cork.

Rhodes Project: Where did you grow up?

Síofra Pierse: I am Irish, and I grew up in Ireland. I started out in Dublin and then moved to a lovely little place called Wexford, which is usually called the “Sunny South-East”.  It was a little country town on the coast at the time – very close to a 10-mile-long beach called Curracloe. I grew up practically on the beach and in the fields; it was quite ideal. I know we all look back on our childhood as being ideal, but it was beautiful. So, my earliest memories are of idyllic countrysides: a very innocent childhood, but I was also fortunate enough to have huge travel opportunities later on, which I think is really important. When I was ten years old we moved to Cork, a bigger city, partly because my parents thought that there were better opportunities for the whole family in a city with a university. From there I lived all over Europe. When I was twelve, my mother started working in France, so I spent a good amount of time there. Then I did my undergraduate degree in Cork in Ireland, and went to Oxford after that on the Rhodes Scholarship.

Rhodes Project: Who is your favorite author and why?

Síofra Pierse: I have done a great deal  of work on the French 18th-century ‘philosophe’ Voltaire; I am very much an 18th century scholar. My husband teases me because when I go abroad on holiday I’ll often bring an 18th century book for pleasure. He’ll wonder why I am bringing work along, so I have to  explain that this isn’t work, this is fun! In spite of doing a PhD on Voltaire, lecturing on him, and continuing to research and publish on him, I still find Voltaire and his contemporaries to be  inspirational figures. I think much of my enjoyment derives from the characters involved.  Voltaire was a tireless figure; he was very persistent; he believed in justice; and he fought widely against both religious and judicial injustices in his day. These issues are still so pertinent nowadays. Religious, social and judicial injustices are still happening all over the world, so when Cecil Rhodes talked about fighting the world’s fight, we realise that Voltaire was fighting that same fight before Rhodes and so many are still fighting it today. I think Voltaire had a sense of the perpetual nature of the countering of injustice. And I think that’s what drove him and kept him going into his eighties. He was a really energetic figure – he was one of those people that barely slept, drank a lot of coffee and just wrote from morning until midnight. He really believed he could change the world -maybe he was deluded- but I do think that he had great motivation, and that motivation combined with  energy is  an inspirational pairing. It doesn’t matter when he lived or who he was, that combination is what you need to fuse together in order to be able to implement change and get things done in life.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about some of your research on Voltaire?

Síofra Pierse: My actual current research on Voltaire is more focused on his intellectual side than on his campaigning side. I’m writing a book on doubt and lies in the eighteenth century, because I’m interested in concepts of historical Scepticism, of historiography, and of the impossibility of truth, and how these affect the writing of history and our interpretation of history. Are we story-telling, or re-inventing the past? Are we re-writing it? There are so many ways to look at history that it becomes mesmerizing.  That is one of the salient aspects of the more intellectual side of Voltaire. His active and proactive thoughts reveal a hugely theoretical side, but it is his activities as an active campaigner for justice and fairness that I really admire the most.

Rhodes Project: Can you share a memorable teaching moment?

Síofra Pierse: There have been so many memorable moments in many ways. I do love teaching, especially audience responses. When a whole lecture theatre of three hundred students laughs, not necessarily because you’re funny, but because they’ve had a “eureka” moment, and they realize that something makes sudden sense, or they are identifying with a character, or having some other sudden learning experience, it can be magical. Then there have been invaluable moments with individual students. For example, a student who has great self doubt can produce an amazing masterpiece. You ending up spending a year working on alleviating their self-doubt rather than expanding their topic, and you’re wondering what on earth they are going to write. Then having started with the most stuttering draft, by the end of the year they produce this lyrical, passionate, literate, brilliant piece. You realize that teaching information or conveying ideas is not what teaching is about, it’s often simply about guiding, and then connecting with the person, or even just about boosting morale.

Rhodes Project: Do you ever do any theatre?

Síofra Pierse: I am a firm believer in theatre as a life genre. I know it’s not necessarily very fashionable at the moment amongst university students, but Dublin has an amazing theatre festival every autumn. It’s one of the most vibrant moments in Dublin’s social existence, and this festival invites all types of international companies to come over. It is definitely one the highlights of the cultural year here. They bring very cutting-edge, different productions, to which we might not normally be exposed. I talk to my students about theatre a great deal.  As long as I have been working at university level, I have been involved in a lot of student theatre – always from the director’s position. Even as an undergraduate myself, I always worked as a director or a background staff person since I liked being the critical eye outside of the show. I do think that I enjoy steering people, maybe it’s again linked to my love of teaching. I also think it’s a great way for students to come into themselves and to gain a lot of confidence. We had a student who lost his mother mid-production once, and he found it an extremely supportive framework within which to work through his grief. He could have pulled out, but instead everyone rallied around him and the production itself formed a sort of cocoon.  Theatre can be used as an academic tool, too. It’s a great way of entering the text rather than simply reading it. Theatre as an educational tool is really without equal.

What I find nowadays in college is that students are retreating behind Facebook and the invisibility of the computer screen. They aren’t coming out of the woodwork to meet or to participate very much anymore. They’re shy, which is not good for their presentation skills or their self-confidence. You can’t hide behind a screen in life! I find that to be quite a worrying aspect of university life right now. Students need to step forward to be public people and to dare to pronounce things. I think theatre is a great way to promote that because it allows students to start off by pronouncing other people’s words and it gives them the confidence to come up with their own words and ideas later, and to become politicians, lawyers or advocates of human rights or lecturers – people who need to speak publically and defend their values and their beliefs loudly, confidently and strongly. It’s important for society that people don’t just shirk that responsibility and avoid a public presence. It’s important that students and people in society more generally learn to articulate their message in real life and in real time, whatever that message may be.

Rhodes Project: What aspect of your job do you enjoy most?

Síofra Pierse: It has to be lecturing, I really do enjoy it. I love teaching a new generation and  whatever the topic –whether French Language, literature, history of ideas, language, history, female authors or Voltaire– just opening students’  eyes to new horizons. This generation of students have everything at their fingertips, but they are less able to process it for some reason. They need guidance. It’s all very well saying that the top students can teach themselves, of course they can, and they always will, but the bulk of people need guidance on how to manage the enormity of information available on the web or in other media outlets.

Students appreciate finally becoming specialists in something. I love seeing students arrive in first year, and then watching them leave four years later as different people. They have an interest and passion in life, they have found their own niche and I love that we, as lecturers and teachers, have played at least a little part in guiding those individuals. They might have found their niche without us, but we’d like to think that we made a difference. It’s an honour to be able to be a lecturer, and it is a privilege that shouldn’t be abused. I feel that it’s important for students to have access to good teachers, communicators and educators, in the hope that they might become even greater specialists themselves in time. That’s what it’s all about, in the end.

Rhodes Project: What aspect of your job do you enjoy the least?

Síofra Pierse: Ireland is going through a recession, so a lot of difficult choices need to be made at all levels. I have serious difficulties with the government’s current policies in relation to the humanities in general, not just languages. There’s a whole rhetoric that is pro-science and really anti-humanities, which is really dangerous. The world needs all sorts of specialists, but what we also need are people who are articulate thinkers and philosophers. We need people who can push us forward and think our way into the future and a lot of those people –strategic and lateral thinkers- typically come from the humanities or from people with some sort of training in or exposure to the humanities. I find the rhetoric of downgrading the humanities at government level extremely worrying. Our university system in Ireland consists of public universities which are directly funded by the government. So, government policy has a huge impact on the ground at university level. I find that extremely frustrating. Yes we are cogs in the wheels, but the person turning the wheel is not listening to the screeching going on. We need a lot of oiling, and we’re not getting it! It is not a good way of dealing with either the economic downturn or the country’s intellectual health on a broader level.

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

Síofra Pierse: I would change the Irish system of childcare. Having noted that all of our universities are public, all of our childcare is privatized. Essentially, the private care system in Ireland is completely rotten to the core. Even two professionals working in two good jobs pay an inordinate percentage of their after-tax salary for childcare. I would suspect that it’s probably one of the most expensive in Europe. There is no general public system for childcare in Ireland which is a really negative situation when the country is trying to encourage women to enter the workplace and become fully participative and productive or successful professionals. It is impossible to do that without having childcare provided, essentially nationwide. I’m in a lucky position because I can pay for the private childcare, but I have friends and neighbours who can’t. In their families, the women are obliged to take parental leave or a leave of absence from work or to give up their entire career so that they can look after their small children. Some people do that as a choice but for many there is no choice – or at least not a real one. They’ve been pushed into it for financial reasons and due to lack of governmental or community support. With young children, it is one of the most vulnerable moments in any mother’s life – you have the least energy, the least time and the fuzziest head. You can make some really bad decisions based on an absolutely gorgeous bundle of joy that has just arrived into your life. I wouldn’t want any woman to regret the decision that she made in giving up a career or a job or whatever it is that she didn’t want to give up completely just because there was no adequate childcare option available to her.

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do to relax?

Síofra Pierse: I am a tennis player! I am part of the tennis club in Dublin ever since I arrived. I play league, so I play medium-level competitive league matches: I just love it. It’s sociable, very relaxing and it’s a great way of keeping fit. I play mostly doubles, especially in competitions. It’s just wonderful; I can completely forget everything when I am on the tennis court . I also, obviously, read quite a lot, in fact most of the time I read either biographies, historical novels or contemporary fiction, mainly well-written, entirely escapist novels. I do a tiny bit of DIY but my real hobbies would be reading and tennis.

Rhodes Project: What brings you joy in life?

Síofra Pierse: My little three-and-a-half year old little boy Cian and all the wonderful pleasure he has brought to our family, because there are three of us now instead of two. It was two of us for a very long time –and that was exciting and sometimes whirlwind- but having a third creates a very nice family unit that has brought us roots. Little Cian is busy exploring and discovering the world and he is an inveterate optimist.  As well as chatting non-stop in Irish and English at once, he wakes up every morning bursting with optimism, happiness and hugs. He just loves life and playing and running and it’s magical for everyone around him!  I also like my work and get great pleasure from my academic research. I love life in general. I love people. I have some very old friends including some super friends from when I was in Oxford, some of them Rhodes Projects and more friends from Trinity or from the gang who did Modern Languages. Many of us have kept in touch over the years and meet up sporadically, and that is really special too. I have my friends here in Dublin. I think friends are really important whether you’re arguing about childcare over the dinner table, or you’re just going for a walk with a friend who needs a bit of support or you’re puffing up a mountain-top in Wicklow (Irish countryside south of Dublin) for a communal picnic! Most of my friends happen to be women, for some reason, but they include a complete mixture: I have tennis friends, baby friends, academic friends, intellectual friends, and lots of other long-distance friends from all over the world. It’s fabulous to see how we all negotiate life. What you choose to do in your spare time and with your money, how you help people less fortunate than you, what you believe in and how you formulate your values: all of these discussions are enriched by those simple catch-up chats that I love to snatch in whatever city and whenever or wherever in the world I happen to manage to meet up with an old friend. Such wonderful friends will always help me to figure out exactly what’s important in life.

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