by Alex Mika, ’21 (CLAS)
Associate Professor Rachael Lynch has retired from her position after teaching at University of Connecticut since 1991. The following is a transcription of her responses during a phone interview in December 2020 with Alex Mika, a University of Connecticut graduate from the Class of 2021 and former employee of the university’s English Department. They discussed how she decided to become a professor, her thirty-year career at University of Connecticut, and how she was instrumental in the expansion of the Waterbury campus English Department and the fostering of a vibrant Irish Studies community.
Chocolate Biscuits and Becoming a Professor
I knew I loved English. I had some vague ideas that I wanted to be a writer. I just loved it. I think if you ask a lot of English majors around the sophomore point, they’re going to say, “I’m not sure what I want to do, but I love English.” I sort of put my faith in doing what I love.
When I was in junior year at University of Dublin, Trinity College, I took a French class, and we had a professor who was legendarily difficult. Her problem was she never told you what she wanted. At all. Not at all. And somehow, I was able to access her way of thinking. I was able to understand what she wanted. We had constant little papers due, and there’s no secret about grades. Even your finals are hung up on the door. The professors would hand back assignments and say, “You got an ‘A,’” or, “You got a ‘D.’” There was no secrecy. And one day she went on and on about how good a job I had done and how I got an “A.”
Afterwards, a group (we were all friends) came to me and said, “Rachael, will you share with us what you know? We will buy you beer, chocolate biscuit cake, and chicken – all your favorite things – if you will re-lecture and share with us your notes on what the hell this woman is talking about.” And I thought this was great and said, “Sure!” I discovered I have a peculiar talent I think teachers need, professors in particular: taking what somebody has said, even if it is quite complicated, and recasting it so that an audience can understand it. I’m not claiming that this is a very useful talent or one that’s going to save the world, but it is one that my protégés and I all have and did brilliantly. After that experience, I realized what I wanted to do. I got an incredible kick… I mean, the beer and the chocolate biscuit cake were nice, but I got an incredible kick out of explaining things to people who didn’t understand something.
Developing Departments, Developing Interests at the Waterbury Campus
University of Connecticut Waterbury now has a great major, but when I was hired there, it was more of a theater school. I started teaching the composition and short story class, and I was working with the absolutely wonderful associate director, Angela Brightly; nothing could have happened without her. We put our heads together and worked out how we could bring English to Waterbury. She let me teach 18th-Century Literature, Women in Literature, 19th-Century Literature – anything I wanted to teach. She signed off on them, even in the days when this was new, so initially I would get four or five people the first time, then eight or nine, and eventually twenty. It built up slowly. The result of it was, well, I have taught practically every course on the schedule. These days, I tend to focus on permutations of Irish literature. I teach the survey course, a capstone course on literature and culture, and an individual author course. I also teach graduate courses at the Storrs campus, as well as supervise graduate students.
I’m really grateful that in the course of thirty years, I’ve been able to go from teaching the composition classes to the specialty classes of my design and choosing. That’s been an enormous privilege and pleasure. If I hadn’t been at Waterbury, I probably wouldn’t have had the range that I do. So, we’ve got quite the little subculture of Irish Studies going at Waterbury, and I’m really sad about that because when I retire, it’s going to stop.
The Irish Connection
Lee Jacobus (professor emeritus, who served at University of Connecticut from 1968 to 2001), was originally a Renaissance scholar, but was really interested in Irish Studies. He really cranked the engine on developing this community at University of Connecticut. So, when I arrived, Irish Studies was sort of cranking up. I started teaching Irish Studies as my second graduate class. And then there was a funny little period where my Irish Studies colleagues were on sabbatical or on maternity leave or otherwise not there, and I taught three graduate classes in a row. About halfway through that period, we got this enormous bulge of about seven students who were really interested in Irish Studies. It was lucky and weird, and it grew from there.
In 2006, Mary Burke (Professor, Irish Concentration Coordinator, Honors Program Director in English) and I co-chaired a Northeast American conference called “Changing Ireland.” It was a great success, with seventy speakers and attendees from Ireland, England, Japan. Now, University of Connecticut is really part of that little group of schools known for their Irish Studies programs. Lee Jacobus deserves all kudos for having gotten things going, and then I did some by myself; however, once Mary Burke was on board and there were two of us — two people from Ireland interested in Irish things, putting our heads together — we really tried to make Irish Studies a reality at University of Connecticut.
“You Have to Be Responsible”
One thing I’ve taken away from my students is that you have to be careful. I don’t think of myself as somebody who has influence, particularly, but I realized a couple of times that simply the choice of texts in a course can really affect students’ lives. I used to teach Literature in Translation, and one of the texts I would do was Madame Bovary. One semester, I had no fewer than three young men come into my office, visibly troubled, to tell me that they had broken up their relationships because, like Charles Bovary, they were being used. It made me realize that students take their work seriously and they pay attention to what they read. I need to be responsible and make sure that what they read is what they should be reading.
I learned another valuable thing from them when I was struggling with a choice. I think it was when my most beloved uncle died, and I thought I would go over to Ireland for his funeral (which was a lot of money). But I really loved this man and he had been very good to me. And I was voicing this dilemma to one of my students during an office visit. I said, “How do you know, in a case like this, what to do?” She looked at me and she said, “What you need to do is, you need to think about how you will feel afterwards. Will you mind if you don’t go? If you think you will mind in the future, then you should go.” I thought that was sensational advice. It’s advice I’ve used ever since. You can really learn as much from your students as they can learn from you.
Looking to the Past and Future
Once she retires, Lynch looks forward to working on a cultural history of tuberculosis in Ireland, an issue that is close to her, as she lost her mother to the disease. Lynch notes, “There are very few families in Ireland that haven’t been affected by TB.” With this book, she hopes to use TB as a starting point in thinking about various contemporary anxieties.
From the English Department here: Thank you, Rachael, for your invaluable contributions to the University of Connecticut community. We wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.
Thank you to Alex Mika for completing this interview last year, as well as for being a wonderful student assistant when creating last year’s newsletters for the English department.