Sybil Baker teaches creative writing, including novel writing, fiction, and creative nonfiction. She is the author of Immigration Essays, which is UTC’s Read2Achieve selection for 2018-2019. She is also the author of four works of fiction: The Life Plan, Talismans, Into This World, and most recently While You Were Gone. She teaches for the Yale Writers' Workshop and in the Vermont College of Fine Art’s low residency international MFA. She was a featured writer at the American Writers' Festival in Singapore and was a Visiting Professor at Middle Eastern Technical University in North Cyprus. She has received Outstanding Teacher and Creative Scholarship Awards from UTC's College of Arts and Sciences. She was awarded two MakeWork Artist Grants and a 2017 Individual Artist's Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Degrees

M.F.A., Writing ,Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, Vermont
M.A., English Literature (Creative Writing) University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado
B.A., Communication Studies (English minor), Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia

Research and/or Creative Interests

Creative interests: novel writing, short stories, essays
Writing related­research: expatriate and transnational writing, travel and borders

Teaching Interests

Creative writing, short story and novel writing, reading like a writer, Western Humanities, contemporary Asian American literature, expatriate literature

Workshop Approach

In my workshops, depending on the level, we use a mix of small group and large class workshops.

For a starting point, I use the Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process method of workshopping, which you can read more about here: https://lizlerman.com/critical-response-process/. This process focuses more on questions and conversation between the writer and the respondents, rather than what is known as the “Iowa” workshop model, which focuses on praise and critique while the writer is silent, under the “gag rule.” However, if a student would prefer a traditional workshop response to their piece, then we will use that. In short, in the upper level classes, for a formal workshop, I’ll give each person a choice of the workshop method they prefer. In general, work in progress works better with the Critical Response Process, while works that feel “finished” might benefit more from the “cone of silence.”

My reasons for using this method, which I’ve been using for the past year with great success, reflect an ongoing discussion about the teaching of creative writing to a broader demographic. For many this conversation began with Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs POC.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc.

In 2017, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen also questioned the effectiveness of the Iowa model, especially for minority writers (and I would add, writers from international backgrounds). “As an institution, the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that ‘Show, don’t tell’ is universal when it is, in fact, the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male. The identity behind the workshop’s origins is invisible. Like all privileges, this identity is unmarked until it is thrown into relief against that which is marked, visible and outspoken, which is to say me and others like me.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/26/books/review/viet-thanh-nguyen-writers-workshops). Even more recently Beth Nguyen argues a similar approach in “Unsilencing the Writing Workshop.” https://lithub.com/unsilencing-the-writing-workshop/

In addition, Matthew Salesses’ essays on race and the creative writing workshop, https://matthewsalesses.com/for-writers/ have influenced my pedagogy and approach. Recently, an essay in Lit Hub discusses alternative methods to the Iowa workshop, advocating the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process we will be using. To better understand that approach, I encourage you to read that article here: https://lithub.com/toward-changing-the-language-of-creative-writing-classrooms/?fbclid=IwAR3tNOzWKDVmsaFJGxKi8P-DJ2FVXQeucS7lkDuPVrKf0XuvpFICmnUP-Ds

Based on my experience with this workshop process, I think you’ll find our workshop time productive and fruitful for you with your writing and your engagement with other texts.

Why did you become an English professor?

For a long time, my two worlds—teaching and creative writing, were separate. I fell into teaching because I wanted to live abroad for a year and teaching English seemed an easy way to achieve that goal. I ended up falling in love with teaching.
I taught composition and conversation at a university in South Korea, and would do my own creative writing on my own time. In 2007 I was hired as a Creative Writing Professor at UTC, and started teaching creative writing then.

Why teach?

I love teaching classes that involve my two passions: reading and writing. With creative writing courses, I get to read and engage with other writers, and provide some models for ways to continue writing outside of the classroom and beyond the university.

For reading­ oriented classes, I love teaching Western humanities­-type classes because I get to engage with classic and contemporary texts that help me with my own writing and thinking.

Outside of being a professor, what do you do for fun and/or relaxation? I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, and traveling.

What are your expectations of students?

I expect students to come to class prepared, which means the reading materials should be annotated and students should be ready to engage with the material. I like to have computer­free class days as much as possible, not because I have anything against computers, but I find that class discussions go better if everyone has a hard copy of the book and is not distracted by computers and cell phones.

What's something about you that might surprise your students?

I lived in Seoul, South Korea for 12 years, and my immediate family now live in Turkey and South Africa as well as the States. All of my relatives from both sides of my family are from the South. My father grew up in Possum Valley, Arkansas, and my mother in Clemmons, North Carolina.