July 24, 2019 | Arts & Culture
When we spoke to Jacqueline Baker in early June, the assistant professor in English was still overjoyed by the news of receiving a Distinguished Teaching Award.
“I was very touched and moved by the nomination, and I'm honoured to be acknowledged among so many colleagues who I think so highly of,” she says.
We talked to Jacqueline about her career path, her love for creative writing and the talented students she teaches.
The Distinguished Teaching Awards recognize outstanding faculty members who have shown extraordinary commitment to teaching and have inspired their students and colleagues. Watch for the 2019 award winners' profiles throughout July: Dr. Ion Bica and Dr. Susan Mills and Rodney Schmaltz.
Q. What inspired you to study English and creative writing?
I always liked to write, but I come from a small town where studying writing, or frankly studying English, isn't a legitimate career path – whereas journalism would get you an actual job.
I always tell my students how I realized that journalism was not going to be a good career path for me. Instead of actually interviewing people for my news writing class, I found myself making up the interviews and writing the news stories as fiction instead.
I took a circuitous route and didn't come around to studying English until I was in my late 20s when I took some creative writing classes. Then that BA turned into a graduate degree and I thought if I could go to grad school without going into debt and write a book while I was there, who knows what could happen. That book was my master’s thesis and my first collection of short stories, A Hard Witching.
Q. What is your favourite course to teach?
That's like picking your favourite child!
I will say I was reluctant to teach ENGL 102: Analysis and Argument because I was coming to MacEwan not as an academic, but as a professional writer – as a novelist – and it felt like I didn’t have the skills to teach an academic essay writing class. I learned pretty quickly that many of the same principles apply, and it’s become a favourite class to teach.
ENGL 102 is one of the first classes students at MacEwan take, and so I really like meeting our students oftentimes in their first semester. I think there’s a kind of privilege in that, being one of the first faces of the university in a way. I just always think back to how scared and intimidated I was as a first-year student coming from a small town in the middle of nowhere. Nobody in my family had gone to university or gotten any kind of post-secondary education, so for me, it was a very foreign experience. I spun badly off the rails in my first year, and it had nothing to do with laziness or lack of effort or intelligence. I always remember what that felt like.
And of course I have a special attachment to the creative writing minor courses. The creative writing students at MacEwan are as good or better than I’ve seen in other larger programs. The writing they’re producing is really impressive.
Q. What would you teach someone about creative writing — if you knew they were never going to take a course in this subject?
I would tell them to read — read all the time. From my experience as a writer and as a teacher of writing, just read. Read critically, read closely, and then write and write and write, and keep making it better.
You can't actually teach writing. Can you teach the skills to take apart one’s own writing and analyze established professional pieces in order to understand technique? You can do that. But there’s a kind of spark in people’s writing that is either there or it isn’t, and no one can teach that. You can only teach the skills to keep making writing better. And honestly, I think as a writer myself, I know there’s nothing extra someone can do that will make you keep writing if you don't want to, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop you from writing if you’re determined to write. It's so self-driven.
Q. What do you love most about teaching English and creative writing?
My students. As a member of the English department, I meet not only first-year students in disciplines across the university, but also creative writing students who are majoring in disciplines other than English. So most of the time, I’m not teaching English majors — I’m teaching students from across the university, which gives me the privilege of interacting broadly with the MacEwan student community -- students who in many cases are juggling family life and jobs while going to school full or part time. They’re just humble, generous, hard-working people.