When students visit English professor Laura Jean Baker’s office, they are greeted by warm-colored orange walls, matching comfy chairs and Baker’s smile.
This environment reflects the many words used to describe Baker: fun, caring, kind, passionate and warm. One word that doesn’t get used as often as it should, graduate student Jordan Brown said, is professional.
“I don’t think she gets as much credit for being professional and really talented as she does for being fun and friendly,” Brown said.
These sentiments are shared by emeritus English professor Paul Klemp.
“She’s charming, she’s sweet,” Klemp said. “It’s impossible not to like her. But then, the thing that people never toss in, is that she’s really freaking smart, and people tend to let that just be assumed.”
Along with being a “fun and friendly” teacher, Baker teaches introductions to English studies, creative writing and memoir. Baker is a memoirist and is publishing her first book in spring 2018 titled, “The Motherhood Affidavits.”
“The Mother Affidavits” started taking form after Baker wrote stand-alone essays revolving around comparisons between motherhood and the clients of her criminal defense attorney husband.
The comparisons began during a case in which a woman accused her boyfriend of killing her cats. It just so happened this woman gave birth the same week Baker had her fourth child.
“Empathizing with her as a mother and trying to understand [her], it got me thinking about empathizing with [my husband’s] clients who are parents,” Baker said.
From there, Baker added, she and her husband realized how much crossover there was between his cases and her life as a mother.
“I was preoccupied by motherhood and he was preoccupied with his legal life and we just started blending them,” Baker said. “It was kind of this natural dovetailing.”
“The Mother Affidavits” website goes on to describe Baker’s book: “If motherhood is an addiction, what does Laura Jean Baker share in common with the drug dealers, addicts, sex offenders and thieves her husband, attorney Ryan Ulrich, defends as he grinds out the grittiest of legal casework?”
Klemp, who heard some of the first chapters Baker wrote for the book during a reading at New Moon Cafe, said the intertwining of motherhood and addicts was surprising in a wonderful way.
“She was so skillful to weave those two elements together,” Klemp said. “I couldn’t believe that she had managed to make those different experiences fit in the same book.”
Brown, who admits to not enjoying the genre of memoir as much as others, said Baker’s writing captures much of the world beyond motherhood.
“One of the things that is impressive about LJ’s writing is that she’s bringing in a lot of the world around her,” Brown said. “She takes risks. She’s comparing being pregnant, breastfeeding, to being a heroin addict.”
Baker said the family subject matter in “The Motherhood Affidavits” is in the same vein as what she’s written about in several of her other published pieces.
“Dysfunctional families, in the sense that every family is dysfunctional in its own kind of way, has been a lot of what I write about,” Baker said.
Baker said her love for storytelling goes back to childhood, during which she preferred to shadow adults and listen to their stories rather than play with children her own age.
When attending college Baker studied Spanish and journalism rather than English after being advised to choose a major that made her “more marketable.” It wasn’t until she took one creative writing class during her senior year that the direction of her career changed.
“It was going to be a luxury for me and I ended up writing a story for it and my instructor came to me and she was just blown away by it,” Baker said. “She said, ‘If you want, I can edit it for you and we can try to get it published.’ And from there I thought, ‘Maybe I could do something with creative writing.’”
While pursuing her education, Baker’s plans did not involve teaching, either. After receiving her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, she took a teaching job at a private school to support her and her husband while he attended UW Madison to study law.
“It’s all been kind of by necessity and by accident, which is not to say that I don’t love it,” Baker said. “It’s a great life, but teaching was not something I necessarily set out to do.”
After the birth of her first child in 2003, Baker was hired to teach in an adjunct capacity at UW Oshkosh and has since earned a tenure-track and had four more children.
Being a mom has helped Baker refine her teaching and create a welcoming environment for students.
“Just as I empathize with my kids, I empathize with all of my students,” Baker said, after admitting she can be a softie regarding her students. “There’s definitely a nurturing, sometimes over-nurturing, way that I go about teaching.”
Student Aminata Bojang said part of what makes Baker a caring teacher is she is accessible to all of her students as well as her colleagues.
Even if it means running a couple minutes late to class, which Baker admits to doing often, Assistant Director of University Studies Program Debbie Gray Patton said Baker always makes time to talk with people she passes on campus.
“I always enjoy working with her and running into her on campus because I know she’ll always be interesting and make time to say hello and talk, which I appreciate,” Patton said.
Motherhood has also influenced Baker’s development of new course material, such as examining, writing and illustrating children’s picture books.
“She is extraordinarily creative,” Dean of Honors College Laurence Carlin said. “I know the students love the things she plans for them.”
Klemp said Baker’s own creativity allows her students to feel free to experiment with their own writing.
“She’s got a personality that’s open to the creative and the experimental and gives people the chance to take chances,” Klemp said. “A lot of people think they should play it safe, but with LJ, creative writing means creative.”
Bojang said beyond making her more comfortable with writing, Baker helped her feel relaxed with professors.
“She made writing somewhat enjoyable for me even though it was something that I’ve always dreaded,” Bojang said. “I could even talk to her about anything that went on in my life and there is no other professor that I could do that with.”
Brown said students feel comfortable being open with Baker because she’s open with them in return, clueing them in to her writing process and what obstacles she faces.
“Her being so open about her experiences allows me to learn things that I don’t from other professors that are tight-lipped about what academic life is like,” Brown said.
English professor Robert Feldman said Baker’s warm personality fills a classroom, making it a safe and intimate environment for all.
“We both love being in the classroom, interacting with our students,” Feldman said. “LJ and I enjoy the intimacy and the rapport we have with our students.”
Klemp said Baker goes beyond the expectations the English department has for teachers keeping their work focused on the students.
“We have a department that values teaching, and she still manages to stand out,” Klemp added. “She’s one of the very best we have in terms of enthusiasm, creativity, smarts and being student-centered.”
Patton added that part of Baker’s time spent outside of the classroom heavily involves student welfare.
“I had a student tell me that he would not have still been a student if it had not been for her, so I think that caring side of her really comes across in all she does,” Patton said.
Carlin said Baker’s influence extends beyond time spent at UWO as well.
“I run into students who graduated years ago and they still mention LJ as having made a huge difference in their lives,” Carlin said. “She is the type of instructor who has a life-long impact on so many who take her classes.”
Part of that influence, Brown said, is that Baker makes her students feel special.
“She’s helping students to see that they have a story and see the worth in their story, that their life is relatable and important, even though students may be only eighteen,” Brown said.
Baker is not only teaching her students, though. Klemp said she’s shown many of her colleagues how to loosen up.
“LJ is the only person in the world who has permission to call me what she loves to call me, which is ‘Grumpy Old Man,’” Klemp said. “No one else dares to call me that, but she does and I love it.”
Feldman said everything Baker does, from how she mothers her five children, to how she teaches, to how she writes, “radiates sunshine.”
Putting all of these qualities together, Klemp said, “makes it an honor to be her colleague.”