Emily Barton and Thomas Israel Hopkins, Oberlin’s Newest Creative Writing Faculty


Photo Courtesy of Emily Barton and Tom Hopkins

Professors Emily Barton and Tom Hopkins, new staff in the Creative Writing department, are quite proficient in the art of the selfie and taking family portraits around Oberlin.

Professors Emily Barton and Tom Hopkins are the two newest faculty members of Oberlin’s Creative Writing department. Barton is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing — one of the two recently hired tenure-track faculty, the other of whom is Chanda Feldman, who was hired as a visiting assistant professor last year. Hopkins is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing. The professors are married with two children. Both Barton and Hopkins graduated from Harvard College. Barton went on to receive her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, while Hopkins received his from New York University. Both professors specialize in fiction writing. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


What made you decide to come to Oberlin, and how do you like it so far? 

Emily Barton: One of the first things that I knew about Oberlin is that in my adult life, if I meet an interesting person, there is a very strong likelihood that person went to Oberlin. The graduates that you churn out are creative and intelligent and thoughtful people, and coming here and meeting undergraduates — that has very much been true. I was so impressed when I came for my interview with the students who showed up for the sample class that I taught. They had turned in incredibly diverse and interesting work in fiction and poetry, and they showed up for that sample class with both a willingness to learn and a willingness to contribute and participate. So far, the students that I have are super engaged and quite earnest in a way that I find impressive and wonderful.

Tom Hopkins: I would add that I’ve had a very similar experience to what Emily described, in meeting new people and not being at all surprised that they’re Oberlin alums when they are creative and interesting and fascinating people. … I’ve also worked previously in development and alumni relations [at Vassar College and SUNY New Paltz], so I have some professional experience with thinking about alumni and thinking about a college’s relationship to alumni. The groups of alumni that are the most passionate and enthusiastic and dedicated to their alma maters are graduates of Princeton [University], Amherst [College], and Oberlin … in my highly subjective experience. I say that also as someone who is, in the words of Ben Jones, [OC ’96], the vice president of Communications, an “accepted Obie.” That is to say that in high school I applied and got in. It had been my first choice! So, personally, [it feels a bit like fate] having wanted to come here a long time ago, and having made it here quite a bit later.

What classes are you both teaching this semester and next semester?

EB: I have the great fortune to be teaching [CRWR] 120 right now, Intro to Writing Fiction, which is a total delight. I’m also teaching a class that I devised, which is CRWR 234, Research and Imagination. This is a 200-level fiction class designed to help students understand how you can research a work of fiction separately from the way that you would research an academic essay. So that’s pretty fun. In the spring, I’m teaching a 300-level advanced fiction workshop and then also a capstone. Part of my desire and the department’s desire this year, in the first year of my appointment, is that I get to meet and work with students across all of the levels. I wanted to have the opportunity to work with some of the more advanced students before they graduate, but I also really wanted to be involved at the ground level with students who I’ll have the chance to work with for the [rest] of their college education.

TH: I’m teaching a 200-level fiction workshop, which is less specialized than Research and Imagination and less specialized than Professor [Abbey] Chung’s speculative fiction class. Although, I share both of their interests in … students writing stories that [go] far beyond the limits and facts of the lived experiences of the students in the class. I’m very happy when my students bring in work that’s set both in realistic suburbs and work that’s set in space submarines in the oceans of Europa [Jupiter’s ice moon]. I’m trying to develop a class that’s tentatively titled Writing for Performance [to run in] the spring, which will cover playwriting but also go beyond that. It will be a class that tries to tackle the need at times for actors to write their own monologues, as well as the need for poets and fiction writers to be better able to stand up in front of other people and read their own work. I’m [also] going to try to cover other areas where people need to stand up in front of other people and try to persuade them of things — which is to say, everybody. So I’m hoping that podcasts or debate or radio or something will also be part of it.

This is something that [Emily and I] sit around talking about — how literary readings are kind of the worst form of theater, the least entertaining form of theater, as a general rule. It’s a form of theater in which the performers [often] don’t like to think of themselves as performers and don’t take the time to rehearse.

EB: It’s the only form of theater in which rehearsal is somehow understood as not being necessary or important. Improv comedy, which seems so spontaneous to its viewing audience, is set up on a rigorous background of rehearsal.

TH: This doesn’t describe all readings obviously, and some brilliant reading curators have taken great pains to try and reinvigorate the reading as a form of performance, but it is very painful to go to a reading and see someone get up onstage who seems like they’ve never been under lights before, who has no idea how to adjust a mic stand, and who didn’t take any time beforehand to figure out the difference between 40 minutes of material and seven minutes of material.

EB: Teaching writers how to use mic stands! This is a great interest of mine as well.

What are you excited about right now in terms of scholarship? 

TH: I’m currently trying to finish a novel, which I’m hoping I’ll be able to do in the coming year. So I’m excited about that.

EB: I guess I could say I’m starting a new novel right now. This is a scholarship interest for sure — there are writers of fiction in Japan, contemporary writers and earlier 20th-century writers, who write novels of the everyday, that are very detailed and specific. There just aren’t novels of this kind being written in English with the same prevalence. I just read a really wonderful mid-to-late 20th-century Japanese novel called The Guest Cat [by Takashi Hiraide] that’s really only about visits that a neighborhood cat pays [to a couple who are writers]. I’m not really sure what exact structural relationship [this type of book] bears to the novel I’m working on, but there’s something of interest that I would like to explore.

TH: I’m also the new lead guitarist in the faculty and staff dad band. Which is not exactly scholarly, but I’m excited about that.

EB: One of our kids is super eager to be in the band. He plays trombone.

Do you have any books or writers or anyone that you like to teach in particular?

TH: The writer who springs to mind first for me would be George Saunders, who’s one of my favorite writers. I think Saunders resonates with readers of all ages as somebody whose funny, dystopian vision of our current moment gets at something that few other writers are able to articulate. He writes work that you might call speculative, but barely so. He exaggerates things in a way that I think captures something poignant about humanity, but with a sense of something that’s gone wrong in our current world. He, as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, has such an extraordinary sense of empathy, and sense of the need to teach empathy. There’s this deeply spiritual quality to his work.

EB: Saunders is also on my 100-level syllabus. He’s a great writer to teach.

TH: I hesitate to say this, and I don’t want to jinx it, but I think that he’ll get the Nobel [Prize in Literature] sometime in the next 25 years.

EB: Well maybe it’s good to have that prognostication written down somewhere. … Right now, the classes that I’m teaching mean that [with 234], I’m interested in getting students exposed to really ambitious research-based and imaginative work, and then on the syllabus for 120, my goal is really just to introduce students to contemporary writers of the greatest possible diversity. Diversity of aesthetic style, diversity of background, gender diversity … Professor Chung and I share an interest in a Canadian-Caribbean queer [speculative fiction] writer named Nalo Hopkinson, and she’s on both of our syllabi. She’s a super cool writer who I want my students to know is out there. This is a really great moment for fiction in America; … there are a lot of great writers [who] I’m excited about and I’m excited to introduce my students to.

TH: We’re both teaching Professor Chung’s work this semester, because she has a new book out [Alien Virus Love Disaster] and she’s an alumnus, [OC ’11.] She will be doing a reading as an alum, with another alum, Thisbe Nissen, [OC ’94.] What we’re both excited about, by teaching her work and then having students go to that reading, is the opportunity to teach the value of being a member of a community of writers. Writing creative work isn’t just a solitary act. It’s participation in a community. So we’re excited about that chance to read the work [with students] and study the work and talk about [it] in class, and then have the opportunity to ask these writers questions and hear them perform. We’re looking forward to that.

Is there anything else you want students to know, or anything you want to add? 

EB: Something that I would really want Oberlin students to know about me as a teacher is how excited I am to [work with Creative Writing majors, but also] to have the opportunity to work with students who don’t want to be Creative Writing majors, or don’t know if they want to be Creative Writing majors, or are just interested in something else entirely but want to try it. I think that sometimes students feel very shy about not being serious writers or not being only committed to writing, [but] nothing could be farther from my pedagogical interests than only wanting to work with the people who always wanted to be writers. The study of writing is something that can help any student, regardless of what career path they’re interested in or what area of study. I’m just excited to meet all of them, no matter where they’re starting from.

TH: Part of what is so exciting and wonderful about Oberlin, as probably every student knows, is the serious encouragement of interdisciplinary study, work, scholarship, and conversation. [During new faculty orientation], regardless of our discipline, we were introduced to the Science Library, the [Clarence Ward] Art Library, the [Conservatory] Library, the Conservatory itself, [and] the [Allen Memorial] Art Museum. We were encouraged to figure out ways for disciplines to talk to each other and draw on each other as resources. It’s that interest across disciplines that I think is so marvelous … which is probably why I was an accepted Obie.