In addition to his success as a professor, Stephen Gutierrez is a successful author and playwright. (Photo: Barry Zepel)
Stephen Gutierrez, professor of English, has earned praise for his literary knowledge, understanding, perception and insight. Add to those compliments a new honor: Cal State East Bay's 2010-11 George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor.
Gutierrez, head of the university’s creative writing program, was selected by his Cal State East Bay peers, who say that he influences the lives of students through “his rigorous yet supportive approach.” Colleagues also credit him for contributing to the English Department through programs such as the annual Distinguished Writers Series, which he and colleague Susan Gubernat coordinate.
“(Gutierrez’s) commitment to students and to the craft of writing make him an essential part of the English Department,” said Dennis Chester, associate professor and chair of English. In nominating Gutierrez, Chester said, “His work with young aspiring writers is admirable, and students are always eager to take his classes. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award than Steve Gutierrez.”
“Professor Gutierrez exemplifies the highest goals of the scholar-teacher,” said Kathleen Rountree, interim dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. “His own writing has been recognized and lauded nationally and regionally, and his students praise him for being a committed and positive teacher who encourages every young writer to find his own authentic voice.”
Dozens of supporting letters from students and alumni tell a consistent story of a “kind, gentle, professor dedicated to teaching and mentoring” who is “able to draw out the best from his students, inspire by example, and invest inordinate time in anyone wishing to continue in the field.”
A number of students said that Gutierrez – a successful author and playwright – was the reason they selected creative writing as an option within the English major, noting that they “had the confidence in themselves to pursue a career in writing because of him.”
Grant Bergland, a 2010 CSUEB graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English, has continued his studies, including recent participation in a competitive writing program in Iowa. “Here at Columbia (University), and last summer in Iowa, I had many other instructors," Bergland said "None of them have yet rivaled Steve in the quality of instruction or level of commitment to student work.”
Other students offered similar praise for Gutierrez.
“For the first time in my academic career, I felt that a professor saw me and saw my needs,” wrote Janet Burns, a graduate student who previously attended one of Canada’s top universities.
“He is personable and readily available to his students,” according to CSUEB student Amelia Rose Forney. “(Gutierrez) is considerate, understanding and kind.”
Current CSUEB student Heather Mahan wrote about Gutierrez: “He doesn’t give away good grades but makes a good grade possible with hard work; hard work that he inspires with his insight and his humor, with his compassion and his commitment.”
Writing – not teaching – was his original goal as Gutierrez earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Chico State University and an MFA (master’s in fine arts) in creative writing from Cornell University.
However in 1990, his friend Ernesto Trejo – a poet and teacher– was suffering from cancer, so he asked Gutierrez to teach his fiction writing class at Fresno City College. Instantly, he knew teaching was his calling.
By 1992 Gutierrez had landed a tenure-track position at Cal State East Bay (then known as Cal State Hayward) teaching fiction writing, and two years later his wife, Jacqueline Doyle, was working in the same department as a tenured professor, moving over from Fresno State.
While the resident of Castro Valley has taught a wide-range of English courses, his favorites are the writers workshops in fiction (beginning, intermediate, advanced and graduate), where he says he “can have a true dialogue with students.”
“I teach differently each time I go in the classroom, because each writer needs something different, ultimately, and a cookie cutter approach will not do,” said Gutierrez. “I respond and listen to the other students, and I offer my own unvarnished opinions, advice, and pointed suggestions; never cruelly, I hope.
“I have learned and continue to learn tremendously from my students, both about life and about writing. They bring me freshness and intelligence from their very modern worlds,” said Gutierrez.
Though poised and collected on the surface, Gutierrez says he has his share of demons drawing him to the underdog, making him attuned and sympathetic to the diversity of students he meets, some of who may lack confidence in their in-born talents.
The professor has found that by short-circuiting his own shyness and exposing his vulnerabilities and struggles, his students can move beyond the “chokehold of artistic reticence” and evolve into fine writers.
“I became a good teacher, if I am such, by letting go and being absolutely myself in the classroom, as far as that is possible,” Gutierrez said. “I also chose to share, in the last few years, more directly, certain ideas I have about stories,” said Gutierrez.
Many of his students have gone on to high-caliber graduate programs in creative writing at Columbia, Cornell, St. Mary’s College, University of San Francisco, Mills College, and others, on full fellowships.
The professor annually looks forward to the day when he gets to phone the student fiction writers who will be published in the English Department’s literary magazine, Occam’s Razor. Each student he contacts expresses joy and astonishment in learning they soon will be published writers.
Just like those excited students, Gutierrez is thrilled and humbled by his selection as the CSUEB Professor of the Year.
“I know whoever else I (was being considered with) is equally deserving,” Gutierrez said. “I just feel fortunate to be selected and am happy to be part of Cal State East Bay in this time of immense change, not only here, but in the world. These are exciting, scary times. This award gives me all the impetus to go forward positively with whatever I have to offer.”
His fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Puerto del Sol, Santa Monica Review, Fiction International, Fourteen Hills, Fiction, Paterson Literary Review, Watchword, PALABRA, Arroyo Literary Review and Blue Mesa Review. His creative nonfiction has been widely published as well in such magazines as Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Under the Sun, Third Coast and ZYZZYVA.
His first book, “Elements” a collection of short stories followed by a long, personal essay, won the Charles H. and N. Mildred Nilon Excellence in Minority Fiction Award. His latest short story collection, “Live from Fresno y Los,” won a 2010 American Book Award sponsored by the Before Columbus Foundation.
“Game Day,” one of his six plays, took first in The Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition in New York in 2010. “EXoneration” was performed by the CSUEB Highlands Summer Theatre earlier this year.
Leroy M. Morishita, CSUEB’s interim president, will mention the award and introduce Professor Gutierrez at the university's fall convocation Sept. 19. The George and Miriam Phillips Outstanding Professor for 2010-11 designation will be bestowed on Professor Gutierrez at the Faculty Honors Convocation March 1, 2012. At that time Gutierrez will address the gathering.