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Faculty Profile: Van Rys practices what he teaches

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. John Van Rys

Dr. John Van Rys

Watching how students develop as writers between when they begin at Dordt College and when they graduate keeps Dr. John Van Rys enthusiastic about teaching.

"I see students early and late in their college careers," says Van Rys, who teaches primarily introductory and upper level English courses. And even though for some students writing remains a challenge all the way to graduation, he is always encouraged by the development he sees in their skills.

What's even more fun, he says, is watching them develop an appreciation for those skills. He's been told several times by upperclass students who barely tolerated English 101 that they didn't realize how important it would be to be able to write well. Seniors in his Business and Technical Writing course are usually eager to learn.

"It's often after a summer or semester internship where their supervisor told them they have lousy writing skills that they begin to realize how important it is to write well," he says. For others it's the realization that law schools and medical schools demand such skills.

"First year students come with different attitudes and widely varying abilities," Van Rys says. He enjoys working with students who love literature and writing as much as he does and eagerly helps them mature in their understanding and skills. In fact, when pressed, he says his favorite course is Literary Theory, where students do a substantial study of a major literary work in the context of different literary theories. The challenge of helping his students evaluate theories and develop their Christian approach to literary study before they get to graduate school is important and one he relishes.

But he also enjoys working with students from other majors, some of whom aren't initially convinced that learning to write well is worth their while.

"It's a challenge is to make college writing relevant for all students," Van Rys says. The Business and Technical Writing course is probably the most "practical" course he teaches. Students learn basic skills for writing in the workplace. In the process they develop their thinking skills and consider how they will function as Christians in the workplace.

Part of what keeps Van Rys fresh as a writing teacher is that he spends time writing as well. An author for Write Source textbooks, a division of Houghton Mifflin, Van Rys is constantly not only practicing his craft but also discovering and developing new methods for teaching writing.

"Teaching provides a wonderful touchstone for testing my thinking," he says. The writing assignments he develops for the textbooks bring freshness to his teaching. In the process these ideas get tested before they are published.

"I love the relief writing gives from teaching," Van Rys says. "It demands a different kind of mental energy." He sees his textbook work as service: helping teachers and students find better ways to teach and learn.

"It's different from the more traditional scholarship I did the first ten years of my career," Van Rys says of his current writing. While he misses doing scholarly research, he enjoys the immediate practical impact he can have through textbooks, and he appreciates being able to work collaboratively with other writers.

But even though Van Rys is focusing on teaching writing for now, he has not left scholarly research behind. An avid literature scholar specializing in Canadian literature, he admits that he would like do more academic work in that field. But for now he's content to push it to "another era in his life," as he says. "The writing I'm doing for Write Source has opened my eyes to other kinds of writing that I likely wouldn't have explored if I hadn't been at Dordt College," he says appreciatively, noting that there are always trade-offs when you take on new challenges. His current focus has helped him see more concretely how writing works in disciplines other than English.

Van Rys also admits that he has a bit of a bug to do some creative writing-probably humor or poetry. Although he has written some poetry, and departmental minutes he creates attest to his prowess with humor, creative writing also may have to wait for "another era" in his life.