The Voice: Spring 2003

The Voice

Much of The College Writer is written at Dordt: Dordt College students find a voice in the academic world

By: Sally Jongsma

When Dr. John Van Rys received his first copy of The College Writer, he could hardly put it aside. “The feel of the book in my hands was so gratifying after the months and years put into it,” he says.

Van Rys is a co-author of The College Writer, a new college text that came off the press in December. The binder full of black and white pages he had seen earlier simply did not compare to the look and feel of the full-color version, he says with a smile.

The College Writer is a combination textbook and handbook. It is divided into four sections: a rhetoric—a guide to reading, writing, and thinking; a reader—demonstrating strategies and models for good writing; a research guide; and a handbook on punctuation, grammar, and mechanics.

“Throughout the book, critical thinking is strongly emphasized,” Van Rys says.

The College Writer has an interesting history that includes Dordt College. Although published by Houghton Mifflin Company, the book has its roots in a 130-page handbook called Basic English Revisited. This slim volume was written in 1977 by two of the five authors of The College Writer, Verne Meyer and Pat Sebranek. Dr. Meyer taught English and theater at Dordt College from 1977 to 1992 and remains closely connected to the college.

Also in 1977, the two authors set up Write Source Publishing House. Soon author Dave Kemper and others joined the group, and by 1997, they had developed handbooks and other curricular materials for students in grades from kindergarten through college. Van Rys began writing for Write Source nearly ten years ago. Today the group develops educational materials for Houghton Mifflin, as well as business-writing materials for a new company, UpRight Press.

Houghton Mifflin liked the materials so much that they came to Write Source for a college text that was more high-powered than Write for College, a handbook written by the same authors.

“We looked at what we could use from Write for College and what we needed to add and improve,” Van Rys says. But most of the content is new, coming from the authors’ teaching experiences.

“I drew on my own teaching of research writing,” says Van Rys, who focused on the persuasive- and research-writing sections of the book. In fact, much of what he’s learned about teaching writing has made its way into the handbook in some way.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between my writing and teaching,” he says. His writing benefits from his twelve years of teaching, and his teaching benefits from having to communicate ideas in fresh and concise ways for his textbook writing.

“As you teach you learn what works well, and you learn how to focus on students rather than simply content,” he says.

One goal of the authors was to make the information readily accessible to students. Following in their Write Source tradition, Van Rys and the other authors wanted the book to be comprehensive yet concise. They also wanted an inviting design that not only draws students into the book, but also helps them read, understand, and use the material.

One of its features is tidy one- and two-page spreads that put the information students need on a particular topic right at their fingertips, succinctly and clearly spelled out.

Other strong features are its use of writing guidelines and checklists, both of which focus on six “traits” of good writing: stimulating ideas, logical organization, engaging voice, appropriate word choice, overall fluency, and correct, accurate copy. Such trait-based training is now required in K-12 English education in many states because the terms help students and teachers discuss and assess writing. The College Writer carries these traits into the college setting so that professors can build upon what students have already learned. Trait-based instruction is particularly helpful to institutions committed to Writing Across the Curriculum.

“The traits,” says Meyer, who is now a contributing editor for Write Source, “give a common vocabulary that helps faculty and students in all courses focus on key aspects of a piece of writing, appreciate its strengths, and revise its weaknesses.” As a result, writing can be assigned and assessed more consistently and efficiently. The traits also save time for tutors in the Academic Skills Center who help other students revise their writing.     

“Working on the book has been an opportunity to communicate what we believe about writing—why it is important, and why it is important to do it well,” says Van Rys. “That’s getting our Christian perspective out to the public.”

As importantly, the text gives student and faculty writers a voice in the larger academic world. Model essays, of which the book has many, were written by professional writers, students, and faculty. Many of the students and faculty are from Dordt College; others are from Westmont and Redeemer Colleges.

“We are not preaching, but we are truthful about what we believe and communicate it well,” says Van Rys. As samples of Christian students honestly wrestling with issues, he cites articles written on drilling for oil in Alaska and on United Nations’ sanctions on Iraq. Another piece titled “Let’s Kill Cute” gives a humorous perspective on use of language that Van Rys says stems from the writer’s convictions not only about how language should be used, but also about how we think—or don’t think—when we use it.

“No one is pushing a Christian agenda, but it is there because it’s part of us,” says Van Rys.

Meyer agrees. One of the most satisfying aspects of his work is helping young Christian writers recognize that they have something to say and helping them learn how to polish their writing for publication. Meyer spends a great deal of his time sifting through written pieces to find ones that he believes demonstrate good writing, pieces that have voice, vitality, and sound thinking.

To find time to write for The College Writer Van Rys received one-quarter release time from his teaching responsibilities for the last two years. That time allowed him to work on the book during the school year in addition to summers.

He is pleased that Dordt College supported his work, and that its name will be closely associated with the book. All Dordt College students will also purchase the handbook as a basic text for English 101. Two colleges had adopted it as a text even before it came off the press, and since it is a major text published by a major publisher, it will be aggressively marketed across North America.     

Dordt College writers are prominent

The College Writer includes writing by a host of Dordt College people. English Professor John Van Rys worked closely with two of the co-authors who are also former Dordt College English professors, Dr. Verne Meyer and Dr. Randall Vander Mey. Meyer, a contributing editor for Write Source, taught English and theater at Dordt College for many years. Vander Mey, who taught English at Dordt College in the 1980s, now teaches English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.

Van Rys describes their working relationship as wonderfully collaborative.“We played to each others’ strengths,” he says.    

“In fact, it all culminated in a wild team experience in Wisconsin last July,” says Van Rys. The authors went to the Write Source office expecting to put the finishing touches on a few things and, instead, found themselves putting in an exhausting but exciting week of generating new material for some of the sections.

Many others from Dordt College contributed in less dramatic but very important ways. Former English professor Mike Vanden Bosch and former adjunct English instructors Pat Kornelis and Kim Rylaarsdam were editorial contributors, as was ESL instructor Sanneke Kok. English professors James Schaap and David Schelhaas wrote professional model essays used in the volume. Seventeen other faculty members submitted student work, consulted on content, or submitted information for sections of the book. Thirteen present and seventeen former students wrote pieces that were used as models.