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Digging For Answers

by Phil deHaan

Calvin College professor of history Bert de Vries is the winner of the school's Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, the highest honor which can be accorded to a Calvin professor.

He is the sixth winner of the award dating back to its inception in 1993 by then-president Anthony Diekema. The award includes a one-of-a-kind medallion and provides the winner with a significant financial stipend thanks to the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment fund, set up at Calvin by an anonymous donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin Board of Trustees.

De Vries, a native of the Netherlands, graduated from Calvin in 1960 with a bachelor of science degree and an engineering major. He then went on to Calvin Theological Seminary, graduating in 1964, and did his Ph.D. work at Brandeis, finishing up in 1967, before starting his career as a Calvin professor.

That lengthy tenure at Calvin includes a number of trips to the Middle East, particularly Jordan and Palestine, for work on archaeological digs. De Vries estimates he's been to the Middle East some 25 times since his first trip in the summer of 1968. Since 1972 he has worked as director of excavations at Umm el-Jimal, on the fringe of the desert in Northern Jordan.

That research has provided a steady stream of new material for the classroom and it has honed de Vries' own teaching style as the lessons he's learned in the field have been transferred to the Calvin classroom as well.

"In the field," de Vries said, "the students' assignments involve real field research. They're given responsibilities and they learn that the outcome of that research depends on them and their fellow teammates."

In the classroom de Vries asks for similar dedication.

"In the classroom, too, students should feel that their assignments are part of a team effort," he said. "I stress to my classes the importance of their participation. If you stay away from class you become a non-participant in the classical Greek sense of the word."

Over the years de Vries has used a variety of techniques to get his students' attention. He used to do a lot of role-playing, appearing in costume to dramatically act out a scene from history. In recent years he has done less of that -- although he still does use the technique -- but has shifted his attention to other, student-directed initiatives. He was one of the first Calvin professors to use e-mail as a teaching technique.

In History 101, for example, the students send e-mail at the end of each week with their thoughts on what was studied in class that particular week. The students form e-mail teams and each week one of those teams edits all of the individual e-mail responses and distributes a series of statements summarizing the class reaction to the week of study. At the end of the semester that accumulated list of weekly digests becomes the basis for the final exam.

"That tool (e-mail) gives the students a new way to participate," he said. "They have ownership of the class all semester. When the exam comes, they have literally shaped it. I think it's a marvelous way to get students involved."

De Vries said teaching in the 90s demands such inventiveness.

"Students in the 1970s were most talkative in class," he said. "It was the height of the counterculture. It's tougher now to get students to participate, at least using the traditional forms. E-mail is an alternative, a way to draw people out. Thus the students become fellow contributors of informaton rather than the recipients of knowledge dictated by the professor."

In his honors History class the students write a book. Each student contributes one chapter centered on a common theme and at the end of the semester the chapters are compiled and a book is produced for each contributor. This past fall's class wrote its book on "Worldviews in Travel Literature," covering journey reports ranging from Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark.

"Last spring when I was thinking about this fall's project it occurred to me that travelers are one of the best sources for understanding how people from one culture perceive people from another," he said. "It seemed a perfect theme."

It's a theme that crops up often in de Vries' teaching.

"An underlying motive of my teaching," he said, "is to encourage people to treat people of other cultures with respect and appreciation. I think that comes from my many experiences in the Middle East. It also goes back to World War II when my family was under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. The experiences of my youth, combined with my Middle East work, have given me not only a predilection toward non-violence but also an abhorrence of people being treated unjustly by other people."

De Vries thinks his many years in the field gave shape to his teaching on tolerance. Those years working side-by-side with Calvin students on archaeological digs also encouraged him to find ways to challenge Calvin students who were not able to travel to the Middle East. In 1996, largely thanks to his leadership, Calvin created a minor in archaeology, making it one of just three schools in the state of Michigan to offer either a major or minor in archaeology. Wayne State in Detroit offers both a major and a minor, while the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor offers a minor.

De Vries now is planning a summer course in cooperation with Birzeit University (north of Jerusalem in the West Bank) which will bring together Calvin students and their Palestinian counterparts to study the environmental geography of Palestine. He also has worked hard on Calvin's internship program with local museums. Each year de Vries places Calvin students with Van Andel Museum and in archival internships at the Grand Rapids Public Library. He said such work is enjoyable. "It's gratifying," he said, "because the students like it and the local organizations are so appreciative of their work."

While the evaluations of Calvin students from Van Andel Museum and the Grand Rapids Public Library are invariably positive, de Vries has been a maverick when it comes to his own evaluations by Calvin students. Although Calvin professors traditionally are evaluated via a form, de Vries has asked for and been granted an exemption to that process. Instead he has devised a set of questions which students fill out as a narrative; this is, instead of checking boxes they write responses. De Vries feels this results in a more instructive appraisal of his efforts in the classroom. "It helps me not to teach to the evaluation," he said. "I believe that for me teaching to evaluations takes away my creativity. Things that are not tried and true can sometimes fall by the wayside. I teach on adrenaline and I'd rather not waste that on worrying about scored evaluations."

As his students and colleagues will attest, de Vries' adrenaline supply shows no signs of running slack anytime soon.


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