Teaching Excellence

Promoting a Deep and Subtle Expression of Ideas

Dirk A. Kuyk, Jr.

dutch.jpg (1237297 bytes)Professor of English Dirk (Dutch) A. Kuyk, Jr., likes students to come to class prepared. Former student Tricia C. Balatico '99 recalls how she and a number of other students in his "Enlightenment" literature course discovered this the hard way. One day Kuyk surprised the class with a pop quiz after a particularly long and difficult reading assignment. A quick glance at the quizzes handed back to him revealed that the majority of the class had not completed the reading. Balatico describes how Kuyk called out the names of the handful of students who would be allowed to stay for the remainder of that class period. The rest, chagrined that they had disappointed their teacher, were banished for the day without further comment.

While Kuyk is known for being tough, it is the kind of toughness that inspires the desire to do well for him. "It meant a lot when he complimented us," says Balatico. "Students who get a C and who are used to getting A in English say that the C from him meant a great deal to them."

A 19-year veteran of Trinity's faculty and the 1998 winner of the Brownell Prize for excellence in teaching, Kuyk inspires students at all levels, from novices in his basic expository writing classes and first-year seminars to more seasoned learners in his upper-level literature and graduate courses. A proponent of interdisciplinary learning who has team-taught with colleagues in the sciences as well as the humanities, Kuyk will be one of five faculty members teaching in the Tutorial College, beginning this fall. This new and innovative multi-disciplinary program will offer qualified sophomores a unique "college within the College," featuring one-on-one and small group tutorials and operating without structured class schedules. Kuyk says the Tutorial College, partly inspired by the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England, "will create a small, intensive community of learning that will be ideal for students whose minds burn with imagination in the arts and in the sciences, and everywhere else."

Kuyk says he enjoys teaching for "the intellectual play," the back-and-forth of classroom dialogue that promotes real thinking and, occasionally, a good laugh. "I almost never lecture," he says. "I almost always begin a class by asking the students, ‘What do you want to talk about?' I expect them to think for themselves and to listen to each other and respond to each other."

Kuyk is equally attentive to students' written work, and he likes writing assignments to be grammatically perfect and typo-free so that he may focus on the ideas being conveyed. He has been known to write a longer response to a paper than the paper itself. "I try to come at students from angles they don't expect," he says, so that they will learn to construct more thorough, careful arguments and preemptively address possible differing perspectives. In the classroom and on the page, he expects students' expression of ideas to be "deep and subtle."

A traditionalist and pioneer
Director of the Writing Center and Associate Professor of Composition and Rhetoric Beverly C. Wall, who has team-taught with Kuyk on more than one occasion, says, "I think very highly of him both as a teacher and as a scholar." Together Wall and Kuyk developed the English 101 "Writing On-Line" course in 1994, in which students interacted with teachers and classmates electronically. Kuyk, says Wall, "has all the best traditional skills of a classroom teacher," but can also be considered "a pioneer" for his willingness to experiment in a brand new pedagogical environment.

In what may be considered a very experimental approach to teaching and scholarship, Kuyk is teaching two sections of a first-year seminar on "What Is Literature, and What's It For?" while concurrently writing a book on the same subject. After the students had been researching and thinking about the concept and uses of literature for several weeks, Kuyk began sharing chapters of his manuscript with the students for them to consider and critique; later he shared his revised copy. In this manner, Kuyk provides his students a unique opportunity not only to gain insight into the writing process, but also to participate in it.

Tricia Balatico says that flexibility and creativity are hallmarks of Kuyk's teaching. "He looks for the best way for students to understand the material," she explains. If that means doing something a little different (like writing a parody rather than an expository paper), so be it. Kuyk, who was Balatico's adviser for an internship at Fox 61 News, instructed her to write her final paper in journalistic fashion, as a magazine article rather than a regular academic paper; his rationale was that this approach offered a better way to showcase what she had learned.

Students attest that Kuyk deftly manages to be demanding but generous, firm but not inflexible, experienced but innovative. After nearly two decades as a college professor, such agility and facility come naturally to Kuyk--so naturally that he's not really conscious of doing anything special. And when questioned about his teaching style and techniques, he looks a bit baffled at first, as if teaching were some kind of automatic reflex that he was being asked to explain. "It's sort of like breathing," he says.

-- by Leslie Virostek

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