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Dordt’s James Calvin Schaap is 2010 Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College

April 10, 2010

Schaap

One thousand miles separate students in Dordt College and those attending Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. But a shared professor and modern technology are allowing students enrolled in creative writing courses at both locations to interact and approach the process of fiction writing together under the guidance of James Calvin Schaap.

Dr. Schaap has been a professor of English at Dordt College for 32 years. During that time he’s authored more than 20 books; won an Award of Merit winner in the Christianity Today 2004 book awards; received five top Evangelical Press Association fiction awards, as well as four Associated Church Press Awards. He was among 20 authors featured in The Best Christian Writing 2004, and his novel Romey’s Place was a runner-up for the prestigious Christy Award. Schaap’s articles, essays, and short stories have been published in more than 25 magazines and journals, including Poet & Critic, Mid-American Review, and The Banner.

Schaap’s writing talent caught the eye of Paul Hesselink, an emeritus professor of English at Covenant College, who encountered Schaap’s work while searching for a Christmas story to share at a faculty party. Schaap’s 1997 collection of short stories, “The Secrets of Barneveld Calvary,” fit the bill.

As head of the Writer-in-Residence program at Covenant, Hesselink contacted Schaap and asked him to consider teaching a course there this spring. The Nick Barker Writer-in-Residence program is funded by an anonymous donor in honor of a much beloved former professor of English and Academic Dean, who only recently passed away. The program brings one accomplished writer to campus every other year to teach some genre of imaginative writing.

Previous writers-in-residence had been non-fiction writer Leslie Leyland Fields and poet Robert Siegel, so in 2010 the English department wanted a fiction writer to incorporate that genre into the program.

Schaap already had a class of 22 Dordt students enrolled in his spring semester fiction course. But after some careful consideration, he accepted the challenge of simultaneously teaching the same course to 20 students a thousand miles away at Covenant College.

Schaap said his biggest problem is dealing with all the stories his students are writing. "I got them coming in from all angles these days, and they mount up fast. . . The thing is I sort of enjoy it—maybe even too much. . . I’ve got 42 fiction writers. That’s awful (but I like 'em).”

Dr. Schaap spent a week at Covenant at the start of the semester, and returned there for a week during Dordt’s spring break. The rest of the course is accomplished via the internet, email, and mp3 podcasts that Schaap has recorded and posted online. The Covenant students have access to the same written materials offered to Dordt students through “Courses@Dordt,” an online tool for faculty and student interaction on Dordt’s computer network.

Schaap has teamed up a few “pen pals” between the schools, and students from both classes can comment on each others’ short story assignments through an online forum. In addition, Schaap recruited Dordt alumna Carma Smidt (1999) to help individual students from both colleges with their first attempts at writing fiction. Smidt has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of South Dakota.

“Generally I’d say a quite significant number of students who take this class are disappointed in what they write,” Schaap said when asked about his goals for the courses. “I don’t really care whether my students write grand short stories. I’d much rather have them understand the process, work at it, learn something about imagination and creativity, look closely at stories other people consider to be good, and just live in the world of an imaginative writer for a while. They’ll have the rest of their lives to live—and write.”
This is actually Schaap’s second collaboration with Covenant College: in the 1980s, he wrote a play about the story of King David with James Ward, who once taught music at Covenant, a musical titled “The House of the Lord.” It was performed at Covenant in the early ’80s.

The Bagpipe Online, a student newspaper at Covenant College, introduced Schaap to the campus with a headline heralding his own Badger state boyhood: “Professor wows adoring students with writing know-how and witty wordplay.” Writer Lianne Visser, a Covenant College senior from Whitinsville, MS, noted, “Schaap is Dutch, hails from Wisconsin, has a great reformed name, currently teaches at Dordt College, and has graciously agreed to teach a class here as well.”

Schaap is an alumnus of Dordt College who earned his master’s degree at Arizona State University and a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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