Monday, May 5, 2014

Passionate Helper Dr. Mark Van Ness Raising Up Norms for Seminarians

by Brother Marinus Kim, OSB

Dr. Van Ness, who is an assistant professor of English Communications at Mount Angel Seminary, brings passionate multicultural experience and lots of energy to his teaching. 

He gave a clue about his plan to join the seminary faculty. He said, “I knew already Mount Angel mainly because I had looked online for a place to have a spiritual retreat before I worked for the school.”

Mr. Jim Sisley, who teaches at MAS and Portland Community College (PCC), gave the information about the job to his boss, the department chairperson at PCC. Dr. Van Ness looked at the job posting and two words attracted him: “pronunciation and speaking.” He really likes that even if he is teaching reading and writing too. Furthermore, he says that it is a good way to help future priests.

He was reading some books about Benedictine spirituality at that time he applied. In addition, one of his friends gave him good information about the seminary job. This friend was a friend with Ms. Kathy Akiyama, who also teaches at Mount Angel Seminary.   

Dr. Van Ness described the seminarians' multiculturalism and the best way of improving of their second language: “One of my students in China . . . told me that the best way to learn another language is this: find a fluent speaker who is teaching your second language, then both of you go into same prison cell together.”  

Dr. Van Ness did not really do that and does not recommend it, but he thinks that is about being exposed to the language. The best way is as much as possible to expose yourself to that language. 

His life in China, almost ten years, was a good example. He was only the English speaker and all the others around him were Chinese speakers. He had to learn their language and their culture to survive. At MAS, seminarians do not have much chance that way, but they can help each other to learn other languages with humility and grace. The most important thing to do is to practice as much as possible on yourself when you get the new ways. 

Dr. Van Ness chose to go to China for English teaching as a volunteer because he loves serving and teaching: “I had been given so much, God blessed me in so many ways that it is good to try to give back something to people.”  He also speaks Chinese Sign Language for deaf people.

For those who need help, Dr. Van Ness is developing some ways to help the students according to his teaching experiments at PCC, in China, and at Mount Angel Seminary. He said, “I am developing more skills and more ideas about how we teach, especially intonation and rhythm.”

To get better experience, he is teaching the Capstone Seminar, and he is the English Standards reader for all of the capstones, the final project for college-four students before they graduate. He is helping seminarians to develop their good thesis statements, presentations and to clearly pronounce and present arguments. 

Dr. Van Ness was born in New Jersey and grew up there until he studied for his master’s degree. His parents took care of five kids, three boys and two girls. After he finished studying business in college, he worked for the Hilton Corporation for a year. He realized that this job was not for him.  He decided to obtain a master’s degree of education. Then, it happened as one his college professors once foretold, “One day you are going to be a teacher.” 

While teaching middle school, he had a chance to go to China as a volunteer for summer break. He likes helping others, so he was happy to train English teachers who worked in poor areas. With this good experience, he worked in China almost ten years, and he got an MA and prepared for a Ph.D in intercultural education. Due to his mom’s illness, he felt it was the time to go back to America. He came back and settled in Oregon.

Br. Lorenzo Conocido, OSB, who is a student in the pronunciation class, said, “Dr. Mark Van Ness always treats his students with dignity, respectful of our diverse cultural background. It’s amazing how he can keep a professional composure even in the most laughable situations that happen whenever we’re having language drills!”

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