MAKING DIFFICULT CONCEPTS RELATABLE IS ALL IN A DAY’S WORK FOR POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR DEL DICKSON
Step into Professor Del Dickson’s office, and you immediately get a sense of what makes him happy. A bicycle balances on the wall behind his desk, accompanied by several signed, framed photographs of world-famous cyclists. Cluttering tabletops and shelf space — along with the requisite stack after stack of books — is an impressive collection of autographed baseballs, a testament to his years growing up in idyllic Lake Arrowhead, Calif., as a diehard fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But beyond the baseballs and bicycles, the warm smile and welcoming face, sits a very serious teacher. Dickson’s family tree is heavy with educators, and he’s devoted his career to living that legacy as passionately and purposefully as he can.
“What I want students to do, is learn how to learn,” he says. “And learn how to enjoy learning. To be excited by new ideas. To be excited by new things.”
By any measure, Dickson is succeeding. An award-winning legal scholar and writer, as well as a nationally recognized teacher, he’s been a professor at USD since 1987, focusing much of his attention on an introductory honors political science course and a handful of law-related undergraduate classes.
Often described as funny, kind and accessible, Dickson is also known for subjecting his students to a grueling academic pace. Remarkably, he also inspires a deep-seated sense of devotion and unwavering loyalty among them.
“I’ve never heard one bad thing about him,” enthuses Rachel Black, a 19-year-old sophomore who made it through Dickson’s introductory class last year, and subsequently chose to declare political science as her major, thanks to the deep impression that class made on her. “If you don’t know something, he’ll work with you and help you get the answer. He’s able to make certain things funny. He makes difficult concepts relatable.”
His impact spans generations. One former student, Professor Mike Williams — now chair of Dickson’s own Department of Political Science and International Relations — still describes him as one of only two great teachers in his life. The men first met in 1988, when Williams signed up for his introductory class. They became professional colleagues and close friends, with Dickson often guiding Williams along the academic route he chose to follow.
“He has an ability to make you think critically about material and make arguments in ways you didn’t know you could,” he says. “The students who take his class know they’re in for a tough time. But with that being said, it’s remarkable how his classes fill up.”
His secret? Dickson would tell you there isn’t one. He simply aims to engage each and every participant, and he does that by insisting they all be involved. His classes are ongoing discussions. Students know they need to be prepared, or risk having nothing to say when he calls on them. That requires a great deal of commitment on their part, but not a shred more than Dickson offers himself.
“I love my students,” he says simply. “I just feel very possessive and protective over them. We talk all the time and they know they can always come to me.” — Karen Gross