The University of San Diego recently announced five 2010-11 recipients for a University Professorship, the highest academic honor bestowed university-wide and given in recognition of outstanding scholarly achievement in teaching and research. This is one in a series of Inside USD articles about the honorees.
It doesn’t take long for a student in Del Dickson’s political science or law-related courses to understand exactly what they’re in for.
“I am the hard teacher,” the 54-year-old professor admits. “I don’t want them to come in the first day of class and think I’m their buddy. I make sure the students know they’re here to learn. It might make for an awkward first two months, but once they know, everything gets easier.”
Students who’ve taken his class quickly learn to be prepared because his classes are not so much lecture driven as “focused discussions.”
“I assume they’ve done the reading and they’ve thought about it. I ask them questions and I don’t rely on volunteers. They know they have to do the work,” he said.
The end result, often, is praise. By the end of the semester, many students are known to tell others that Dickson is one of their favorite professors. “I love it when I read students’ comments and they’ll say they got their money’s worth. It makes me feel good.”
Dickson, a political science and international relations professor at USD since 1987, was recently rewarded for his commitment to academic excellence as one of five USD professors selected for a 2010-11 University Professorship.
“I love USD. I love my colleagues in my department. I love our students. They’re friendly, they’re nice, respectful and they’re interested in what’s being taught. I’ve always felt connected to this place.”
Dickson, who grew up in the mountain town of Lake Arrowhead, Calif., is from a family of teachers. His parents — now retired — brother, sister and sister-in-law, have all taught. Dickson recalled that once, his parents advised him to consider a different line of work. They feared a decline in a quality education system might lead to frustration, but their warning proved to be a motivating tool.
Dickson, who has a bachelor’s degree from Humboldt State, a law degree from UCLA and a master’s and Ph.D. from USC, has made it his business to keep USD on course. “Part of our job as teachers is to see that USD stays on the right path and doesn’t get distracted. We have this great thing and we want to keep what we have going. I believe USD, more than other schools I know of, has been good about staying on the mission.”
Away from the classroom, Dickson works with an Intersession political science program in Washington D.C., served on the faculty’s Rank and Tenure Committee and USD’s Student Disciplinary Board, has been his department’s chair on multiple occasions, a pre-law advisor and a freshman preceptor professor and is an expert on the Supreme Court, its court cases, law and democracy.
He wrote a book, 2001’s The Supreme Court in Conference, 1940-85, and has published several articles about the the court. He considers the late Earl Warren to be the most influential Supreme Court justice. “He is the model of a chief justice, a leader of nine equals. He presided on a court that changed the country. Subsequent judges followed him and used him as an example on what to do as a leader. People said he was a lousy lawyer, but a good judge. His classic question in an oral argument would be ‘That’s all well and good, but is it fair?’ He thought law should be fair. I loved that about him.”
During Dickson’s sabbatical this spring, he’s working on a new book focused on law and democracy. He knows students believe in democracy, but his book “gives them alternative views and all the ways to view a democracy and all the shapes it can take. I want them to think systematically.”
— Ryan T. Blystone