John Dizikes

dizikesSeveral factors inform what I do for a living, and in my writings readers might glean the influences of family, friends, and certainly my mentor Joel Tarr. Other influences may be less obvious. One is John Dizikes.

John Dizikes is a major reason why I do what I do. I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz determined to get a liberal-arts education, and over the next four years, that’s exactly what I did. Veering from English lit to politics to anthropology to history, with a smattering of stats, economics, bio, philosophy, music and other courses along the way, I received the breadth I hungered for while trying to figure out what the next step in my journey would be.

Taking two courses with Professor Dizikes helped determine that path. John’s joy at recounting and discussing the people and culture of American history was infectious.  Not only did he make me want to take history courses, he made me believe that teaching history was a fun and fulfilling way to spend one’s life.  Technically, neither of us have exactly done that with our lives. His home department was American Studies, and most of my teaching career has been in interdisciplinary social sciences/environmental studies. But the power of history to reveal ways in which humans have interacted with one another is something I got from taking his courses, and is something I try to convey to my students.

His encouragement was also infectious. The care and detail he brought to our course evaluations (this was back when UCSC had narrative evaluations rather than grades) gave us a vivid idea of what our strengths and weaknesses were. I am not unique in learning from his evaluations and shaping my work in ways that informed it into grad school and beyond.  Many professors gave fairly perfunctory narrative evaluations that read as if they had macros replacing “A” with “excellent,” “B” with “very good,” and so on. Professor Dizikes would write three or four full paragraphs describing what your papers in the course were about and evaluating your ability to write, present an argument, and be an effective communicator. He taught me how to evaluate students by evaluating me, and I use his example when I write recommendation letters to students. (It is a shame that the faculty at UCSC lost the commitment for this form of grading over time and it is now optional.)

He encouraged us to channel our enthusiasms into the classroom.  By the time I got to campus in the late 80s, he was focusing on the arts. Our subjects ranged from Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Steichen to Miles Davis. By the time I was in his seminar, I was working at KZSC, eventually becoming the record librarian because the position allowed me to learn about all the new records the station received. With his encouragement, I reviewed Charles Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog for class right as Gunther Schuller was mounting a performance of Mingus’s Epitaph. Hearing it for the first time as I read Mingus’s searing, tortured remembrances of his life gave me an appreciation for the man that has never left me. John Dizikes gave his students space to make that possible in a classroom setting.

My time at UCSC would have been unimaginable without John Dizikes, not only for the courses he taught, but the institution he built.  He was one of the founding faculty at UCSC, more than two decades before I stepped foot on campus. The university’s focus as the liberal-arts campus of the University of California system was a powerful incentive for me to attend, and he worked to ensure that focus on curiosity and breadth continued.  A few years after his 2001 retirement, he gave an interview on the subject:

“What concerns me is the fact that the overwhelming direction of the university is really much more toward preparing people for careers,” Dizikes explained. “That’s extremely important, but it must take a subordinate position to giving people a chance intellectually to challenge themselves. I will say to you, my sympathies are with the people who are up in the trees. It seems to me if they’ve got guts enough to go live up there — more power to them.”

I hope to have the same attitude if I make it to eighty.  Thanks again, John.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s