Picture an office flooded with volumes by Gandhi, Einstein, Lao Tzu, Hitler, and Plato, all losing pages from being read, and walls decked in photographs of the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and Marx.
Welcome to Barnard Political Science Professor Dennis Dalton’s office. Dalton, a scholar of nonviolence, has been teaching Political Theory I and II to generations of students since his arrival at Barnard in 1969. Most remarkable about Dalton is the way his teaching reflects and shapes his own life.
“One should strive to find not merely what we call a job ... but seek a calling,” Dalton said.
Although Dalton plans to retire from Barnard after this year, his role as a leader and educator is far from its nadir. He hopes to teach a modified version of Political Theory to high school classes and spend time with his grandchildren in St. Croix. He said he eventually hopes to teach kindergarten there.
After studying at Rutgers, the University of Chicago, and the University of London, where he found himself in a course with Aung Sang Su Khi, Myanmar’s elected president now under house arrest, Dalton found what he describes as his dream job at Barnard. Dalton received tenure after only two years. “People ask me over and again why I’ve been teaching the same class from 1969,” Dalton said. “The feedback I get from the students makes it impossible to get bored.”
“He’s changed my whole course of life,” Idris Leppla, BC ’08, said. “At the heart of his teaching is a mission of empathy, of compassion, of understanding.”
As someone who has seen Barnard evolve over several decades, Dalton said his main concerns are that the students stay connected with each other and the community, that all discourse be civil, and that the administration meet frequently with students.
“We’re here for the students. You’re interacting with a group of people and depend upon them for the quality of the class. It’s not just me talking to an empty room,” he said.
Despite Dalton’s mastery of the subject matter, he makes it a top priority to be accessible—by putting his home address, home phone number, and e-mail address on the cover page of course packets. “The best teachers are high school teachers because ... they’ve got accessibility plus command of the subject, and they don’t have this pretentiousness.” In his classes, Dalton will regularly allow students to enroll in his classes after they have been capped. Dalton also once said he had thought that a professor must don a tuxedo to get tenure.
Dalton has also been known to be a little more relaxed about his midterm than some of his colleagues. “I present the midterm as an opportunity to show me your knowledge of the class, but also to emphasize that I’m with you and not against you. I’m trying to work in a cooperative way—therefore, we have maximum discussion of what will be coming up in a precise way to maximize the performance and to decrease anxiety.”
Leppla, an office assistant in Barnard’s Political Science department, said she has been looking through course catalogues from the 1970s, which have descriptions of professors. “They said his speaking voice was soft, but he was always endearing and rated high,” Leppla said. “As the years went by, his delivery has gotten more precise. He’s at the top of his game now in lecturing.”
Dalton also extends himself beyond the classroom. In response to sexual violence, Dalton organized Columbia Men Against Violence, the male counterpart to Take Back the Night. After a series of suicides in 2000, including one of his students, Dalton organized Students Against Silence, a support group for students. “When I spoke about it ... there were students in the class who were sobbing,” Dalton said.
Commitment to these groups stems from devotion to civility. “The noose incident is only the tip of the iceberg. ... Our duty is to be civil to one another, to act and set an example in our leadership of civility.”
“You can see in his facial expressions he’s always questioning what is right, what is just, like Plato,” Leppla said.
During one of his sabbaticals, Dalton went to Nepal on a Senior Fulbright Scholarship to teach kindergarten. “Their minds are like sponges. When I look into their eyes, wide eyes, it’s the essence of teaching,” Dalton said.
Joy Resmovits can be reached at email@example.com.