Shortly before the end of the semester, I received a text from our soon-to-be Editor-In-Chief, Mack Liederman. His message appeared pretty mundane: His political science professor had missed class due to illness. For the Rockefeller Hall veteran Professor of Political Science Stephen Rock, however, it was his first time doing so at Vassar. For 32 years, Rock showed up for class to teach without missing a beat. That April day, his remarkable iron man streak ended.
The otherwise unceremonious occasion presented an opportunity to highlight one of the longest tenured faculty members at Vassar. During the first week of spring-term finals, he took time from a chaotic grading period to reflect on the dynamics of campus since he unassumingly began his remarkable streak, 32 years ago.
Streaks only occur where hard work and luck intersect. Professor Rock proved that before he began his Vassar career. To make his interview at Vassar, he drove through a New England snowstorm from Boston to Poughkeepsie. Years later, the long drive paid off: “I interviewed, was eventually offered the job, and I took it because I thought it would be a good place to be. It’s actually proven to be a fabulous place to be. I’ve really loved almost every minute of it.
The son of a history professor, Rock was raised in an academic atmosphere. But in college, his own professors demonstrated that teaching could be fruitful and fun. Speaking about his academic inspirations, Rock recounted, “I think it was really the example of my professors who not only were wonderful teachers but looked like they were having a great time while they were doing it.”
The impetus for our talk was his iron man streak and its quiet end. Although I joked to Professor Rock that his health wouldn’t be the sole subject of the whole interview, I just had to ask what his streak meant to him.
“So do you rank yourself among Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig?” I inquired. He laughed, “No no, I don’t think I have that type of iron man streak. Although I do feel very fortunate that I have been healthy. I’ve been sick plenty of times in the 32 years I’ve been at Vassar, but never too sick on a teaching day to teach. So when I’ve been sick its always been on holidays or weekends.” Despite his insistence that getting sick only on weekends and breaks was a stroke of luck, I can’t imagine many Vassar students—–some of whom forgo class due to so much as a sniffle—–boasting a similarly impressive attendance record.
Although Rock’s optimism and punctuality have remained consistent over the course of his sick-day-less tenure, Vassar has transformed quite a bit. “It’s hard for me to remember that far back,” he joked when I asked if campus has changed since his arrival in 1987. From his perspective, there are two main differences: “The campus wasn’t nearly as diverse as it is today, and I would say the students weren’t nearly as good on average as they are today.”
It was surprising to hear what Professor Rock said about his classes earlier in his tenure. “The range was wider. When I first got here I had students in class that actually had trouble writing sentences. I haven’t had students like that in a long time.” It’s hard to say whether Professor Rock means the students’ grammatical skills were subpar, or if the content of their writing was inferior to his standards. Nevertheless, the range in quality of writing has shrunk: “[T]he bottom has come up, but the top has stayed about the same,” he said.
Although some students today might take for granted that Vassar is a left-leaning campus, it was relatively different in the ’80s. “There was a fairly small but still somewhat sizable group of extremely vocal conservative students who were also very smart,” said Rock, who appreciated the varying viewpoints they brought. However, that is no longer the case. In fact, the Vassar College Republicans did not even receive VSA budgeting for the upcoming fiscal year. “We just don’t get a lot of them anymore. I think they self-select out.” He says their viewpoint aided class discussions, as “they forced students who were liberal to articulate their own views in response.” Vassar is not the only institution grappling with the trade-off of “having that kind of diversity and protecting people from things they should be protected from.” Professor Rock remains agnostic on the issue: “In terms of ideological diversity, I think campus is less diverse, which I’m not sure is a good thing.”
Since 1987, there have been four Republican presidents and two Democrats, as well as a score of political scandals and paradigm shifts: 9/11, subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lifting of restrictions on gay marriage, the election of the first Black president, the election of Donald Trump…I wondered if being a political science professor informs how Professor Rock sees politics in the context of Vassar.
Professor Rock said he pays attention to the climate of ideology on campus, but he doesn’t fixate on it. Like grades and classes, things tend to operate cyclically. Contentious moments arise, and some years are better than others.
Yet, it seems like this particular political moment is especially bewilding. Professor Rock sees the Trump administration and the greater picture as “sort of the last gasp of mostly white men, not college-educated, who are afraid of losing their status and power in a society that’s becoming less white and male.”
The veteran professor tries to make sense of the dynamic nature of politics through an appreciation of the liberal arts. I asked how important that philosophy is to understanding politics. It turned out to be essential to even more, according to Rock. “I think it’s important to understanding pretty much everything, including politics,” Rock said. “Take climate change for example. If you don’t have a background in economics and science as well as history and technology, you’re not going to be able to understand the issues.”
Professor Rock began his career in academia studying strategic diplomacy. But around 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War, he became interested in the relationship between religion and politics, in the context of U.S. foreign policy. When I asked if he was still inspired by his earlier interests or questions, he gave a surprising answer. “The great thing about being a faculty member is that you’re a perpetual student. You learn by doing your research, but you learn so much by teaching.”
Rock believes that students should study for knowledge, as opposed to grades. While wars and religious zealots may be scary to some Vassar students, it will ease their minds to know that Rock is the type of professor who doesn’t think grades are everything. “They were motivation for me and they’re certainly motivators for some students,” Rock reflected. “It’s kind of unfortunate that they are. It would be wonderful to have an institution where learning happens for the sake of learning.”
The professor also praised pupils’ astuteness: “Students express viewpoints that you’ve never heard before. They’ll ask you questions to which you don’t know the answer. It’s an extremely intellectually stimulating life. I’ve had some moments where I walked out of class and just said, ‘wow.’”
Being at Vassar so long, Professor Rock has seen many vital luminaries of campus (like himself), and there is one professor that he remembers with particular fondness. Bill Rumble was part of the political science department for the first decade or so of Professor Rock’s tenure, but he had been teaching since the ’60s. He earned the nickname “D+ Rumble” for being an old school, chalk-breaking, ruler-toting hard grader.
Rumble used the Socratic method in class, so he often put students on the spot. “The students loved it. They just loved it. He was one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. Kind of the conscience of the department, and even the conscience of the college in some ways. A man of absolute personal integrity,” Rock recalled. “He had a laugh you could hear from miles away. A great faculty member, a great colleague and a wonderful friend.”
As I packed up, full of wisdom and tales of Vassar old and new, I paused to inquire about a question that has been nagging me since before I ever got to campus.
“I have to ask you: Do you ever get the, ‘Hey, Vassar, that’s a women’s school right?’” He laughed. “I grew up in Ohio. There are still people in the Midwest who haven’t quite caught on to the fact that Vassar is co-ed, but it happens rarely.”
I’m sure it’s one of the easier questions that iron man Rock has fielded during his 32-year tenure, replete with transformation in politics and the student body, and learning from those that he himself inspired.