Vassar College

The Accidental Professor

Stephen R. Rock
Professor of Political Science
April 25, 2012

Thank you, President Hill, for that very generous introduction. Members of the Vassar Community, guests, and especially the class of 2012, it is an honor to be here today. It is a particular pleasure for me because in the audience are my wife Jenny, my son Andrew, Vassar class of 2013, and my daughter Julia, who was admitted to Vassar this spring, but has decided to take her talents elsewhere. Jules: I still love ya.

For me, this spring marks the end of a quarter century of teaching at Vassar. To be honest, I’m having a little trouble coming to grips with the passing of time. As the late Irish comedian Dave Allen once said: “I still think of myself as I was 25 years ago. Then I look in a mirror and see an old bastard, and I realise it's me.” Getting older, as they say, beats the alternative. But otherwise, as nearly as I can tell, there is only a single good thing about it: It allows one to look back on one's life with a sense of perspective that was lacking in one's younger days.

As I look back on my professional life, I am struck by one thing in particular. This is the fact that my becoming a student of international politics and teaching at an institution of higher education – at Vassar, specifically – appears to have been in large part the result of a rather long sequence of seemingly random events. You might call me “the accidental professor.” I am not, by the way, certain that this is what I would call myself. Some of the events that helped bring me to this place seem to me in retrospect to have been so improbable that they have led me to wonder whether or not I am somehow supposed to be here – whether or not I was, if you will, destined to be here. I confess that I have sometimes felt that I was, and that as a person of faith I have been inclined to see the hand of God in the path that I have traveled.

I realize that this is not the sort of declaration one necessarily expects to hear from a member of the Vassar faculty, especially in a convocation address, although it cannot have escaped your notice that you are currently seated in a chapel. So perhaps I should explain. I do not mean to suggest that my professional life – or any other aspect of my life, for that matter -- has been determined entirely, or perhaps even mainly, by divine providence. Without a doubt, my own decisions, my own efforts, and simple luck – good and bad -- have played their parts. What I mean is that at points in my life, certain doors have been closed to me, while others have been opened, in some cases quite unexpectedly and for reasons utterly beyond my control. As a result, the direction of my life has been fundamentally – and positively -- altered. And I do not attribute that to chance. This is, of course, my interpretation of my life, at this particular time, with the benefit of considerable hindsight. You may interpret your own life differently from the way I interpret mine. You may, in the future, interpret it differently from the way in which you interpret it now. Philosophers and theologians have debated the existence or non-existence of God, as well as questions of free will, chance, and destiny, for centuries. I do not propose to resolve these issues here, this afternoon. I ask only that you keep them in mind as I tell my story.

It’s the tale of how a small-town boy from the Midwest whose main ambition was to play high school basketball managed to find his calling as a teacher and scholar. It would doubtless be a better story if I had been orphaned shortly after birth and raised by a pack of wolves. I did enter the world in a U.S. Army hospital in Frankfurt, West Germany – does that count as an exotic birthplace? Otherwise, however, my upbringing was fairly conventional. Like the late, beloved Vassar Professor of English, Ann Imbrie, I grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, a university town in a sea of cornfields and conservatism that stretched from horizon to horizon. My father was a professor of European diplomatic history. My mother, following my graduation from high school, became a biology teacher and later served as the director of the gifted program in the local school district. My brother earned a teaching certificate in secondary education and my sister a certificate in music education.

It might seem, then, that teaching was in my blood. Perhaps it was. Yet, until my junior year in college I had no intention of becoming an academic. Indeed, during my formative years, I was not a fan of “organized education.” That is to say, I hated school. It wasn’t that I hated learning. I loved that. As a young child, I was fascinated by how things worked. According to my parents, whenever I was presented with a new toy, my first question was invariably, “Come ‘part? Come ‘part?” Almost always, it did come apart. Whether or not it could be put back together again was, of course, another matter. Many of my toys had tragically short lives.

I was, in my youth, an avid reader. What, you ask, did I read? The answer is practically everything I could get my hands on, but I preferred non-fiction. My favorite books were encyclopedias. For those of you who have grown up in the age of Wikipedia, I must explain that encyclopedias used to come in sets of 20 to 30 volumes and were sometimes sold by traveling salesmen. In any event, I found them irresistible, and by the time I was twelve or so I had read the entire Collier’s Encyclopedia and the Golden Treasury of Knowledge from cover to cover. I am unsure if I should be proud of this accomplishment or embarrassed by it.

In my younger days, my other great passion was sports. Yes, I was both geek and jock. You name it, I played it: baseball, football, hockey, soccer. My favorite, though, was basketball. I wanted to be a basketball player. In fact, I was going to call this talk, “A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the NBA.” When I was in seventh grade, I made the school team. From that point on, my ambition was to play in high school. For two years, things were looking pretty good. In ninth grade, however, a truly unfortunate thing happened. I stopped growing. Like every other disaster that befell me during my adolescence, it was . . . well, whose fault do you think it was? That’s right: my parents’. As a result of their genetic inadequacy, on a bleak, cold, November day in the fall of my sophomore year, I was the last person cut from the JV team. My dreams were crushed. I had wanted to be Jerry West or Oscar Robertson. Alas, I wasn’t even Bob Brigham or Chris Roellke.

In retrospect, being cut from the high school basketball team was one of the best things that ever happened to me. For it was really this that set in motion the train of events that brought me to Vassar. Having been thwarted in one sport, I cast about for another. I took up tennis. Because the tennis coach was also the debate coach, I joined the debate team. The topics that we debated my junior and senior years in high school involved matters of politics and public policy. If I recall correctly, the first concerned the process by which presidential and vice-presidential candidates are selected in the United States, while the second concerned health care reform. This says something, I fear, about how far (or how little) this country has come in the last 40 years. Largely because of my experience in debate, I decided, upon entering college, to major in Political Science with a view toward becoming – yes, I admit it -- a lawyer.

I did my undergraduate work at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. And, as I have mentioned, it was sometime during my junior year that I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in higher education. I don’t remember the date, but I do remember the occasion quite distinctly. I was sitting in a class on Soviet Politics taught by my favorite professor, a man named Dan Jacobs. Now, Professor Jacobs’s wardrobe was severely limited. Each class session, he would appear in identical attire: a tan, corduroy leisure suit, a light blue shirt with a button-down collar, and a bow tie. I have no idea whether or not it was the same suit, shirt, and tie every time. If I had visited his home, I would have attempted to sneak a look at his closet, but that opportunity never presented itself. Although Professor Jacobs wasn’t a fashion plate, he was an outstanding teacher. I loved being in his class. It was obvious that he loved it, too. Suddenly, I knew: This was what I wanted to do.

The road from there to here was relatively straight, but not without a few bumps. I applied to graduate school at a number of institutions. One of these, which I shall call “the university that must not be named” – it’s located on the north bank of the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. – sent me a rejection letter that said, “We regret that our interests and yours do not coincide at this time.” Well, that was their opinion. Happily, I ended up at Cornell, which turned out to be exactly the right place for me. But even there, I had moments of doubt. I walked out of my first seminar in graduate school knowing with absolute certainty two things: One, my undergraduate education had been woefully deficient; and, two, every other student in the class was smarter than I. My confidence was not enhanced when one of my instructors, a now former president of the American Political Science Association with whom I had the great misfortune to take two courses during my first semester, wrote on one of my papers: “This is a solid essay, but it lacks imagination and originality. Since this is my impression of your work in general, we should talk.”

That was discouraging, but being either pig-headed or delusional – and quite possibly both – I decided to forge ahead. Luckily, the next semester, I took a course called Theories of International Relations. I had long been interested in IR, and my father, as I’ve said, was a historian of European diplomacy. A Freudian could have a field day: “First-born son desperately seeks father’s approval by following in his footsteps, while simultaneously trying to escape from his shadow by entering a different discipline.” But I think that my father’s influence occurred mainly through the books that occupied the shelves in his home office. These consisted of memoirs, biographies, and histories chronicling the failed attempts of Great Britain and France to appease Nazi Germany during the 1930s. After exhausting our encyclopedias and certain literary classics, such as Great Quarterbacks of the NFL and Garry Grayson’s Winning Touchdown, I naturally turned to these.

So when I enrolled in the course on Theories of International Relations as a graduate student I was predisposed to like it. In fact, I loved it, and this clinched my decision to make International Politics the area of Political Science in which I would specialize. I was particularly interested in the causes of war, but there existed a huge literature on this subject, while almost nothing had been written on the causes of peace. This may have been because, as Thomas Hardy once quipped, “War makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading.” I hoped to prove Hardy wrong, and with my adviser’s encouragement, I decided to write my dissertation, which later became my first book, on the causes of great power reconciliation. It was entitled, Why Peace Breaks Out.

Since my arrival at Vassar, I have continued to study (and to teach on) issues of war and peace. It’s sometimes frustrating, even depressing. Human beings continue to kill one another in organized combat. Still, there is reason for optimism. Within the developed world, no major war has been fought since 1945. So-called “zones of peace” also exist in other areas of the globe. Steven Pinker recently published a fascinating – though somewhat controversial – book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which contends that not just war, but violence of all types has been steadily decreasing over time. I do not claim that the academic study of war and peace is primarily responsible for the decreased incidence of international war in the last half-century or so, and I certainly do not claim that anything I have written or taught is responsible. But it seems to me undeniable that the more we understand war – both its causes and its horrors – the better equipped we and future generations will be to prevent it. And the more we understand peace – its causes and its benefits – the better equipped we and future generations will be to achieve it. This is, in large part, why I do what I do.

But back to my story. After finishing graduate school, a year of teaching at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, and a year on a post-doctoral fellowship at that not-to-be-named institution in Cambridge, Mass., I was fortunate enough to be offered a position here. I do not use the word, “fortunate,” lightly. Indeed, as I have said, I regard my presence at Vassar as being providential. You see: I did not apply for a job here. My wife and I loved Boston, and she had a job in a peace research institute that she liked enormously, so we hoped to remain there for least another year. As it turned out, however, unbeknownst to me and utterly without my approval, the placement secretary in the Department of Government at Cornell had sent my file to Vassar. Thus it was that one day in early 1987, I received a call from Peter Stillman, chair of the Department of Political Science, inquiring, with understandable confusion, whether or not I was actually interested in interviewing. In fact, I was only moderately interested.

Nevertheless, a couple of weeks later I found myself on this very campus. I thought the interview went well; in retrospect, having seen many interviews during the past 25 years, I know that, in this particular case, I was delusional. Still, I had gotten a really good feeling about Vassar, and I thought that I would enjoy being here. Eventually, I received another phone call from Peter offering me the job. But now I was going to interview at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. Had I been offered that position, I would have accepted it. Wisconsin’s rejection was, without a doubt, a blessing in disguise. My interests and abilities were not nearly as well suited to a large research university as they were to Vassar, where the emphasis is on undergraduate teaching.

I imagine that the sequence of events that I have just described may seem to many of you to be matters of chance or luck. This is a plausible interpretation. It is not, however, mine. So many things had to happen, some of which I did not want to happen, in order for me to come to Vassar, that I cannot regard my presence here as being accidental. To be sure, my arrival in Poughkeepsie did not feel providential at the time. Having had dreams of Wisconsin dancing in my head, Vassar seemed like a consolation prize. Only gradually did I develop the sense that it was “meant to be,” as I realized how wonderful a fit Vassar was for me, how happy I was here, and how very close I had come to missing out on it.

My early days at Vassar were not without some difficulty. When I stepped into a classroom on this campus for the first time, I was clueless. I assigned too much reading. (Some people think I still do. They, of course, are wrong.) Insanely, I asked students to write three long essays on a 75-minute midterm exam. Having grown up and attended school in the Midwest, I was taken aback at what I perceived to be the aggressive challenging of my authority by East Coast students who had obviously not learned their manners.

Eventually, I adjusted. My senior colleagues in the Department of Political Science were a great help. From them I picked up many tips, perhaps the most important of which was that even the best instructors have bad days now and then. Much credit also goes to my students. Once I was no longer intimidated by them, I came to see them as partners in a common enterprise: their education -- as well as mine. One of the great joys of being a teacher is that one never ceases to be a learner. I learned a lot in my first several years at Vassar. My education was enhanced particularly by the presence, in a number of my courses, of a relatively small group of highly vocal students, who were thoughtful, articulate, and . . . conservative. Some of them have gone on to enjoy illustrious careers, for which I take no credit – and accept no blame. Since I did not see eye-to-eye with these students, engaging with them was a terrific educational experience. I was forced to deal with their arguments on the merits, rather than blithely dismissing them as “conservative,” “fascist,” or “Neanderthal.”

These students are now long gone, and to be honest, I miss them. Not because I agreed with them. I didn’t, and I still don’t. I miss them because they forced me to think through and justify my own convictions and because they contributed an element of diversity and vigor to classroom discussions and enhanced the intellectual climate on campus. For the most part, I feel very comfortable with what I would call the liberal orthodoxy of Vassar College. It largely reflects my own values and beliefs. Occasionally, however, I wonder if perhaps this place isn’t just a little too comfortable. It is not, as we often remind ourselves, the real world. In the real world, there are Republicans. They are not all as vacuous as Sarah Palin or as unprincipled as Mitt Romney. Sometimes – I am loath to admit it -- they have ideas that merit serious consideration. I love Vassar, and I have no desire to bite the hand that feeds me. But I have to say, that for all our emphasis on diversity, this is one way in which we are not very diverse, and may be even less diverse than we were a quarter of a century ago. I hope that the College’s efforts to attract military veterans, as well as the Mellon-funded initiative to support interactions among faculty and students from Vassar and West Point, will have the effect of increasing the level of political and ideological diversity on campus, which is crucial to providing our students with the best possible education.

This is not to suggest, of course, that I ceased to learn from my students with the departure of this conservative cohort. Indeed, the quality of Vassar students has steadily improved since my arrival. Those of you who are here today are, on average, considerably better than those of two decades ago. If I had a dollar for every time I have been in a classroom, or an office conversation, when you, or one of your predecessors, said something that caused me to see a new connection, rethink an old position, or simply to be amazed by your cleverness, I could probably retire. But I’m not sure that I’d want to, at least not yet. I’m having too much fun. And this is something else that makes me think that perhaps I am not the accidental professor, after all. When I was a child, I took apart my toys. Now I take apart arguments. Back then, I read encyclopedias. Today, I read students’ papers, journal articles, books, newspapers, and many other things in connection with both my teaching and my research. It’s really not so different, when you think about it.

And that’s my story. I think maybe there are supposed to be some lessons in it. To be honest, I believe that we learn more and better from our own experiences than we do from the experiences of others. But I don’t want to abdicate my responsibility. So, in closing, here are a few thoughts. Do with them what you will.

Life rarely proceeds in a linear fashion. It’s often full of bumps, twists, turns, dead ends, and blind alleys. These dead ends and blind alleys may force you to go in a direction different from that which you intended. Take it from me: Not everyone can be LeBron James. But this may, in the long run, be a blessing in disguise. As two of my favorite philosophers have written, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” Be open to changing direction. At the same time, don’t give up too quickly or too easily. It is sometimes hard to discern the difference between a dead end and a detour. So, if you have a passion, pursue it doggedly and with determination, despite obstacles and discouragement, until it becomes clear that the goal is unattainable, until you become convinced that attaining it is not worth the cost, or, of course, until you have attained it. Thomas Edison once remarked that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Woody Allen said that half of life is just showing up. Members of the class of 2012, this is my advice to you: Sweat a lot, and keep showing up. Thank you.

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