Remembering Kenneth E. Bock

Note:  Word was circulated yesterday from Berkeley’s sociology department of the passing of Ken Bock on August 9, 2014.  He died at his home in Grass Valley. 

Wheeler Hall

Wheeler Hall

Everybody, I hope, especially remembers at least one teacher for the deep and lasting impact he or she had. Mine was Ken Bock. I first encountered Prof. Bock soon after transferring, as a Junior, to Berkeley in February, 1963. He led the sociology honors program in 1964-1965 and I, a lowly and not very confident transfer student, was invited to join the honors seminar. All of us in the seminar, I recall, got special passes into the Doe Library’s stacks and keys to collective office space on the top floor of Wheeler. These were big, big bonuses for mere undergrads, and I vividly remember the rich sense satisfaction and pride associated with making use of either of these perks. The main text Bock used was Theodosius Dobzhansky’s then-recently published volume, Mankind Evolving: The Evolution of the Human Species. I also remember reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, but no longer recall which specific work or works. Truth be told, I had a very hard time making any sense out of the seminar’s fare. Bock’s quiet style of seminar management and the open-endedness of the medium left me struggling to figure out what I was supposed to be learning.

I have no trouble at all however remembering the critical comments Bock made on a number of the short commentaries we were assigned in the seminar. Bock was entirely straightforward in his responses to the weaknesses and immaturity in my writing. I, in turn, slowly learned important lessons from his comments. For instance, he made me aware of the overarching scholarly norms requiring plainspoken exposition and carefully crafted argument. Somehow, nobody had mentioned these to me before!  To this day, I’ve never known anyone who could identify the flaw in an argument’s construction as precisely as could Ken Bock.  He introduced me to other scholarly norms as well. I remember he once commented, more favorably this time, that my essay had used secondary sources when they were appropriate and primary sources when they were.  Until the moment of this comment I don’t think I was consciously aware there were scholarly norms and standards governing that sort of thing. Kind and gentle as Bock, the man, was, it was his sterner side that for the first time opened my eyes to what constituted acceptable scholarly exposition and argument. Incidentally, I belatedly submitted my honors thesis to him in 1965. Alas, he didn’t think much of it.  Even after all the effort we’d both spent on improving my prose, his penciled-in, sharply critical marginal comments let me know I still had a long way to go.

There was a lot going on in the University, in Berkeley, and in the nation in the mid- and late-1960s. Social change was furiously afoot.  Language norms, among others, were changing.  I remember Bock once commenting to me privately about how taken aback he was when, for the first time, during an office hour, a young, female undergrad spoke to him about being “pissed-off” about something. I left Berkeley, without a B.A., in the mid-‘60s and returned in 1970-1971, when the foreign language requirement was dropped. Somehow, I managed to slip into the graduate program, leaving with an M.A. in 1972.  Marriage, family, work, divorce, and my military experience in the U.S. Army Reserve filled my time over a long stretch. Then, in the early ‘80s, I re-enrolled in the graduate program, now determined to finish a Ph.D.  One of the bonuses of my new commitment was Bock’s graduate social theory class (Sociol. 201).  I was “the old guy” among the class’s students.  But absorbing Bock’s lectures in this class was fresh and wonderful.  It was a distinct pleasure, in fact, to hear him actually lecture, in part because of the frustration I remembered feeling in the honors seminar’s sessions, when he said so little.  One day, as class ended, a fellow student must have noticed the look of appreciation and even awe on my face as Bock’s lecture came to an end.  “Don’t you wish you could bottle this stuff,” he said to me as he passed by my chair-desk.

Bock formally retired at the end of that same academic year.  Some of us organized getting a big, decorated flatcake, with an inscription, along with paper plates and plastic forks, for after the class’s final lecture. The cake’s inscription read, “We Go Vico!” — for one of Bock’s favorites in the history of social thought, Giambattista Vico.  I remember sitting through the last twenty minutes of the class with the cake on my desk wondering if Bock would be kind enough to wind-up the lecture a little early, making more time for the little party. But,  true to form, Bock consumed the entire class period with his prepared remarks.  Yet, this was a laudable and memorable example of a teacher’s profound commitment to his duty and task, even right up to the last seconds of his last teaching hour. I turned in my term paper for this class with a little trepidation, remembering Bock’s unforgiving disposition in the then-deep past. Thus, what a pleasant surprise it was, a few days later, to see the paper returned with an “A+” grade and very positive remarks. I was already a 40-year-old man at this point, and yet Bock’s glowing evaluation of my humble paper remains one of the things I’m proudest of in my life.

By the mid-‘80s Bock’s and my relationship had taken on something of a more personal side. I remember exchanging stories with him on a few occasions. Once he told me a story about a well-known chemistry professor at Berkeley (maybe Hildebrand) in years past. Apparently this professor had served as an expert witness at an important trial.  During the trial’s course a lawyer asked him if he was “the world’s greatest expert” on the particular area of chemistry the case called into play.  The professor responded that yes, he was.  Sometime later, the professor was chided by colleagues at the Faculty Club bar about this response. “Well,” replied the chemistry professor, “I was under oath!” We also talked about substantive matters from time to time, including subjects Bock was currently working on.  These conversations touched on Bock’s interests in such topics as Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” and Christianity’s “Original Sin.”  I once got a good chuckle out of Ken by asking him why he spent so much time thinking about things that didn’t actually exist!  It was, as might be imagined, no little honor for me to be invited into those conversations with him.

Once again, years passed between when I was advanced to candidacy and the completion of my long-overdue, midlife dissertation. Bock was my dissertation committee’s chair. He patiently struggled over the chapters I gave him for review. Once he told me, ruefully, he was “eye-sore” from reading one of the work’s longer chapters. My dissertation’s subject matter was of little interest to him, but Bock’s commitment to maintaining high scholarly standards was no less strong on that account. If nothing else, at least my narrative was about one aspect of social change, a subject Bock had interested me in long before and certainly one of his own enduring scholarly preoccupations. I hammered away on the text in my chapters, trying one way or another to get them into presentable shape. By the time the dissertation was ready for filing, I gave Bock another look at its preface. The next day, I think it was, he responded that it was “beautiful.” I was so surprised and pleased I asked him to repeat it – and he did.  My thank-you to Professor Bock in the preface’s acknowledgment section read as follows:

Kenneth Bock, my dissertation committee’s chair, sparked my interest in social change a long time ago — when, as an undergraduate, I had the good fortune to enroll his 1964 seminar on that subject. My indebtedness to him, however, must be said to stretch considerably beyond. As scholar, teacher, and mentor, Professor Bock, more than anyone, has provided over the years my clearest image of the ideal of scholarship and the scholarly life. He has also played an all-important part in this dissertation–indeed, without him it would never have seen the light of day.

When my degree was finally granted, Bock presented me with the gift of a fine, cherrywood (I believe it is) reading stand.  It’s performed its very useful function on my desk ever since and sits near at hand on my left as a write this. I visited Ken once in Grass Valley, ten years ago or so.  I was en route from North Idaho, where I live now, to visit family and friends in the Bay Area.  His house was so orderly, spotlessly clean, and well-cared-for that I felt a little out of place. We had a good visit, but I remember having the impression that living alone was no picnic for Ken.  He’d buried his first wife, Margaret, and then, years later, his second wife, whose name I cannot now recall. I do remember him once, sometime after Margaret’s passing, remarking quietly that the arrival of his second wife saved his life.  I’ve emailed the department three or four times over the years asking if Ken Bock were still alive, but never got a reply. I guess in the back of my mind I assumed he’d passed away in one of the intervening years. So it came as something of a surprise — a melancholy surprise — when word was circulated of his death yesterday.  I know all of us must one day die. But somehow it would be better if an exception to this rule were made in the case of especially respected and loved scholars and teachers – for instance, Ken. Even today, and as I write this at over age 70, I sense how much whatever critical capacity I may have for evaluating argument I owe, from so long ago, to him.

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