In Memoriam

John C. Pock [sociology 1955–98]

February 18, 2012, in Portland.

John Pock

A legendary professor who influenced generations of social scientists, John Pock died at the age of 86, having taught at Reed for 43 years.

A native of Chicago, John served in the U.S. Army as a combat infantryman and sergeant in the Philippine Islands during World War II. He returned to Chicago after the war and studied at three universities in the area, earning degrees from each: University of Chicago, Roosevelt University, and the University of Illinois. He and his wife, Helen, arrived at Reed in 1955, intending to spend just a single year at the college. “One of the reasons I stayed was that I encountered undergraduates who behaved like students in graduate seminars,” John said. “They asked all the right kinds of challenging ‘stupid’ questions and were more interested in actively producing their own education than in collecting the bookkeeping notations of ‘schooling.’”

John found the Reed conference method particularly conducive to his teaching style. “The conference is a conversation, so that the student does the work. I used to try to get ‘hold of someone who was adamant about something, and I would challenge them with some evidence they had ignored.” He was interested in students who were curious, ambitious, and intellectual risk takers. More than 70 of John’s students went on to earn doctoral degrees and to establish professional careers as sociologists. “There is no single undergraduate teacher that has had such an effect on the discipline,” said Neil Fligstein ’73. John’s students nominated him for the American Sociological Association’s Contributions to Teaching Award, which he won in 1982. At the 1995 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, a special session, “Contributions of Reed College to the Discipline of Sociology,” chaired by Mark Gould ’67 and David Grusky ’80, was presented in honor of John.

The first sociology reunion in 1996, organized by Ruth Leeds Love ’58 to celebrate John, culminated in the presentation of a Festschrift, Social Differentiation and Social Inequality: Essays in Honor of John C. Pock, edited by Jim Baron ’76, David Grusky ’80, and Don Treiman ’62. Reed reported that the 45 alumni who attended the reunion agreed that John’s “gruff exterior” masked a great compassion. His analytic understanding of society and insistence on empirical work fascinated and challenged his students, and his ambitions for them raised their own professional expectations. Bill Tudor ’65, now emeritus professor of sociology, who studied under John, added that it was rare for an undergraduate teacher to receive a Festschrift. It was John’s ability to connect with students and channel their energy to learn the tools that would help them understand the social construct of the world that attracted many students to the field of sociology.

Martina Morris ’80 remembered how John would challenge students and say “things that very few faculty members would have the temerity to say. You often learned things about yourself that, on the one hand, were very painful to learn, and on the other hand, allowed you to move past them.” Matthew Bergman ’86 remarked that John treated his students as graduate students. “There was no coddling involved. At the conclusion of my thesis-writing process, I foolishly asked John what he thought of it. He said it was ‘boring shit.’ John was right: it was. But that kind of unsparing honesty and intellectual integrity helped me—working through John—to develop additional academic work and get several articles published.” Richard Conviser ’65 noted: “It was in John Pock’s class that I first realized that as a scientist, I could select issues for study whose scientific answers would inform policy decisions.”

John taught courses and conducted research in general social science, social demography, stratification and class, organizational analysis, and quantitative methods in history. He was a visiting professor or lecturer at the University of Illinois, the Johns Hopkins University, University of California, Irvine, and the Naval War College. His professional associations included the American Sociological Association, the Pacific Sociological Association, the Population Association of America, the American Association for Public Opinion Research, and the Society for the History of Technology. He served as editor of Sociological Perspectives, the journal of the Pacific Sociological Association.

He also worked on program evaluation and organizational studies at Oregon State Hospital; Oregon Health Sciences University; the Office of Economic Opportunity’s VISTA, Community Action, and Model Cities projects; and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. He was a consultant in advertising, polling, and marketing research and on work organization and management issues for domestic and international companies engaged in heavy construction and metal fabrication. He delved into the methodological problems involved in the study of poverty and in measuring the consequences of welfare reform.

John championed public education and even ran for the Portland school board in 1966. He wrote about the role of education in offsetting social problems. Making a financial commitment to improve education would always be money well spent, he argued. “The quality and range of a person’s educational opportunities directly determine his lifetime income and our nation’s economic growth. You get what you pay for in any field of our economy. Education is no exception, and it is the best investment we can make.”

In “Some Comments on Academics,” John further addressed the challenges to education. “There can be no assurance that all or none of the students will utilize the opportunities available to them. No institutional structure or curriculum can guarantee anything more than the opportunity of choice. But one guarantee can be made: the pursuit of one path over the other will display the nature of individual conscience and personal integrity.”

In 1998, at the time of his official retirement from the college, John planned to submit a graduate course on the foundations of social science, to examine why social science developed rather than consider the issues social science examines. “I don’t intend to retire, whatever that means. I still have a lot of loose ends to take care of.” To the end of his days, he maintained a warm and visible presence on the college campus.

In 2007, John’s students established the John C. Pock named professorship, to be given to a faculty member with a specialty in innovative social science quantitative methodology and theoretically based empirical social research.