The professor effortlessly navigates the sidewalks crisscrossing campus, his guide cane tapping along the paths he has walked for the past 33 years.
From his house that sits adjacent to Trinity’s campus, he walks the short distance to the classroom building, contemplating how he will most effectively teach history today while resting in the pleasure of this daily walk and the contentment he finds in anticipating his destination.
Dr. Robert Rice, who was honored with the inaugural Professor of the Year award at Trinity’s May Commencement ceremony, acutely feels the weight of his responsibility as a professor despite his many years of experience. He has high expectations of himself, sometimes demanding perfection while simultaneously experiencing moments of doubt.
“I impose perfection for myself but not for others, but perfection can immobilize. I’m responsible but not sovereign,” he said, adding, “except two times a year when I make my syllabi.”
Born with some sight in one eye, Rice said that through God’s grace and the support of his family, he quickly accepted the eventual and complete loss of his sight at the age of 15. “Most people who have lost their sight hold on to the loss, but when you get stuck with loss, it shapes how you deal with people,” said Rice. “I gave it up before I lost it. Blindness is a significant part of my life, but it is only one strand of brokenness in God’s good world.”
Rice teaches mainly European and global history and notes that the curriculum is difficult and requires a great deal of reading, critiquing, and “taking on the hard stuff.” For Rice, some of the hard stuff involves Christianity in the classroom. “Christianity can’t be an ‘add on,’” he said. “It can be hard work to integrate faith into the curriculum, but it is imperative to do so.”
So he and his students look at how culture responds to God’s call and in turn gain an understanding of culture and Christian faithfulness. These were also lessons Rice began learning at a very young age, along with a heightened awareness of the world outside his home.
Rice’s father was a veteran, and family vacations centered around culture, with visits to museums and fortifications. “My parents had an infectious interest in global affairs and a sense of past and present, and they were hopeful people.”
He recalls that at age five, he watched his first TV program when his parents gathered their children together to witness an important event, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. All these experiences opened his mind early. “I grew up with a sense of global interest, an awareness of the world beyond my home and neighborhood.”
At the age of only six, Rice’s neighborhood became the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia, 75 miles away from the family he loved. The experience of leaving home was traumatic, but he felt fortunate to return home each weekend and every summer, an impossibility for many of the school’s children.
Rice believes that living at the school all the way through high school graduation in 1965 helped him to “look outside self.” He said, “I learned early to listen and to develop greater empathy toward others.”
That empathy was especially felt for those who were disconnected or distant from their homes and those who were marginalized in society.
So the boy who, at 12, announced to his seventh grade science teacher one afternoon that he planned to teach history held on to that pronouncement with the same conviction that the world was an expansive and enthralling place that he was called to care for, learn from, and one day teach others about.
Rice went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Houghton College in New York and his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Illinois in Urbana. Throughout his college education, he carried his early experiences with him. And those most important lessons he carries with him still...and into the classroom.
The connection with his students and with Trinity runs deep. Rice believes in caring for “the whole person” and “treasures” advising students, preferring to refer to those who are undecided as “still deciding.” He and his wife, Gail, served as resident directors at Trinity for over six years, and their former campus apartment has long been occupied by department offices and a classroom in Groot Hall. (Gail, the longest-running volunteer tutor in the PACE program at Cook County Jail—33 years—used to accompany groups of student volunteers to the jail.) Rice has also served on various committees to encourage diversity on campus, and this year was a recipient of the Catherine Yonker Award for those efforts.
Being chosen as Professor of the Year was uplifting, affirming, and very surprising, especially with so many deserving faculty, said Rice.
At the end of the day, the professor who has saved every student evaluation since 1979 walks through his Trinity “neighborhood” to his home, reflecting on the day’s classes. “These are the things I could do better” or “This went well,” he thinks. He knows awards are lovely but that life is about so much more; he knows that the world stretches far beyond the well-worn paths we see before us.
Thoughts from the Trinity community
Dr. Liz Rudenga, provost
“Bob is an amazing, talented professor whose characteristic commitment to teaching and scholarship has been remarkable over his 33 years of service. His voice is one that is valued and respected, for colleagues know that Bob thinks carefully and enters into conversations with wisdom. Bob exemplifies the Trinity professor – he cares about students and their learning, challenges them in their vocational calling, and knows and explains well the interweaving of faith and learning.”
Dr. Michael Vander Weele ’73, professor of English
“In a family or a church or a college it takes more than one person to create a welcoming space, that is, a space that people can go out from in their own orbits and also return again and again to be together. Both the going out and the return are part of their identity. We know, perhaps better than Bob does, what an important stake he has had in holding such [spaces] up, whether through warm humor…or through principled thought and action, or through affection. I think that was affirmed in his receiving Trinity’s first ever Professor of the Year award this last year.”
Dr. John Fry, professor of history
“Bob is the most approachable professor that I know. He knows European history inside and out, and he knows how to communicate his passion for the subject to students. Bob’s teaching is centered on a Christian perspective on history.”
Dr. Mackenzi Huyser ’98, dean for faculty development and academic programs
“I find Bob to be an incredibly caring colleague. He seeks opportunities to honor colleagues for their work. He is knowledgeable about the work of each and always has an encouraging word about this work. He shares this encouragement in phone calls/voicemails and on the sidewalk. Bob is also always willing to help out with any task that is needed. From meeting with and advising undeclared students to chairing significant committees. He is always willing to serve.”
Joy Meyer ’78, assistant professor of education
“I find Bob Rice to be a man of integrity, inquiry, knowledge, and peace. He always has a kind word of encouragement. Students who have had him in class are in awe of his knowledge and appreciate his pedagogical style. In the class he is affirming, yet challenging. I know Bob is a man of God and serves him in many ways on campus and in church. He has been a powerful influence on the ethnic diversity committee. I enjoy Bob and congratulate him for this award.”