The passion Leslie Cochrane ’05 has for teaching was evident even before she knew it would be her life’s work.
As a William & Mary undergrad, Cochrane enlisted the help of a close friend to discuss her post-grad options. A walk the length of the Sunken Garden revealed her career trajectory.
During that walk, the two talked about Cochrane’s interests and options, and her friend made an observation that helped point her in the right direction.
“She said, ‘Do you notice no matter what you say you might want to do, the verb is always the same? The verb is always teach. That’s what you want to do,’” Cochrane said.
“Then she said, ‘What do you want to teach?’ And without even hesitating, I said ‘linguistics.’ She said, ‘Well, for that you’re going to need a graduate degree.’ In just that short walk, I went from being really stressed out about my future to deciding to go to graduate school to teach linguistics.”
Cochrane, a senior lecturer of English and linguistics at W&M, has come full circle. Once a William & Mary student wondering about her professional future, she is now a beloved teacher at the university.
That is why she was especially honored to win W&M’s 2020 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award. The honor is given annually to a younger member of the faculty who has demonstrated “through concern as a teacher and through character and influence, the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson.”
The award will be presented at a public ceremony for the Jefferson Awards and Monroe Prize on Jan. 29 at 4 p.m. in Miller Hall’s Brinkley Commons as part of the university’s Charter Day festivities. The 2020 Plumeri Faculty Award recipients will also be announced at that event.
“Being a student at William & Mary was a life-changing experience for me,” Cochrane said. “It set me on my life path of wanting to teach and of wanting to teach linguistics. So teaching linguistics at William & Mary is pretty much my dream job. When I came back here to teach, I was really focused on trying to give to my students some of what was given to me at William & Mary.”
Cochrane’s impact on the university and her students is evident in her dedication to her craft, the innovations she brings to her courses, the time she sacrifices outside of the classroom and the care she shows for her students, according to recommendation letters.
“Professor Cochrane’s passion for linguistics and kind heart made her a mentor throughout my college experience and after, and I know that she will be a lifelong friend,” one former student wrote. “Her constant dedication to her students and her subject makes her extremely deserving of the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award.”
Another former student wrote, “Professor Cochrane does not simply produce linguistically informed students; she inspires W&M students to become socially active, culturally sensitive adults.”
In her seventh year at William & Mary, Cochrane continues to find methods to balance her time as a teacher, researcher and advisor to maximize her impact on her students.
Her current class schedule includes the introductory Study of Language course, mid-level Language and Culture and capstone College (COLL) Curriculum 400 Sociolinguistics Field Methods.
For many years, she taught a one-credit course that prepared a group of students to attend the Georgetown University Round Table (GURT), an annual linguistics conference at Georgetown University. That class has since been modified into an extra-curricular program Cochrane still leads, taking a group of students to the conference in the spring semester.
Cochrane, whose commitment to curricular innovation and collaboration is evident in her work as a Center for Liberal Arts Fellow, has also worked on honors and master’s thesis committees and has served as an honors thesis advisor, among many other advisory roles.
She has had four articles and two book chapters published and has presented at conferences 16 times.
“Professor Cochrane is an outstanding educator who has expanded the linguistics curriculum in important and innovative ways. … She is an outstanding teacher, mentor and advisor, and I can think of no one more deserving of the Jefferson Teaching Award,” wrote English Department Chair Suzanne Raitt.
Through the lens of language
Cochrane grew up in Northern Virginia knowing William & Mary was the place she wanted to be. Her original inspiration to attend the historic university came from a glossy photo of the Wren Building in her fourth-grade history textbook.
“My teacher included the founding of William & Mary with the Royal Charter as part of our fourth grade history of Virginia lesson, and I was so excited about the idea of a place that had that much history and that was old enough that it predated the country,” Cochrane said.
On her tour of William & Mary’s campus as a prospective student, Cochrane sat in on the Study of Language course taught by Professor of English Ann Reed, who would go on to win the 2012 Thomas Jefferson Award. It was a revelatory experience.
“She happened to be doing her sociolinguistics unit that day, so my first introduction into sociolinguistics and the discipline was during my college tour,” Cochrane said.
Cochrane took the Study of Language course her first semester on campus. That introductory class kick-started a process of discovery and exploration of new ideas for Cochrane. She became aware of the diversity of language and the amount of discrimination that occurs because of language.
“It changed the way I thought about language and about the world,” Cochrane said. “I found out that a lot of the things I had taken for granted about how language works were not based in fact. That was very eye-opening for me: to find that something I had experienced all my life, and even been taught about in school, might be different than I had thought.”
“So when I teach Study of Language and linguistics in general, I'm trying to give my students a little bit of that experience of looking at something that seems so familiar, and then taking a step back, and realizing that there's a lot more to it than you might have originally thought.”
Cochrane joined the William & Mary faculty in 2013 and co-taught Study of Language with Reed that first year.
She continues to teach that course and has recently taught courses such as Language and Gender, History of the English Language and Discourse Analysis.
“She is very sensitive to the wide range of experiences that students bring with them, many of which may not be obvious,” wrote Anya Lunden, director of the linguistics program. “She sets up her classes to give students the tools they need to become aware of the often-problematic ways in which people in marginalized communities are viewed. She does this through the lens of language, which is a powerful vehicle for recognizing the roles of prejudice and privilege as it often encodes unexamined cultural assumptions.”
Cochrane is passionate about teaching, but not simply about the repetition of facts. She wants to create an interactive setting for students to make their own discoveries.
“Language is changing, people are changing, the world is changing, so there is a constant learning process,” Cochrane said. “That’s one of the benefits of a William & Mary education and a liberal arts education — we’re learning to think, to encounter the world and to be compassionate more than we’re learning any particular set of facts. We’re learning how to be people in the world, and that’s the key part of education.”