August 26, 2022

Passion, presence and legendary course notes: Math department remembers Professor Bill Cohn

When asked about William Cohn, his colleagues universally smile and remember his sense of humor and an unmatched passion for teaching. Cohn, who died in July, was a staple within Wayne State University’s math department and had served as a professor for more than 40 years. Cohn won a University Teaching Award, published numerous papers and previously served as department chair. He also taught in the honors-level Emerging Scholars Program (ESP), which provides comprehensive, community-based support for calculus and pre-calculus students — particularly those from underrepresented groups — to help them excel in math.

“To me, he was easily one of the greatest teachers Wayne State has ever had the privilege of having,” said Steve Kahn, professor of mathematics and director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics, “And on top of that, he was an amazingly wonderful person.”

Professor Cohn (in green shirt) with Christopher Nazelli, associate professor of teaching and director of curriculum and instruction for the Center for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics, with a group of math students. 

A passionate teacher

Kahn remembers Cohn as an amazing technician, with the best course notes that were frequently sought after by others within the department. Other colleagues, some of whom are former ESP students, also point to Cohn as an exemplary educator.

“The way that he planned his lectures — even for classes he taught often — was remarkable. Any time you’d walk by that office, he’d be sitting at his desk writing notes,” said Richard Pineau, associate professor of teaching in mathematics and vice chair of WSU’s Academy of Teachers, who first met Cohn as a freshman in Calculus 2 in 2004. “He was always looking at pedagogy and found ways to take the extremely complicated discipline of analysis and break it down.”

Marisa Henderson, mathematics academic advisor and ESP student support coordinator, also first met Cohn in Calculus 2 and went on to serve as his undergraduate assistant for the course. “His was the first math class I had where it just clicked. I hated math all through high school, and then I got to Professor Cohn’s class. I came to not only understand math, but to love it. He was the kind of teacher who wanted you to see the bigger picture and really understand the process. With him, it was never ‘here’s the formula’ and go.”

Anne Graziana, associate professor of teaching in mathematics, said that she met Cohn as a pre-med student who was nervous about taking calculus. She also served as an undergraduate assistant for the course, which she now teaches.

“He was an excellent teacher, who explained concepts clearly and often made calculus seem simple,” Graziana said. “I truly enjoyed learning and working with my classmates in the workshop component of the program, and my success and enjoyment in studying calculus with Dr. Cohn made me consider pursuing a mathematics degree.”

Pineau, Henderson and Graziana all recalled feeling intimidated by the class but were put at ease by Cohn’s approach.

“He was the first full professor I had, and Calculus 2 had a reputation for being the most difficult,” said Pineau. “He totally changed how I thought about what it meant to be a ‘professor.’ Because of his ability to break down the subject and all of the supports built into ESP, that course I was intimidated by was one of the easiest.” 

Kahn, who now serves as director of ESP, said it was a “gift” to have Cohn teach in the program, which is known for having high expectations and fostering deep connections.

“Every semester, you just knew the students were going to get something special,” he said. “He was a sure thing.”

A memorable personality

Although considered by many of his colleagues to be an introvert, Cohn’s presence and personality delighted those who got to know him. From drawings on the board and debates about the merits of small talk to math puns with ‘infinite’ punchlines, Cohn was known to have a dry, smart sense of humor that colleagues and students alike found endearing. He routinely let the door of his classroom slam against his back upon entering a lecture and occasionally dressed his overhead projector in a hat and coat during the winter months.

“He may have come off kind of gruff sometimes, but he had a heart of gold and he truly cared about others, and it showed. His students saw that in him, and they loved his sense of humor,” said Kahn. “He did everything in his own way — it’s a special combination to be able to both teach and entertain.”

In keeping with his deep concern for others, Cohn committed to finding ways to connect and having conversations.

“Early in the class, he’d be handing back quizzes, and he’d just stand and stare at you for a minute,” said Pineau. “It felt like this kind of silly, weird thing at the time, but he wanted to know every student’s name and face.”

Students would regularly connect with Cohn on his various hobbies. He loved comic books, philosophy, reading and exercise, among other interests.

“Just about anyone could find something that they had in common with him,” said Henderson. “He was this brilliant math professor, but he was also a jokester and he really just wanted people to have fun.”

An enduring legacy

Generations of students benefitted from Cohn’s passion and commitment. His classroom served as a bridge for countless students who would enter college somewhat rusty in math but then go on to have successful careers in engineering, teaching, nursing and more.

“For many, mathematics is the wall. He helped hundreds, maybe thousands, of people over the years,” said Kahn. “Everyone who ever sat in his classroom benefitted from the experience. He was a sure thing, and you knew he was going to help the students succeed every time.” 

Cohn’s legacy also includes his significant influence on others’ teaching and commitment to supporting students.

Pineau, who now incorporates Cohn’s somewhat infamous “whatever that means” lecture phrasing into his own classes, said that his success as an instructor can be attributed to his students, and to all of the teachers who helped shape him.

“I think back to my undergraduate days and wonder how Dr. Cohn made calculus look so easy and accessible,” said Graziana. “I regret not taking the opportunity to ask him and try to learn some of his methods. He was a masterful teacher.”

Henderson said her experience with Cohn was transformative and resulted in her choice to pursue a career in supporting mathematics students.

“He gave his heart and soul to helping students find out they were good at math, and that they could enjoy it,” she said. “I knew what it felt like as a student to get that kind of support — and now I get to help others do the same.” 

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