The whole question of what our brains are doing, what we have to know in order to communicate — all of that just snagged me.
Award-winning cognitive psychologist and linguist J. Kathryn “Kay” Bock '69 has for decades investigated how language, our brains and our behavior intersect. It is a working relationship few notice — even though ordering and articulating thoughts into words requires more skill and uses more varied muscles than an Olympic athletic performance, she says.
Bucknell was the “keystone” of her career, Bock says. She entered in 1964, a self-conscious “hick” from a tiny Appalachian “coal holler” in southwestern Pennsylvania. Tongue-tied and shy, she was terrified of being called upon in class but eventually learned to face down her fears.
She majored in Russian. Languages offered the possibility of navigating the world using “a completely different code,” and Russian, in the Cold War years, seemed exotic. Robert Beard P'90, professor emeritus of Russian studies and linguistics, pointed her to classes with Nicholas Rohrman, an early cognitive psychologist. “The whole question of what our brains are doing, what we have to know in order to communicate — all of that just snagged me,” Bock says. Inspired, she added a psychology major.
Bock earned a doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University of Illinois and taught at MIT, Cornell, Michigan State University and the University of Oregon before returning in 1991 to U of I. She earned wide recognition, including election in 2015 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her proudest achievement? Becoming fluent in Dutch during her long research association with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.
In 2014 she retired from the University of Illinois and psycholinguistics. She is enjoying the rhythm of this new life while “waiting” to see what beckons next.
“I turned out way better than I ever would have predicted,” she chuckles. “I'm still not very confident of myself. But I look at my work and say, ‘Not bad, Bock, not bad.'”