Tara Mesyn is a dual major doctoral candidate in Information & Media and Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education. For her dedication to student engagement and student success, as well as her efforts to humanize her courses and tailor them to individual student interests, she received the Honorable Mention for the 2022 Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) Excellence in Teaching award. The last time an MSU PhD student was honored was 10 years ago.
This very competitive award recognizes excellence in teaching and mentoring as a component of graduate education and the professional development graduate students for their work as faculty instructors. An award committee selects graduate students (one masters and one Ph.D.) who exemplify excellence in the teaching/learning mission of our universities. The MAGS award committee was very impressed with Tara’s work, especially with her “Teaching in Action” video.
The Graduate School interviewed Tara to celebrate her achievements and learn more about her experiences as an educator that has allowed her to create such an impactful learning environment for her students.
How were you nominated?
I was nominated by my advisor, the School of Journalism’s visual communicator extraordinaire Dr. Howard Bossen (Prof. B). After seeing a call for nominations in an email from the MSU Graduate School and speaking about it with Prof. B., we decided it was a good fit and a way to highlight my teaching experience thus far.
After a pre-nomination survey including some teaching materials from me, filled out by Prof. B, Dr. Baier emailed with encouragement to work toward a full nomination package to submit to the MSU MAGS Excellence in Teaching Award Ad Hoc committee, made up of three faculty members from departments across campus.
What work did you do to receive the award?
The School of Journalism has entrusted me to teach our students in five separate courses as the instructor of record over ten semesters, including the final year of my master’s program. They span the modality spectrum— asynchronous, hybrid, synchronous, in-person— and range from skills-based courses like CAS 111 Layout & Design, JRN 200 Writing & Reporting News, and my current course JRN 310 Photojournalism, to discussion-based courses like JRN 325 Journalism History and JRN 430 News Media Law & Ethics.
In an attempt to humanize my courses as much as possible and provide my students a voice, I ask them to fill out pre-course surveys so I can gain a sense for the actual humans with whom I will share my passions. I catch glimpses into their interests and hobbies, prior experience with education and content area, what they do and do not look forward to, what aids or deters their learning, and their dream gig after graduating. These surveys equip me to begin the course with them in mind.
As the semester swiftly passes, I try to get to know them on a deeper level and give them time and space to get to know one another and make connections. Mid-semester I also use surveys to gauge students’ feeling about the course, which helps guide more active and meaningful learning relevant to their lives and goals. Whenever fitting, they get to choose the content of their projects and are always welcome to introduce ideas that may seem outside of the assignment. My hope is that by offering students a comfortable spot to learn and grow, to continually push their creativity and test new ideas without fear of academic retribution, and a space to ask uncomfortable questions while still being held accountable, that they will thrive.
If I’m being honest, some semesters are better than others because teaching isn’t always blue skies full of white cotton candy clouds, sunshine, and unicorns galloping over rainbow bridges; there are moments of frustration, disappointment, and anguish. However, from every experience I take something away and use it to make myself a better educator. I’ve learned flexibility and compassion are just as key as preparation, so when I need to adjust on the fly, revisit my expectations, or admit to a “failed” experiment and pivot—I’m OK with that because I tried, not for me but for my students. And from those “failures” come more creative, effective, and humanizing approaches designed to enhance their understanding and experience, and hopefully less Ben Stein-esque ala Ferris Bueller’s Day Off type lecturing.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you encountered in your work?
Earning a Ph.D. in and of itself is, to say the least, challenging. Being a partner and parent adds another layer of excitement? Chaos? And I constantly find myself feeling pulled in multiple directions and experience a lot of guilt that my babies don’t get enough time and attention from me. It’s a challenge I choose, however, because I feel in my soul this is the path for me to contribute in a meaningful way to society.
What I have not chosen are the many chronic invisible illnesses that keep piling up as I move through my program. These added challenges are like a third full-time job where I pour time and energy into researching and advocating for myself. My illnesses are rare and unfamiliar to many medical professionals, so I often educate my health care providers. This experience led me to begin my self-documentary, “Clinically (in)Significant”. Chronic illnesses—for me—are an oxymoron.
Often debilitating and infuriating when I can’t do what I need and want to do, they also propel me from anguish to action so others don’t suffer for decades with no answers and doctors telling them it’s just stress, or it’s all in their head. This project allows me to use my experience and talents in visual communication to expand the conversation on chronic illness and disability—especially surrounding people who don’t visually fit society’s collective image of ill or disabled.
I take things one day at a time and have learned my path is mine alone. It is a unique journey full of twists, turns, and roadblocks, but I’m navigating and plowing through those obstacles at my own pace.
Why did you choose to pursue your educational path?
As a former high school teacher of a media studies course (along with history, journalism, and English), witnessing the growth of my students through the semester fascinated and energized me. They began the course thinking that the media (broadly defined) had zero impact on their lives, to realizing by the end it can influence their thoughts, beliefs, values, and perceptions of the world. That course was cut a few years ago.
Like the unmistakable crack of ice on a pond unable to bear any weight, my heart splintered when I heard that news. But then, I felt fire. Some of the time, the burn smolders, pushing not only my teaching but also my research. Other times, the smoldering embers burst into flames—like when I get to share and highlight the need for and lack of media and visual literacy education.
That inner burn, my love of learning, and a desire to work with students once again fueled my return to MSU and ComArts to earn my M.A. in journalism and rolled me right into my doctoral program in Information and Media (I&M).
My research, though focusing on visual communication and media, is almost always in the context of education. After two years in I&M and inspiring conversations with the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education (CITE) program director—my now fantastic CITE advisor Dr. Anne-Lise Halvorsen—a dual major with CITE became an official piece of my Ph.D. program puzzle. This piece is imperative in bringing my passions and worlds together to research about and advocate for media and visual literacy curriculum across all grade levels and content areas as a path toward more inclusive and social-justice oriented education.
What do you hope to do in the future?
In my dream world, I envision creating a bridge between journalism and education, and traditional and creative scholarship in the form of a transdisciplinary visual literacy research center. In this space, faculty, staff, and students from all departments and units work as a team, not only researching all things visual, but producing visual and creative scholarship as well.
Anyone on campus needing assistance in effectively and ethically utilizing and creating visual communication—be it for a department’s internal communications, a grad assistant wishing to incorporate more visuals into a course they are teaching, or a professor seeking photographs to illustrate contributions of marginalized communities historically missing from their content area—will happily work with the center. Of course, in this dream scenario, educational policy will begin to reflect the important research undertaken by the center, and media and visual literacy education will become a facet of every content area in every grade level across the globe…
Really though, there are so many possibilities! With my dual major in Information & Media and Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education there are many different paths I can potentially traverse and I’m not quite ready to stamp my passport for one destination just yet. I’m open to all the possibilities my experience and education afford me, but I know that teaching is so deeply embedded in my being, education is a must in some way, shape, or form.