University Presents Awards for Excellence in Teaching and Research

Two faculty members and a graduate assistant from the MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences were honored for excellence in teaching and research at the annual MSU Awards Convocation held Feb. 5 at the University Club in Lansing.

Kjerstin Thorson, associate professor of advertising and public relations and the School of Journalism, and Courtney Venker, professor of communicative sciences and disorders, were among six faculty university-wide receiving a 2020 Teacher-Scholar Award. The award is given to early-career faculty who have earned the respect of students and colleagues for their devotion to and skills in teaching, and whose instruction is linked to and informed by their research and creative activities.

Doctoral student Clare Grall in the Department of Communication was one of six graduate teaching assistants honored with an Excellence-in-Teaching Citation. The award is granted to teaching assistants who have distinguished themselves by the skill and care they show in meeting their classroom responsibilities.

“I am delighted for Kjerstin, Courtney and Clare, who are great ambassadors of our college,” said Dean Prabu David. “They are truly deserving of this award.”

Kjerstin Thorson: Challenge-Taker

Kjerstin Thorson has not veered from challenging teaching assignments from the moment she stepped onto the MSU campus. Within moments of her appointment to ComArtSci, she developed a successful suite of digital analytics courses that continue to grow in popularity among students.

Thorson is known for her research at the intersection of social media and political communication. Her current research projects investigate inequalities in the use of digital media for political purposes and the role of digital platforms and algorithms in reinforcing these inequalities. She said her teaching has transformed her research and inspired her to explore the politics of digital data in new ways.

“I love the challenge of finding ways to bring my research on political communication and social media into the classroom,” remarked Thorson. “My students and recent alums are engaging with cutting-edge practices related to digital data.”

Thorson brings the real world to the classroom by having student teams work with small nonprofits as clients. Teams analyze the nonprofit’s digital footprint and create data stories that help clients improve their online effectiveness. Thorson has also introduced Data Day, which brings digital analytics professionals to campus to network with students and introduce them to career paths.

She is also known for building collaborative research teams at MSU. In one of her projects, an interdisciplinary collaboration with communication and political science faculty, researchers investigated obstacles to student voting and created messages to motivate MSU students to vote, noticeably increasing MSU student voter turnout.

A prolific and internationally recognized researcher, Thorson has presented her research at universities across the United States in and Europe.

“There is a remarkable tradition at Michigan State of involving students at all levels in faculty research,” said Thorson. “I’ve learned a ton from my students; their experiences inspire my research in so many ways. I have become a much better teacher since I’ve been at MSU because of the generosity of my colleagues who have shared their rich classroom experiences with me. I’m proud to be among the list of amazing faculty who have won this award.”

Courtney Venker: Mentor and Pioneer

Courtney Venker has established herself as an exceptional teacher, highly engaged mentor and outstanding scholar.

Venker is deeply committed to her students, and combines her scholarly expertise with innovative teaching practices that motivate students to excel. A certified speech-language pathologist, Venker appreciates the challenging clinical situations that her students will face and integrates her scholarly expertise with the practical needs of the clinical environment.

“My teaching and mentoring activities focus on future speech-language pathologists, and helping them develop the critical thinking skills required for effective clinical practice,” she said. “I am so thankful for the support I have received from others in the MSU community. I cannot imagine a more supportive environment to be part of.”

Venker received an Early Career Research Award from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health.

Her current research explores language development in children with autism spectrum disorder, with an emphasis on how these children integrate audio and visual information to learn the meanings of words. In addition, Venker’s published tutorial and pioneering work on the use of eye-tracking to understand language acquisition in children with neurodevelopmental disorders is anticipated to have lasting impact on future research.

Along with colleagues, Venker proposed a novel theory called auditory-visual misalignment that may help explain why language delays occur in children with autism. The groundbreaking work integrates findings across multiple labs and pushes the field toward a deeper understanding of communication challenges in children with autism.

“Receiving the Teacher Scholar Award has inspired me to continue evaluating and adapting my teaching practices to best support my students,” said Venker. “Striving to be a reflective and responsive teacher and mentor takes time, but I can think of no goal more worthy of that time.”

Clare Grall: Classroom Innovator

As a doctoral student, Clare Grall’s approach to teaching is rooted in her passion for partnering with students to determine how they can transfer what they learned in her classroom to their daily lives and careers. Trust and respect are her top priorities as she builds an intellectually challenging learning environment that thrives through warmth and inclusion.

Given that her research focuses on how to engage audiences when messages matter most, it’s no surprise that her teaching style is typically described as “engaging.” Over the last four years, many students cite Grall’s teaching and mentorship as a dominant influence in their decision to pursue graduate education.

“Because my students were willing to engage with me in class and share their stories, I got a glimpse of how our life experiences shape our education, which has a huge influence on future success and happiness,” Grall said. “It’s never an even playing field when students walk into class the first day. One student might have taken a similar class in high school, one student might come from a poorly funded school district, and another student might not have been in a classroom in 20 years. It’s on me as their teacher to listen and educate myself on how to help them reach their goals.”

Grall’s ability to engage her students in course content arises from her use of innovative classroom techniques. Working with a senior faculty member, Grall re-envisioned a former lecture-only class into one that featured short lectures, small group discussions and brief question-and-answer sessions. During that process, she discovered that the traditional theater-style classroom prevented student movement, which interfered with their vision. Grall helped reorganize the presentation style so the class’s four teachers moved around the classroom, naturally dividing it into small groups for discussions and Q&A sessions.

As a scholar, Grall actively forges an interdisciplinary line of research at the intersection of communication and neuroscience. Her work champions the use of neuroimaging to study media messages, particularly the social and emotional effects of narratives. Her research has been published in outlets such as Journal of Communication and Journal of Media Psychology, and her neuroimaging work has won consecutive top paper awards from the International Communication Association since 2017.

“Not many graduate students get the opportunity to grow as teachers and experience that part of their scholarly identity to the extent we do in the Department of Communication,” Grall said. “I assist with and lead courses, including small classes and large lectures. I consider myself very lucky.”