Blending Creative Projects and Classroom Lessons: Professor Tells Stories from Rust Belt Region

Tara L. Conley, an interdisciplinary scholar and media maker, brings an innovative teaching approach to her role as Assistant Professor at Kent State University, seamlessly integrating her previous and ongoing projects and research into her classrooms. 

Since coming to Kent State in 2022, Conley has leveraged her real-world experiences to help students better understand the concepts in courses such as "Media, Power and Culture" and "Race, Gender, Class and Dis/ability in Media Industries," extending the learning beyond the classroom.

"The most powerful thing a teacher can do is model and show what they’ve done and what they’re doing," said Conley. "It gives students a sense of what’s possible, but also allows them to see that this is very important to me."

Originally from Elyria, Ohio, Conley pursued her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Texas before obtaining her doctorate at Columbia University in New York. 

During her twelve years in New York, she also worked as a research director at the Race Forward Center for Racial Justice. This experience strengthened her passion for amplifying the voices and stories of marginalized communities, especially in her hometown, prompting her return to Ohio, where she began teaching at Kent State Media and Journalism in 2022. 

“Focusing on my hometown and in particular spaces in the Rust Belt region of Ohio might not appeal to mass audiences, but I think it’s important and where I need to be right now,” said Conley. “In this chapter of my scholarly life, I’m more concerned about doing work that fills me up.” 

Tara Conley instructs workshop
Kathryn Davis, Digital Content Manager, Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Stanford University 

Currently, Conley is focusing on crafting a full-length documentary titled "DRY BONES," which centers around the narrative of Ike Maxwell, a legendary Black high school football player from Elyria, and other Black Elyrians in history. 

Maxwell, who broke multiple athletic records in the 1970s at Elyria High School, faced personal tragedies, including the death of his younger brother by police in 1975. Conley first learned of Ike’s story through her mother. After reading a New York Times article that did not adequately address the community’s accountability, she decided to create the documentary. 

"I didn’t feel that should be the final say for his story," said Conley. "I think there’s so many different elements to that story that need to be told." 

Beyond "DRY BONES," Conley has spearheaded projects such as Hashtag Feminism, which curates and archives feminist discourse by tracking Twitter hashtags. She also produced "Brackish," a documentary exploring life in New Orleans post-hurricane Katrina. She is also the founder of Media Make Change, a media production and consulting company established in 2009. Additionally, she received the 2021-2022 Stanford Race and Technology Practitioner Fellowship that allowed her to create, in collaboration with young students, RUBY: A Digital Toolkit For Racial Justice Advocacy in Education in response to San Diego Schools halting some aspects of their ethnic and multicultural curriculum.

“I think storytelling is the greatest tool that we as human beings have, and I’ve always believed that storytelling, in any form, can lead to transformative change,” said Conley.

Tara Conley instructs workshop
Kathryn Davis, Digital Content Manager, Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Stanford University 

Conley brings lessons from these projects into her classes, including Race, Gender, Class and Dis/Ability in Media Industries, which she is teaching this semester.

“It’s amazing to learn from someone so smart and interested, who clearly loves what they do and who clearly has a passion for students and helping us understand the concepts,” said Audrey Trevarthan, '26, a journalism student in that class.

Throughout her various projects and academic journey, she remained committed to teaching, recognizing the reciprocal relationship between her teaching and research. 

"Teaching informs my work in my practice, in the field, and my creative work as well," said Conley. "I’m always grateful to be in the classroom because it always generates new ideas, and I’m constantly learning from my students." 

Conley aspires for her work to make a meaningful impact on the communities closest to her heart. She hopes students learn the value of talking to each other across communities, generations, racial lines, class lines and beyond. 

"Whenever I leave this Earth, I want to know that I left a story behind that will, even if it’s just one person or more than one, inspire them to tell their own story or tell a story they’ve always wanted to tell," said Conley. 

POSTED: Wednesday, April 3, 2024 02:00 PM
Updated: Tuesday, April 9, 2024 02:20 PM
Eve Krejci, '24
Kathryn Davis, Digital Content Manager, Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Stanford University