When Naoko Masuda returned to the role of student after many years, embarking on a Master of Education graduate program through the University of Lethbridge in 2017, she initially wondered if she had made the right decision. “I really thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’” she says. “It was like drinking from a fire hose.”
Naoko, whose university training wasn’t in the education field, found the heavily theoretical studies, with their unfamiliar terminology, overwhelming at first. After getting to know her classmates, Naoko, who teaches Communication and Information Design at the Alberta University of Arts in Calgary, discovered she wasn’t alone in her feelings and found support among her cohorts.
The initial tsunami calmed into a mere stormy sea, and now, after a long and challenging voyage she successfully defended her thesis in May. In spite of the challenges, she says it has been one of the most fun experiences she has had as a student.
Naoko was born in Japan and moved to Calgary with her family when she was four. Except for a year in Toronto when she attended York University, she has lived in Calgary most of her life. After obtaining degrees in economics and psychology, she planned to pursue medical school before a detour led her in a different direction.
Naoko, who feels “like my educational life has been a succession of lucky accidents,” says:
I took a design course just for fun and something different to do. I fell in love and immediately abandoned any thoughts of medical school.”
Such a move seems to be in keeping with a kind of “Renaissance woman” approach to life, where she enjoys a wide variety of interests. “I just kind of go with the flow and if I find something interesting, I stop and hang out there for a while.”
Her down-time interests include baking and cooking (making risotto is a favourite because it affords a respite from having to think) as well as listening to music, primarily classical and jazz.
While Naoko enjoyed graphic design work and client partnerships, she “always wanted to pay forward what my teachers and mentors did for me. They opened up new ways of seeing the world and being in the world through design and learning. One of those mentors asked me if I wanted to teach, and I accidentally fell into teaching at the post secondary level about a dozen years ago.”
In addition to her position as an assistant professor, she has been the director of the School of Communication Design since August 2021.
A few years into her teaching career, she began to question the way graphic design and other forms of communication design were being taught along traditional lines. Fuelled by a desire to better serve her students and the field at large, she followed the advice of a colleague and applied to the Faculty of Education Curriculum and Assessment program. Her thesis focused on a hermeneutic inquiry into the lived experience of design educators.
In Naoko's view, educators need to be able to relate to students who “are products of a very different society,” which has in part to do with rapidly changing technology that is constantly altering the communication design field as well.
“It’s hard to keep up. You can’t really teach to technology specifically because it’s changing so much. We have to teach so people can teach themselves as technology changes and so they can become more adaptable and be able to thrive and understand themselves and one another as more than what is mediated through technology.”
Her goal in taking the master’s program is to become a better educator, and she has already been able to incorporate some aspects of what she has learned into teaching her own students.
I want to be able to relate to students better as individual human beings. I would like to make design education a little bit more caring about the people in it.”
Relating to people is really the foundation of communication design, in Naoko’s view, whether the result is a brochure, a sign, a map or some other design form. “I can create an experience that somebody else can use,” she says. “I’m able to share something with another person or possibly many other people. Fundamentally, it comes down to relationships and a responsibility to those relationships.”
Naoko’s studies have been a mix of online learning and classroom time which consisted of three-week intensives on the U of L campus for three straight summers. Due to the pandemic, juggling her graduate studies with her work at the Alberta University of the Arts has been more challenging. With her thesis defence behind her the long voyage to her master's degree is at an end, and she looks forward to a well-earned break ... before she embarks on whatever comes along next to interest her.
Writer: Dave Sulz | Photo courtesy of Naoko Masuda
Becoming a Teacher series:
• Taylor Burke (BEd '14, MA '22)
• Karl Hanson (BEd '22)
• Vivianna Lee (BSc/BEd '22)
• Jenn Biglin (BEd '22)
• Brad Aldridge (BSc '18, BEd '21)
• Sara Bieniada (BMgt/BEd ‘21)
• Ashley Hoisington (BA/BEd ‘21)
• Dominique Point du Jour (BEd '21)
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