This blog is part of the TESOL Research Professional Council (RPC) Blog series.
One of the aims of TESOL’s Research Professional Council, as indicated in the TESOL Research Agenda, is to support the efforts of those new to conducting research. This blog post explores why stories are so important to sound research and how new researchers can communicate their project stories.
Understanding Research Through Storied Approaches
The impetus for this blog post stems from my frustration as a university student with a strong focus on linguistics. I remember grappling with seemingly impenetrable texts within the formulaic structure of journal articles. As someone who grew up on narratives of all types, I struggled to understand, and even more so to relate, to the content of most of what I read. The genre felt unnatural, and the style of writing unappealing.
What helped me develop as a student and teacher-researcher was following the work of authors who relied upon storied approaches to conveying ideas. I highly valued research that employed narrative and found that I am not alone; a quick search online provides an abundance of short articles and blog posts advancing the notion that the most influential researchers are essentially storytellers (Livni, 2016) and that science is unable to exist without telling stories (Enfield, 2018).
There is also an emerging body of empirical work on this topic. In one study, Hillier, Kelly, and Klinger (2016) found that articles on climate change were cited more frequently when they featured narrative elements. The authors suggested that narrative style may have an impact on uptake and engagement from readers. For me, it was through storied experience that I was able to maintain my attention and, subsequently, became more knowledgeable in my area. Over time, reading traditional texts within the academic formula became easier as I established a sound knowledge base. Through early encounters with narrative, I unlocked a wide range of texts and processed them more easily.
Balancing Narrative and Rigor: Four Key Elements
At a recent panel at the University of Sydney titled “Is Storytelling Bad for Science?” (University of Sydney, 2018), pros and cons of storytelling were debated. Notably, supporters of this approach argued that narratives engage and appeal to our natural mechanisms of understanding and memory. Opponents contended that in its purest sense, research is not storytelling, and storytelling may not provide necessary information that prepares people for conducting research. So how then do we merge these perspectives?
To those new to conducting research, I recommend embracing the narrative of your project and storying your findings in a way that appeals to readers while also adhering to technical rigor. A balance of technicality and narrative can be achieved in various ways. Following, I highlight four elements that I feel are key:
- Position yourself within the article and acknowledge your role in the research; do this while writing in the first person.
- Give readers as much information as possible about the context and participants. If feasible, provide details that illustrate where the research took place and who was involved while respecting confidentiality.
- Link findings back to contextual aspects and issues, reminding readers of why certain findings are important.
- Make use of opportunities to include supplementary material both through publishers’ outlets and on other platforms, such as personal self-archiving/sharing services, blogs, and professional websites. While academic journals have strict word limits, supplementary outlets provide additional space to tell a project’s story, which contributes to awareness and uptake of key findings and implications.
In a future post in the RPC blog series, I will introduce TESOL’s Research Stories Project as an exciting new endeavor from the RPC to afford an outlet for early-career researchers to share personal narratives stemming from their empirical explorations.
Enfield, N. (2018, July 20). Our job as scientists is to find the truth. But we must also be storytellers. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/20/our-job-as-scientists-is-to-find-the-truth-but-we-must-also-be-storytellers
Hillier, A., Kelly, R., & Klinger, T. (2016). Narrative style influences citation frequency in climate change science. PLoS ONE, 11(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0167983
Livni, E. (2016, December 29). Storytellers make the most influential scientific researchers. Quartz. https://qz.com/873889/storytellers-make-the-most-influential-scientific-researchers/
University of Sydney. (2018, July 31). Is storytelling bad for science? Sydney Ideas. https://sydney.edu.au/engage/events-sponsorships/sydney-ideas/2018/is-storytelling-bad-for-science.html