The Power of Stories, Part 1: Researchers as Storytellers

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:

  1. Position yourself within the article and acknowledge your role in the research; do this while writing in the first person.
  2. 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.
  3. Link findings back to contextual aspects and issues, reminding readers of why certain findings are important.
  4. 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.

References

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

About Nathan Thomas

Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas is a postgraduate researcher at the UCL Institute of Education. He is mainly interested in learning strategies, self-/other-regulation, and English medium instruction. His work has been published in leading academic journals such as Applied Linguistics, Applied Linguistics Review, ELT Journal, Language Teaching, System, and TESOL Quarterly. Prior to moving to the United Kingdom, he taught in China and Thailand for more than 10 years and considers this practical experience crucial for guiding his scholarly work.
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4 Responses to
The Power of Stories, Part 1: Researchers as Storytellers

  1. Jessie Curtis Jessie Curtis says:

    This post is a great way to get us all thinking about our academic and research journeys. I have a personal story that involves my working-class background and entering academic life, but in this reply I would like to focus on research. As a researcher I felt uncomfortable with the binary positionalities of “researcher” and the “researched.” My path to resolving this tension across languages and cultures, has been to involve participants in the research, for instance, by creating opportunities to discuss issues raised in interviews. I hope this comment is helpful to new researchers and I would like to thank Nathan for opening up this discussion.

    • Nathan Thomas Nathan Thomas says:

      Thanks for continuing this discussion, Jessie. I agree. Bringing participants in to the research is great practice.

  2. Ching-Ching Lin says:

    I find Nathan Thomas’s blog piece titled “The Power of Stories, Part 1: Researchers as Storytellers” resonating in the era of digital instruction, which has made humanizing research (and pedagogy as well) all the more pertinent. As a formerly English Language Learner and currently non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST), I shared a similar struggle with finding an entry into academic discourse communities, finding the “view from nowhere” prevalent in the dominant academic discourse intimidating and alienating. In my years of graduate studies in philosophy and education, as a way to overcome frustration from reading papers written in a style that was overtly impersonal and objective, I tended to gravitate toward authors such as Gloria Anzaldua, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, etc. whose works prioritized personal experience as a way of “getting a hand on” academic writing that is often too challenging to read for readers who haven’t been exposed to a broad variety of academic genres. Their narrative approach to academic writing helped me find my ways navigating through the multifarious terrain of the higher education classroom in the United States. Hence, echoing Thomas, storied approaches to research can provide “epistemic access” for learners from marginalized groups who often lack the required skills and knowledge base to go through the “peeling the onion” process of decoding scientific discourse.

    I also concurred with Thomas that there is a need to combat a still entrenched view of storytelling as a degenerative form of scientific discourse. This view of storytelling failed to give due considerations to the complex socio-historical contexts informing scientific research, which essentially involves a process of reconciling and reducing multiplicity, dynamism and creativity into a coherent form. Hence, any form of writing, academic or non-academic, is essentially an art of storytelling. As a researcher, our job is to expose the pretense of universalism surrounding previous research through our own work. Storytelling, in its capacity to allow freedom and imagination, can be leveraged as a tool for meaning making as we engage in the endeavors of restoring the socio-historical contexts for conducting and writing research so that research work can emerge as voices and insights into the complexity of human experiences.

    I deeply appreciate Thomas’ timely and worthy contribution to this topic and look forward to furthering this conversation within the TESOL community and beyond.

    Ching-Ching Lin

    • Nathan Thomas Nathan Thomas says:

      Wow! Thank you so much for your kind words, Ching-Ching. I really enjoyed reading about your experience and your interpretation of the ideas I presented.

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