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Stories

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 During the Spring 2022 semester, I taught a graduate seminar called “Peculiar Genres of Academic Writing.” The proposal behind this class was that scholars in a wide range of fields are required — but are never taught — to produce forms of writing that extend well beyond the journal articles and monographs for which their seminar papers and dissertations train them. The most important and most overlooked genre may well be the narrative. Scholars are often called upon to tell the story of their work, whether in the statement that accompanies a tenure review portfolio or in the narrative that forms the heart of a grant proposal. These narratives at their most compelling focus not just on the what of the work — a dry recounting of the phases of a project or an enumeration of accomplishments — but on the why behind it. They explore the scholar’s larger goals, how they have been working or will work toward them, and most importantly their significance for the field, for the institution, for the larger society.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The need to tell these stories about the reasons for our work, both as part of internal academic and administrative processes and as a means of communicating with the world at large, and the importance of telling them well, points to the significance of narrative as a form of evidence that could be better marshaled in the process of institutional transformation. Finding humane, values-enacted ways of working in the academy asks us to shift our focus away from the metrics-reliant, outcome-oriented processes of enumerating and assessing the significance of the work we do. Those processes serve, in all too many cases, to discipline us and our colleagues into conformity with ostensibly objective standards that in fact privilege certain kinds of professional focus. Such disciplinary processes could be fruitfully replaced with formative, individuated, supportive modes of exploring our values, our goals, and our plans for achieving them. But if we’re going to implement such new modes of assessment, we need to get better at telling textured stories about our work in ways that compel understanding and engagement, as well as at reading those stories and gathering their significance.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Given the importance of personnel evaluations throughout the academy, this chapter circles around the ways that such stories might be used in the reviews we conduct of one another’s work. Developing our abilities to tell compelling stories about the work done in and around our institutions, however, has far-reaching potential. 

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 I imagine that some subset of readers who are situated in empirically oriented fields or positions might be a bit baffled by or dismissive of the idea of using something as mushy as “stories” as the basis for what ought to be a value-neutral process of evidence-based assessment of scholarly work. In fact, some of my colleagues in less-empirical fields may have similar concerns, accustomed as we all are to having in our heads some target figure for what constitutes “enough” work to ensure we make it through the next merit review or promotion process. Without a measurable idea of the height of the hurdle, many of us are prone to anxiety about whether we can clear it.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 Both the drive to be as specific as we can about requirements for raises, for tenure, and for promotion, and the drive to base those requirements around empirically demonstrable metrics, originate with the desire to ensure that the evaluation process is as impartial and objective as it can be. Such impartiality has to be imposed, it seems, in order to prevent bias from interfering with the process, whether that bias is based in race, gender, class, or other categories of structural oppression, or based in chauvinism among academic fields. It’s an entirely laudable goal. The question is whether the means we’ve created for achieving that elimination of bias are working. We want highly defined processes and metrics in order to protect us from a bad boss, a toxic department, a malevolent administration. But many of us can attest not only to the fact that those problematic people and structures still proliferate in the academy, but also to the ways that the processes and metrics as currently defined support them, providing the cover of “objectivity” for highly discriminatory outcomes and epistemic exclusions.1

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 So we keep trying to root out those discriminatory outcomes by making our criteria for assessment more objective, and in the process come increasingly to rely on numerical evidence, such as how many articles a scholar published, how many citations an article received, how many students an advisor served, and so on. We’ve even developed quantitative means of assessing “quality,” in which black-boxed formulas like “journal impact factor” allow us to rank things that ought to require qualitative, and of necessity subjective, judgment. The goal of all these attempts at objectivity is of course trying to remove that subjectivity and individual judgment from the process, when, as we heard earlier from Iris Marion Young, what we actually need is more subjectivity, more judgment, more politics. Our focus should be on opening up individual judgment, surfacing its biases, articulating its assumptions, and creating accountability for the values we bring to our work and the ways we do and don’t live up to them.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In order to do that — in order to create processes within our institutions that are political in Young’s sense, in which we bring our judgment to the table and engage everyone in collective evaluation and decision-making2 — we need more than just numbers. We need the story behind the numbers. Where numbers can direct our interest in ways that might lead to speculation, narrative can explain, compel, open up. Narrative can lead us to understand the significance of what’s happening and can help us communicate the importance of the ways we work. Narrative can bring both its writers and its readers into a deep consideration not just of what is happening, but of why it is happening, and of what it means for us as individuals and for our organizations as collectives.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Don’t get me wrong: narrative isn’t always a source of truth. Goodness knows humans tell themselves and others all kind of stories as means of rationalizing away poor decisions and bad behavior. Narrative, as any literature professor would readily agree, requires interpretation and analysis, and that work — which also requires subjective judgment — is properly part of the decision-making process as well.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 We already rely on narrative in crucial ways across academic work, even in the most empirical, quantitatively focused fields. Articles reporting on research in the bench sciences, for instance, are narratives of that work, exploring the presuppositions and questions that led to the research, the process of conducting it, the outcomes and the questions that remain. Numbers might be a key component of the evidence presented through those stories, but it’s the narrative that opens up their meaning.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 For this same reason, most personnel review processes do not simply rely on the candidate’s resume or c.v., or on any similarly abbreviated listing of or metrics regarding their work product, but also ask them to produce a narrative exploration of the goals behind the work, the ways that it proceeded, the challenges they faced, and the future directions that they are likely to take. The story ideally presses beyond a dry recounting of accomplishments to reveal a thought process at work. By centering the review process on that story, by foregrounding where the colleague under review is headed and why, the moment of review can turn into an ongoing conversation about goals and how they might be supported.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 The same is true of the assessment of that work by those responsible for evaluating it. Whether the assessment takes place in the course of a project (in the form of peer review of a grant proposal or of a publication) or in the course of a career (in promotion and tenure processes), reviewers are charged not solely with rating the work but with relating something of the story of the work’s potential or existing impact on the field, in order to help improve the project or colleagues’ changes of achieving those goals.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Again, none of this is to say that narratives are in and of themselves more trustworthy than numbers. Stories can mislead, they can deflect, they can delude. A highly compelling story might present no evidence of that story’s reality or of the teller’s follow-through. So the evidence presented in the telling of the story matters. However, that evidence needs to be part of the narrative, leading to its end goals. Too often, in our insatiable need for objective data, we wind up privileging numerical assessments of a candidate or a career — x number of grant dollars raised, y number of dissertations overseen, an h-index of z — rather than understanding those figures as steps along the way toward a more significant goal. Turning those numbers into narrative — focusing on the why of the grants, the publications, and so forth — presents enriched potential not only for the colleague being assessed but also for those doing the assessing: assessment can in this way become a form of constructive feedback, in which we help one another think through our purpose and shape the paths that lie before us.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Even more, telling the story of our work creates the potential for drawing larger audiences into that work and its significance. The process of writing a grant narrative, for instance, asks a specialist in an advanced sub-field to tell the story of the work they intend to do in a way that compels the interest not just of other specialists, but of generalists in the broader field as well. That ability to get others invested in our work, to help them understand why what we do matters, is key to ensuring their support for it. Telling that story is a skill that can support more successful grant applications, more successful project proposals, and a host of other scenarios in which one needs to lead others to understand our goals. But it’s a skill that needs to be developed, and it’s not generally one for which scholars receive professional training.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In fact, the skillset required to translate highly technical concepts into compelling stories is sufficiently important to the academy that numerous colleges and universities have invested in hiring science communicators to bring the work of the institution’s researchers to public attention. The work of many communicators is used for marketing purposes, which might make some scholars leery of embracing it, but the narrative skillset that such communicators draw on is necessary to developing a deeper public understanding of what our institutions do, what they stand for, and what they want to achieve.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Telling that story, in fact, as honestly and openly as possible, may be precisely what’s needed in order to undo the damage that’s been done to higher education by the relentless quantification demanded by the culture of rankings and league tables promulgated by venues such as US News & World Report and Times Higher Education, among many others. Quantification leads inevitably to competition, and competition to quantification, leading an arbitrary set of metrics to become institutional priorities, displacing the less quantifiable values and goals that should focus the university’s efforts. As Marshall Sahlins has noted, these systems of ranking become an end to themselves: “Competitive and invidious comparison is the ubiquitous condition of American academic existence. Everyone and everything is ranked, creating hierarchies everywhere. That the rankings are contestable and in flux only makes the competition more obsessive.”3 Narrative isn’t a panacea for the damage done by rankings, but it can keep us focused on our purpose and our impact. Where quantification leads to the privileging of exclusivity that encourages us to brag about the numbers of students we turn away, narrative urges us to look closely at the students we actually serve and the ways we serve them, detailing in human terms the ways that higher education can change lives and transform communities.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Telling our stories to ourselves is in this sense just as important as telling them to funders, or to assessment committees, or to the outside world. Numbers may be persuasive, but they persuade us best toward the right ends in the context of a narrative that explains their significance and creates a sense of connection to the work at hand. And it’s through those narratives — the ones we tell to those around us, and the ones those around us tell us — that we have the opportunity to help one another reach our individual and collective goals.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  • 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  • How can you tell the story of the work you and your colleagues do in ways that will draw others into the significance of that work?
  • How might narrative be used to help establish the importance and priority of new directions that your unit or campus is considering?
  • What can the story of your work convey that the usual form of the annual report cannot?
  • What stories within or around your institution need to be told?

  1. 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  2. See Settles et al., “Epistemic Exclusion” on the ways that exclusion is aided by disciplinary norms such as objectivity.
  3. Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, 9.
  4. Sahlins, “The Conflicts of the Faculty,” 1009–10.
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