LG9: Stories

Week 9 of Leading Generously; just a couple more to go. I hope you’ll send me any stories you’re willing to share.

Previously:

* * *

Narrative goes deeper than numbers.

The last few chapters have collectively argued for transforming the metrics-reliant, form-based, discipline-oriented processes of assessment being used by the majority of our organizations and institutions into formative, individuated, supportive modes of exploring our values, our goals, and our plans for achieving them. Designing these new ways of reviewing our work, however, requires us to rethink the nature of the evidence that we bring to bear in the process.

As we noted in considering the role that key performance indicators, or KPIs, currently play in our processes of assessment, most of the evidence that we use in processes of evaluation today is numerical. This is true of our evaluations of both people and programs: we ask how many articles a scholar published, how many citations an article received, how many students a program served. Numerical evidence is extremely useful is processes of evaluation, not least because numbers are relatively stable entities, and some are bigger than others. This allows for an easy means of capturing trends and — most importantly for the ways we think of assessment today — creating points of comparison.

But numbers can’t tell the whole story. A countable difference between one number over here and another number over there may direct our attention to an aspect of our work, or our colleagues’ work, that we need to understand or investigate. But the numbers don’t explain what’s happening. Numbers can highlight or inform, but they can’t tell you whether they matter, or why.

Take, as an example, citation indexes. Knowing that your article has been cited more than 100 times is an interesting data point, but no more than that, unless we know why and how it’s been cited, by whom and to what end. After all, citations of articles whose premises are being refuted are counted in exactly the same way as citations of articles that are foundational for new work in the field.

Exploring whether a particular numerical difference is something we should pay attention to and why it matters requires digging into 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.

We already use narratives 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 are a key component of the evidence presented through those stories, but without the actual story of the research, the numbers themselves make little to no sense.

For this same reason, most personnel review processes in higher education institutions and other mission-oriented organizations do not simply rely on the employee’s resume or c.v., or on any similarly abbreviated listing of or metrics regarding their work product, but also include a narrative exploration of the goals behind the work, the ways that it proceeded, the challenges the staff member 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. And 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.

And 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.

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. I’m certain that many of us know someone with a highly compelling story to tell but no evidence of that story’s reality or of their 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, 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 end. Focusing instead on the candidate or career’s progress toward their own goals 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 support, in which we help one another think through our purpose and shape the paths that lie before us.

Even more, telling the story of our work creates the potential for drawing larger audiences into that work and its significance. This is something more than just an elevator pitch, and it’s something more than just public relations: it’s the ability to help others get interested in what you’re doing and to understand why what you’re doing matters. And that’s a skill that can support more successful grant applications, more successful project proposals, and a host of other situations in which you need to lead others to understand and be compelled by your goals.

This mode of storytelling is important enough that numerous colleges and universities have invested in hiring communicators to bring the work of the institution to public attention. These communicators are not just marketers, and they don’t merely have access to the networks and technical tools necessary to get the word out about academic work. Rather, they have the narrative skillset necessary to draw others into that story.

All of us, however, can work on developing that skillset — and all of us should. Not just because our ability to tell the story of our work can help us obtain the support necessary to doing the work, but because telling that story keeps us focused on our larger goals, on the work’s impact, on the ways that the questions we pursue can help to change the world. Telling ourselves that story is just as important as telling it to funders, or to assessment committees, or to the outside world. Numbers may persuade, but they persuade best 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 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.

14 thoughts on “LG9: Stories

  1. Kathleen,

    I like the figure of reciprocity implied in the flow of stories: “And it’s through those narratives — the ones we tell 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.” I really have to slow down reading this so not to replace “around” with “about”. It is a very fine point: the stories told to us may not be about us but may help us and those around us. Thank you for making such a subtle point with such artistry and economy.

    François

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