“At its heart, research is storytelling.”
How do we know our research has impact? What science seems to value in terms of impact is metric based: number of publications, citation counts, uptake of an intervention into practice. But research is a social process perhaps even more than it is a measured process and what if you do the kind of research that seeks social change, or change in beliefs, or adoption of new attitudes? What if your research explores how individuals learn and adopt that learning into their identity? In those venues, measurement is irrelevant. How could we possibly count how many people change their behaviour or beliefs based on our research?
My focus as PhD student this term has been knowledge translation. Knowledge translation goes by many alternative names — knowledge mobilization, knowledge diffusion, the movement of theory and research into practice — just to name a few. This focus has caused me innumerable struggles. What does research impact mean when what you are trying to do with your work is invoke a paradigm shift about writing in a health discipline (nursing)? Traditional discussions of KT and the oft-cited Canadian Institutes of Health Research definition, take a very linear approach – top down, some might say. You do research. You get practitioners (knowledge users) to implement your research. Success happens. How successful might depend on how quickly that happens (rate of uptake). The knowledge translation model may seem simple if your research is about use a of a new drug to treat a disease symptom but less simple if you are looking at insidious changes that happen in practice attitudes and beliefs.
No matter your research focus, you aren’t getting through a grant application without explaining how you will share your research. In practice-based disciplines, such as nursing or education, this is a tricky obligation. We know from our lived experience that when we have a real-world problem, we and our colleagues, don’t immediately go to the library databases and search for a solution. Our problems are more context-based and require solutions that consider that context. For example:
How do we get students to understand what we mean when we say we want them to integrate reflection and literature into their assignments?
How do I make this rubric assess what I want it to assess on this specific assignment?
As educators most of our knowledge doesn’t come from books. It comes from experience. When we have an immediate problem in our work our first search for knowledge involves walking down the hall and knocking on the door of a colleague or mentor. That colleague usually responds with a story. Remember the time when…. ? or I had a student once who…. ? And we absorb these stories into our own experience and it changes who we are as educators. It changes what we know and how we practice. This is our mechanism for learning. This is our mechanism for change.
So my struggles with knowledge translation (and the more pragmatic requirement that I write a paper worth 50% of a grade on the subject) have made me ponder my existence on social media. I started the @academicswrite persona to talk about my research — to talk about all change that needs to happen in academia surrounding writing. It occurred to me while reading about the various modes of knowledge translation that I had created for myself a mode of community building and knowledge translation. But through what mechanism does social media work as a knowledge translation strategy? Is social media the creation of a never-ending research story? Is social media a mechanism for social change, and by extension, the uptake of (educational) research into practice?
But change is hard. And in academic writing you are coming up against belief systems that are outdated, emotionally charged, opinionated. There are so many faulty assumptions in academia, especially in the disciplines, about academic writing. I’ve written before about how academic writing instruction is devalued so I will not repeat those points here. In writing there is also a novice to expert trajectory that influences the academic community. There will always be new people coming into that community that will scream loudly at the top of their lungs that student grammar is so bad and it makes their writing unreadable and this is the fault of someone else — high school teachers, the intro to writing teacher, texting culture.
(Novices can only see grammar problems. Experts can see past the grammar to the real causes of those writing problems that appear to be grammar.)
So, I have to write this final paper and I decided I’m going to tackle the role of social media in creating communities of practice through networked participation, because without knowing it, a year and three months ago when I started this blog and its sister-Twitter account, I was formulating the beginnings of my KT plan. And this KT plan works through a complex web of identity building, storytelling, and the changing of belief systems — a complex blending of the personal and the professional. Drawing inspiration from Naomi Barnes, a member of my Twitter community, I can see how the relationship between Twitter and Blogs is a subtle process of knowledge building.
It starts with a Tweet that is a small spark. That spark may not look anything like the idea that is brewing inside. In fact, it might appear in your Twitter feed and go by completely unnoticed.
Your psyche may be sensitive to the topic so that you start to see it everywhere.
I tell my research story through tweets. I research and read papers on the topic and I tweet about what I read.
Then I write this blog you read now as a preliminary sketch of my thinking on the topic. The comments I get about the blog and the tweets will continue to shape my thinking. The blog will inform what I write in the formal paper to meet the requirements of my course. That formal paper may turn into a publication. The publication will be released and I’ll tweet about it. More twitter conversations will ensue. I may write a blog telling additional research stories that relate to the publication. I’ll create a larger narrative of my research which adds to the collective meaning and knowing on the subject.
I see blogging and social media as the construction of an ongoing story that blends the personal and the professional. Because academic writing and publishing is one thing but blogging and micro-blogging, like Twitter, are a whole other genre of writing. A genre created for persuasive purposes. Through my Twitter (primarily) and my blog I’m telling a story that has no beginning and it has no end but that story is intended to seep into your emotions, your psyche, and your identity. And I’m doing it all though telling you stories that contain fundamental truths by using conventions that are part fact and part fiction.
But how do we use storytelling to persuade and create change through social media?
- Stories lead to reflection – I’ve often said on my Twitter account I am not a writing tipster but I do aim to inspire. If I make you think about your writing approach, even if what I say just resonates, I will improve your writing process. That improvement may come through simply providing you with assurance that the way you write is not abnormal. I may provide you with the courage to try something new whether it be in your own writing, or in how you guide your students. I will make you think.
- Stories create meaning – Meaning comes through creating a supportive relational space. Telling stories to help new community members feel belonging means you take your work seriously and the work of your colleague’s seriously too. These stories move our theory into practice because those experiences are lived.
- Stories “freeze thoughts out of context” – Social media becomes a permanent record of thought and its evolution. You can trace your own evolution of thinking through the trail of tweets you leave behind and by the correspondence it elicits.
- Stories create community by binding a listener and the teller together –Transformation may occur within a listener/reader in how they view themselves and how they view others. Empathy results. I follow people on Twitter based on who I can learn from. I follow scholars of different races and genders, ages and stages of life, different socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds. They tweet about their lived experiences which are different from mine. I don’t always interfere with their stories by commenting but I read and I learn and I come to understand.
- Stories evolve with discussion – we tweet and we write blogs and other contribute to the conversation, and by creating that conversation our thinking changes.
- Telling your story teaches others how to tell their own stories – when we tell stories we encourage others to tell their own stories. By listening to the stories of those with experience we can absorb their stories into our own sense of identity. Having an identity within a community means a sense of belonging will develop. In this way, the community continues to change and the collective knowledge developed within this situated learning is in constant evolution.
Storytelling is one of the mechanisms through which our practices change. Social media can facilitate that. Please comment or tweet at me the aspects of storytelling that work in your community and networks. It will most certainly inform the paper I will write about this process.