Hello, I’m Kieran Lindsey…
I’m Dan Marcucci, and this is Wired Ivy. We have combined 20 years of experience in the virtual classroom.
Dan lives in Pennsylvania, I live in Missouri, and we work for a university in Virginia. As part of a geographically distributed team we know from personal experience that online faculty and staff benefit from having access to their peers.
You may have been teaching online for a long time now or relatively new… you may have been thinking about a move to online or suddenly find yourself doing it… regardless, you are welcome in this virtual salon.
Our goal is to create a collegial community for real academics working in virtual classrooms… a safe, supportive space where we can learn from one another and share what we’ve figured out.
Welcome to a new academic year, and a new season of Wired Ivy!
September is a great time to look at our syllabi, our course designs, our delivery strategies, and our degree programs with fresh eyes. Often, when we undertake this kind of review, we tend to focus on what’s missing, what doesn’t work.
However, in a recently published paper, Carey Borkoski of Johns Hopkins University and Brianne Roos of Loyola University – Maryland make the case for a different approach. By using what they term “deficit-free language” educators can tell a valuable story, with context, and as a result, advocate for change.
In today’s conversation, we’ll learn how Carey and Brianne have applied this strategic lens to academic advocacy as a key component of the online Doctor of Education program at Johns Hopkins, how it has been received by their students and colleagues, and how they plan to build on what they’ve learned along the way.
Okay, class is starting… find your seats!
Our guests today on Wired Ivy are Dr. Carey Borkoski and Dr. Brianne Roos.
Dr. Carey Borkoski holds dual doctorates — a PhD in Public Policy, as well as a Doctor of Education. Currently, Dr. Borkoski is an Associate Professor in the School of Education and the Interim Director of the online Doctor of Education program at Johns Hopkins University, where she’s been teaching in various capacities since 2009. She has a joint appointment in the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Her research focus includes an examination of the culture around teaching in higher education institutions, and the benefits of service learning for faculty, students, and the community. Carey is also the author of a new book that will be available next month, October 2021, titled Dancing with Discomfort: A Framework for Noticing, Naming, and Navigating Our In-between Moments. We’re looking forward to hearing more about that during today’s conversation.
Welcome to Wired Ivy, Carey!
It’s good to meet you too. So happy to be here!
Good to see you, Carey.
Yeah, you too, Dan, I feel like it was a while since we’ve chatted so it’s good that we were able to finally connect.
Exactly. I’m looking forward to it.
In Carey’s abundant spare time, she also has an inspiring podcast called Tell Me This, which she records with our other guest today.
Dr. Brianne Roos is a member of the faculty at Loyola University – Maryland, where she serves as Director of the undergraduate program in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences. Her areas of clinical specialization include adult acute care, dysphagia, and neurology. Dr. Roos also holds an EdD from Johns Hopkins University. Her current research interests include student and faculty belonging and well-being in higher education.
Brianne may be familiar to some Wired Ivy listeners — she was a guest on Episode 9 – Two-Way Street, a panel discussion with alumni of online graduate programs from Season One.
It’s so nice to have you with us again, Brianne.
Thank you. Nice to be back.
Great to see you again.
As a side note, Carrie is the Cohort Lead for first-year doctoral students in the Johns Hopkins EdD program, and Brianne assists.
So clearly the locus for this episode of Wired Ivy is going to be the doctor of education degree at Johns Hopkins University. I think we’ve already said it about 10 times.
It’s good to point out that this is a fully online program except — global health permitting — for an onboarding in-person orientation at the beginning of studies, the summer before the new cohort starts. We’re excited to have Carrie and Brianne on to expound an article they recently published in Impacting Education, entitled “Listening to and Crafting Stories: Cultivating Activism in Online Doctoral Students.” A link to the article is posted in the show notes.
So Carrie and Brianne, you wrote in the article, I’m going to use your words:
“The EdD program cultivates student creativity and imagination through community building, scholarly dialogue, the development of data literacy skills, research methods and design, critical reading of relevant literature and scholarly discourse. Together, these become the storytelling tools of emerging education activists.”
So there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s go ahead and dig in.
As we’ve mentioned, you both have experienced the EdD program as students, and now you’re working together on the first year experience as a cohort lead and assistant.
I think let’s start with the description of what the onboarding process is, and I’m thinking of both of its activities and the goals of the onboarding part. Ahh… let’s start with Carey on this one.
Sure! I took a breath there cause I’m always wondering what quote’s gonna to come up, Brianne, from our article, and we’re going to have to respond.
Okay, we got this one. So thank you for that question, Dan. I think the onboarding is something… I don’t want to speak for Brianne, but I think that it’s something we are both really proud of. It’s really become central to our work and it’s been a springboard for a lot of papers and conferences that we’ve been a part of. do we feel really lucky in that way.
The on-boarding really came out of our interest, and in my interest, in cultivating community. Right? It always comes back to the students being seen and heard. I think what I’ve noticed and what I’m hoping more and more people are recognizing, especially after we’re coming through this global pandemic, is that educating any individual is not just about delivering content.
I would argue, and some of my colleagues will make faces at me a little bit, but I think attending to the human development of that person — emotional, social connection — is as important as any content that I could ever deliver to the students. This has been particularly true — and Brianne can attest because she just recently graduated — this is particularly true with our students because they enter this program as experts in their field. Right?
They’re coming to us with years of experience and we’re plopping them into an academic situation and it’s like throwing them into, if you like the metaphor of the deep end of the pool. And they’re like, oh my gosh, I knew how to do this thing over here. And now in a lot of ways, I have no idea. And what the onboarding has allowed us to do is to attend to that feeling that we’ve heard lots and lots of times of imposter syndrome, right? We all feel like at some point in our lives, we feel like I knew this thing and I was an expert maybe, and now I’m back to being a beginner.
The hypothesis that Brianne and I stand on is, if we don’t attend to this part of that student, it’s not going to be as easy for them to develop as doctoral students and as doctors eventually. So that’s really the motivation for the onboarding and, Brianne, I love to toss it to you to give the audience some ideas of what we do with our students.
Yeah, sure. I mean, we definitely concretely addressed that novice-expert paradox, although we use the word expert in quotes. Seasoned professionals, right?
Some of the things that we do are, as soon as the students are admitted to our program,we reach out to them, and we’re talking about welcoming them in ways that are fully online. So… meet for a synchronous session, and we offer a couple to accommodate people in different time zones because we have students from around the world. And the purpose of those meetings is not academic. The purpose is community building and getting to know people and their contexts.
We also — I mean, it’s such a simple thing, but it actually really helps — we have an asynchronous, just a, an Excel spreadsheet where students can populate with their context, their location, their area of interest for research, you know, at least at the time, and then from there they can launch and connect without us. So we try to facilitate connection with us and among the program, and then also give students ways to connect with one another outside of the program.
Yeah, I feel like we’re turning higher ed on its end, right? We talk a lot about co-constructing. That Brianne and I bring an expertise and they bring an expertise, and as we integrate that, you’ll create something. Dan, you mentioned that quote about creativity… that’s where that creativity starts to emerge.
I have two questions that I think would fit in well here. The first question is since this is an EDD and these are educators, is part of the aspect of this imposter syndrome and feeling like a newbie built in to help them reestablish their connection with being a learner.
That’s such a great question.
I don’t know if that is built in intentionally.
No, no, take credit! Take credit!
We would rather our students not have that imposter syndrome feeling, but they do, and I think we all do, in a lot of ways. Right? And so it’s, it’s normalizing that feeling and helping them to understand that, I think, everybody in that program does feel that way.
And one of the things that happens in this program is that students learn how much they don’t know. Because they are coming in as seasoned experts, right? In their own context. And they’re doing really great things for education. And then they come to us and they have that, and they also have this, “I don’t really understand stats where it’s been 20 years since I’ve taken a statistics course, or what are research methods? How do I examine the context in which I work every day in a way that’s different than I’ve been looking at it for so long.” I mean, these are really hard things to wrestle with.
Absolutely there’s a breaking down and then a rebuilding. And I would hope that our students then take that to their workplaces, you know, afterwards, and that they become educators who are learners, always.
This might actually be a harder question, but it addresses something else that you’ve, you’ve brought up. So, as you’re trying to do this on-boarding and you are addressing the needs of the individual students and helping them to feel like they’re seen, how do you build in that different people have different areas of comfort? And what I’m thinking of is that one of the things that’s happened over the past year with the pandemic and a move into remote emergency instruction is that you’ve got all these introverts who are saying, “Oh, finally, we’re in a space that I feel comfortable in. I don’t have to try to pass for an extrovert in class!”
And so I’m wondering what we’re learning from that. When you talk about turning education on its head, one of the things that I see a lot… there’s a very proscripted way to do things. And you learn from an early age what’s expected of you and how do you go about that? And so I’m wondering, is that part of what you’re doing in that process?
I’m really personally curious to find out how to do that because I’m always navigating that for students in the Online Master of Natural Resources program at Virginia Tech. I’m always trying to figure out, how do I give opportunities for connection but don’t preference one style over the other.
Yeah. I mean, I think those, that’s a great question. It’s a hard question. I think it’s evolving brand and I do a lot of reflecting and debriefing and getting feedback because feedback is information for improving and moving forward for us. What we’ve recognized both through the program design, but also the on-boarding is it’s important to have multiple modalities, right?
To give a variety of affordances to students, to try to leverage these different strengths that you mentioned. Right. So I think. You know, we do a mix of some videos that are asynchronous, that students can watch at their leisure to feel some connection. We offer office hours for people who need those touch points.
And even when we do our synchronous sessions, we’ve gotten really good at using breakout rooms in better ways so that the introverts are in smaller groups than the large group, just offering these resources in different ways, I will say. And I think this is the hard part for me, Karen. I also. Always remember that even if coming to a sync session is not your comfort zone and may not be your strength.
There’s also value in scaffolding you towards that skill.
Yeah, well, the idea is not to restructure the world around the comfort of this particular person. You want to build out all these different skills but you also don’t want to preference one group over there. And that becomes even more of an issue when you’re dealing with international students, But there’s also the cultural expectations in those other parts of the world.
I have a very pragmatic question as a follow up on this idea of on-boarding and that is simply: What’s the impact of the pandemic on the on-boarding process? Clearly last year you didn’t meet in person. Did you meet in person this year or was it remote this year?
It was remote.
It was remote again.
So for the last couple of years it’s been remote. Significant adjustments? You just had to move things online? Minor adjustments? How do you, how do you feel about it?
The first year we did it, we tried to mimic the face-to-face and just move it online, as much as we could. And what we found was it was just information overload. It was too much. You know, ironically, we’re this online education program, right? And we, and we did the things that are not necessarily so great.
And so we changed that this year and I think it was a lot better. We prerecorded quite a bit of content. You know, it was more condensed and easier for the students to digest. They could have that then as a reference for those kinds of critical logistical things that you need to know during an orientation.
That freed up our time during the day to really build community. And we had a lot of intentional meetings with students from other cohorts and specific faculty groups to meet with students who are in, you know, certain specialization areas and things like that.
We learned a lot from the first experience to the second. And we started asking ourselves questions that, I think, as educators we should all be asking ourselves. And that is, when you bring a group of individuals together — whether it’s an hour or a half hour or two hours — what is it that you want to do with them? Like, why do you need to bring them together?
And so we were evaluating… Is this goal something they could do asynchronously with a video? Or does this require us to be together? And by really focusing on that question, we were able to come up with what I think was a much more fruitful and productive and shorter residency this past year.
What’s going to be great is, hopefully when we’re in person next year, we’re going to use that very same question even though we have the luxury of being together for two and a half days. We’re still going to ask that question.
Cause that’s the crux of like a hybrid situation, right.
Or whatever. Some people are calling it blended. Some people are calling it a hybrid. We haven’t got our nomenclature down, um, in this field, but. When, when face to face or, or just synchronous interaction is the most valuable thing that people have…
And, excuse me, by most valuable you mean scarcest?
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.
It’s the scarce resource.
You really have to think and justify what you’re doing when you have that time. That’s something that has been a, a struggle for a lot of folks in this space.
Okay, so I’m going to do something online, or some of it’s going to be online… what do I put online and what do I do in person? And the whole idea of having a more active component to the face-to-face, and then things like the information that informed. Those interactions that can be done ahead of time. So that they’re ready to go when, when you have that, that really valuable scarce one-on-one interaction.
I think it’s also valuable because that information that we’re, we’re providing them in the videos, they’re not necessarily gonna use all of that in those three days during the orientation. Right? You just get so much. And so to have it in a place that’s easily accessible and you can go back to it when you actually need it? I mean, I think it, it serves a lot of functions. It’s protecting and really valuing that, that scarce time that we have and, also, I think it’s a better way to convey the information so that they can reference.
I’m having that same experience, making changes to the way that I onboard students by realizing that giving them all of this information in 45 minutes while also creating their plan of study is just like, you know, it’s, it’s too much.
And yeah. So we came up with another way of trying to address it and so far it seems like it’s working pretty well.
Right. Cause if we think about what’s going through their minds at that time, as you’re sharing all that information, I mean, I think it’s just bouncing off, so…
[Laughing] I think they’re thinking, “What is this woman doing? Like, what does she think is going on here? Like, I can’t take all this!”
It kind of gets the question, really, of who is the on-boarding? Do we, do we make it so that it’s, we’re getting our boxes checked off or are we designing the on-boarding for, in fact, the incoming scholar?
You mentioned in the article that during the process you have the students, uh, reflect, I guess — it happens in the on-boarding so it’s pre-reflect, if that’s a word — about their their expectations of online learning with specific anticipation of their doctoral studies. So I’m wondering where in the process does that happen and you know, what are the things that you’re hearing from them?
I think the summer before they start in the fall, we are asking those kinds of questions, right? In the welcome session and the second sync session we do. And then Brianne or I post an announcement. We might also post what we like to call powerful questions, where they’re reflecting on these things.
You know, Dan, what we’ve recognized, and it won’t be any surprise to any of your listeners… is there’s still a diversity of experience with online learning. And so it’s something we think is still really important to be asking, because we have students who have done all of their degrees online, and we have students who have done none of their degrees online and have maybe taken a Webinar or something.
And so level setting expectations and hearing from the students is really important. And I think it’s particularly important for a program like ours. It is marketed as an asynchronous, self-directed, independent learning… and imagine doing your doctorate in that way and never having taken an online course.
So having a conversation about how you’re going to do this work — forget that it’s a doctorate for a minute, right? — how are you going to learn online is a conversation that we think is, again, it’s part of that, yes, you can deliver content. You can build community. You also need to talk about, you know, the modality in which you’re going to do this work together.
And Brianna and I are very explicit and intentional about asking them, “What’s worrying you? What are you wondering about? What are you excited about? Right. And so we have those kinds of conversations about online learning.
It wasn’t clear to me if those happened during the in-person orientation. And I wondered if you felt as though that was something that was really best done in person, or if it’s effectively done online. I mean, there’s in one respect, there’s an irony to ask about online and have to be in person to do it.
But on the other hand, if you are trying to set expectations, set comfort levels, do some sort of leveling process then maybe yes. So… is that something that is best done in-person? Best on online? Or it doesn’t really matter?
I mean, I don’t think it really matters. Brianne, if I’m remembering correctly, it’s almost like that’s a set of questions that we return to periodically. So we talk about it in the summer. They all sort of imagine, and guess what this fall is going to look like and, and as you can imagine, sometimes they think it’s much scarier than it actually is.
So when they hit the fall, we, we have monthly sync sessions with our first year students and we do themed months depending on where they are. But the other thing we do is, by October, November, we’re asking them, “What have you learned about yourself? What strategies online strategies are working? What isn’t working? Let’s talk to each other about what you’re seeing and learning.
And then we invite in second and third year students to talk to them about what they did. For us, Dan, it’s just another piece… when you think about this degree, you know, there’s many aspects of the learning. It’s the doctoral work, it’s the dissertation, it’s the community building, and it’s the online piece. And so we have to address all of that learning and we returned to it multiple times throughout the program.
So when you ask them that question about their expectations of the online program, what do they say?
I think they say all sorts of things. Some of them say that they are fearful that there will not be community. That they’ll be kind of doing this on an island because they know it’s going to be so rigorous and you know, no one in their household or maybe their work is walking the same walk as them.
So a fear of isolation. We hear that a lot. We get a lot of messages of like, “I thought it was going to be this way but I haven’t even started yet and I already feel like I’ve connected!” And there’s a lot of messaging of, “I feel more connected to you all than I did to my in-person colleagues and faculty!”
I know! I get that all the time from students. They say that to me all the time, yeah.
Which is great. And it’s nice feedback for us, and it helps us to kind of motivated to keep going and innovating. And we always ask them what else they think would be helped.
Yeah, I think it would be really helpful if the broader, higher education community knew that. Because we set up the in-person as though it were this ideal of how things should be, and then when you get comments like that from students — “I feel so much more connected to the other students in my program and to my faculty than I ever did when I was in an on-campus program.” It really makes you step back and say, “Wow, there’s the, the sense of what it’s supposed to be, and then there’s the reality of how people are experiencing it.” And until they have the experience of something else, they don’t even notice it. They don’t see it.
It seems to me that it re-conceptualizes what connection means. Both professional connections and social connections. Where they’ve relied on a certain set of experiences to understand how to, how to work with people.
And in fact, you can team with people whom you’ve never been in the same building with, but team very, very effectively. So we happen to be four people in this podcast who happen to be in four different states right now, for example. And so we’re doing it, you know, it’s possible.
Well, and that’s something we try to do. We do try to have students identify and leverage their strengths. We really like the idea of appreciative inquiry. Carrie has a background in Econ, so she walked into her EdD with a really strong understanding and comfort level with quantitative methods. I would have done really well in a group with her because I need help with quantitative methods, right? Um, and that does a lot of things. That affirms Carrie strengths, and kind of says, “Yes, you belong here,” and it also helps to build community.
I want to drill down on this a little bit more because you’re very specific early on in the orientation, the on-boarding process, in asking these scholar activists to describe themselves in deficit-free language. And describing themselves might be an over, oversimplification, but to describe the situation they’re in, in deficit free language. And I’m curious as to how, you know, how you see this as an, an important ingredient in developing the scholar activists. Brianne, you go first because, um, you’ve done it more recently.
We ask our students to define their problem of practice using deficit-free language. In other words, when they come to our program, what is it about your workplace that you think you would like to address in your research? And very often that’s addressed or described initially using deficit language, um, like teachers don’t feel equipped to do X, Y.
So we say, okay, that may be true… what is it that you’re actually seeing? So a prompt that we like to give is if I were to walk into your school, I’m not going to see what teachers aren’t doing. What is it that I actually do? See what has happened?
And that might lead to a discussion of… content is being prioritized over addressing the whole student. Maybe that’s a curricular issue. And so it helps to dive a little bit more deeply into what does exist, as opposed to just what does not.
Similarly, we try to have the students look at themselves in the same way, which is really hard. You walk in to a program, as I did, with really crippling fear of research methods, or of stats, specifically. That’s all I saw, was that I don’t have this. And Carrie and everybody else was very kind to say, “okay, we can help you with that but you do have these other skills, and maybe we can leverage those.”
So it’s, it’s a disciplined examination of what is happening, and we use systems thinking and theory to guide students through that first year and how to look at their problem. They’re not expected to walk in the door with this systems perspective but that’s what we want to move toward as they progress.
I have in my notes here that this is not, would not be a natural way of describing oneself or one’s workplace. I think it would take a lot of work to really be able to do that, quite frankly.
Yeah, it’s really interesting, Dan. Brianna and I have found — and I’m sure if I, if I polled our other colleagues they would say the same — that when students enter our program and we’re asking them to describe a problem of practice, 99% of them say it’s a lack of something.
So the first, you know, six months, we’re trying to help them understand that a lack of something is not inherently the problem. That there’s something there. And so if we, if we connect it to two things… and I’ll do it sort of literally. If cultivating community and belonging is all about being seen, saying there is a lack of something is not honoring whatever that person is experiencing. Because you’re just saying something’s not there instead of describing what is there.
If we wrap it into storytelling and being an activist, well, there’s going to be multiple narratives. My policy brain says there’s various stakeholders with various perspectives. We’ve all seen those movies where they cut to the first person and they tell the story, then they cut back and it’s the same story from a different perspective. If we are focused on deficit focused language, like lack, as activists we’re never going to be able to tell that rich story because we don’t have the details. We have lack. I don’t know what that means! Plus you’re not acknowledging my experience.
At the core for us in cultivating community and belonging, we have to use deficit-free language and we have to lean on things like Mertens’ transformative methods and mixed methods to really give the story, the full picture.
Whether that’s talking about another situation or your own, that’s just not our nature to do it that way. It’s easier to say we lack something.
Hard to create a narrative from lack, right? It’s just a list of things that you don’t have. It doesn’t hold together as a story.
I am intrigued because I work in the environmental field and in sustainability and, oftentimes, the first reaction is to identify gaps. Let’s, let’s figure out where the gaps are — the holes as it were, whether it’s holes in policy, holes in knowledge, holes in science, holes in management.
What you’re saying is intriguing because you’re not telling the story about the hole, you’re telling the story about the environment that is there. And then from that perspective, from that vantage point, then you can talk about directions to grow in.
I think that’s right. I mean, if, if we’re asking our students to think about interventions, ultimately, or policy, or advocacy, whatever their end goal is, you have to be coming from a place of what’s there. If you don’t ask enough questions, you ultimately end up giving somebody advice that doesn’t even match the problem they actually have. What we’re trying to help students see is they come with an expertise, a set of experiences — no one can see us, but I’m doing blinders — we’re trying to get them to take off those blinders and describe the other stuff that’s there, not just the lack of something.
How does this actually happen? In, in what activity? Is it in a course? Is it in orientation? Is it embedded throughout the curriculum? I mean, where does it sit?
Yes, yes, and yes [laughter]
Building on that… could you say a little bit more about this idea of a scholar activist that you’re trying to help cultivate?
To be honest, Kieran, I don’t know if it’s a term that we regularly use in our practice. I think it’s something that Brianne and I started reflecting on and considering, and certainly, you know, as we say in the article, we’re not creating sort of protest organizing kinds of situations. This is definitely a different kind of activism. And I think maybe in most circles, you’re thinking of terms like entrepreneur and education leader… those are the more familiar terms.
Almost a systems analyst.
Yeah! Yeah, I do like the idea of activists and I think it’s activists with a small “a,” if we could, if we could do it that way. In their classroom, in their elementary school, in their district, whatever your context is, these students come in with passion and smarts and determination to, to affect change, to contribute in positive ways, ultimately for students.
When we think about activists, EdD students really do come in with practical application in mind, always. So I think that’s where we get this idea of activists in our doctoral training.
Yeah, it almost sounds more like community organizing. Which is absolutely activism, but it’s sort of on the ground, not just protesting but taking action.
Could you say a little bit more about the role of storytelling and how your approaches to teaching students to use deficit-free language… how that all comes together? What’s the connection between this organizing activism, the approach that you are teaching them, and how that plays out in storytelling.
I mean, I think if you told a prospective doctoral student that their dissertation would be like storytelling, that would be, that would be a surprise [laughter]. But I think they’re not dissimilar. You’re setting up the context of a story, you’re learning the characters of a story, you’re projecting some actions, there’s a climax.
And we haven’t really followed this metaphor all the way through, but the idea of storytelling, in that you are certainly setting up the context, and that’s the purpose of the first year. And we won’t even let them go to that intervention — we say, it’s like the bad word, don’t even say anything in the entire first year, because the whole purpose is to deeply understand the context.
And the ways that we do that are through a systematic literature review. Learning how to do a lit review, and then examining the problem in their context using a mixed methods design. Learning how to do the quant, and qual, and the value of each, and the designs, and all of those things… all of that is, is embedded as well.
Our lens is that you really are telling a story. What is the experience, the lived experience of, of the participants, and what does that look like from all these different perspectives? And one of the courses that they take is disciplinary approaches to education, and that’s in our first semester of the first. It’s a wonderful course because it looks at education problems through the lenses of anthropology, and history, and sociology, and economics.
And we understand the tools that each discipline uses to measure and we read sample work and it, it just sort of blows your mind like, oh my gosh, I’m coming in with this one lens on my problem. What if you were to sit down with an economist, or an anthropologist, or a sociologist? and students do that work, they, they write papers through those different disciplines. So there’s a lot of active work to build the context of the story throughout the first year.
Yeah. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. That basically any kind of journal article is a story. It’s just kind of a story with a lot of the life drained out of it [laughter]. It’s kind of like a glorified outline, but the structure is all there. It’s just that you’re supposed to take away all the stuff that
is that in an actual story, we would find compelling, and that would cause us to want to continue reading it, or that makes the thread of the narrative obvious.
Instead it’s like, well, here’s what we did, and here’s how we did it, and here’s what we found, and here’s what we think about what we found, and here’s what we think happens next. Well, that is a story.
Yeah. I guess the other piece of it, too, to go back to your community organizing, Kieran, is that I think the other value of talking about storytelling is — and I’m sure you both have seen this — so often doctoral students, especially new doctoral students, are trying to act like academics. They’re taking on this role, so their writing becomes verbose. They’re using these complicated structures. Sometimes Brianne and I are just saying, okay, put down that — I was going to say pen, but close the laptop for a second — what’s the story you’re trying to tell your audience?
What storytelling also does is, it helps them to recapture their voice. ‘Cause at the end of the day, most of our students — and this is a reality that we, as faculty, have had to really grapple with — most of our students, when they leave Johns Hopkins, are not going into higher education. They will be in front of stakeholders who are parents, superintendents, local political leaders. They need to have the chops to understand the research, but then they need to have the skills to make this information accessible to a diversity of audiences.
And oftentimes I have found in my work, especially doing policy, you can tell a good story using the data, using your skills — that’s where activism happens.
I teach a data analysis class and we do quantitative — and, unfortunately in society, quantitative seems to still be king, right? They just think numbers is where it’s at so they want to make these tables and talk about statistical significance. And I say to them, you could have the most statistically significant result in the world but if you can’t contextualize that and tell me a story, it’s not going to matter.
Mmmhmmm. How much better would the media do at reporting what we do if we were better storytellers? We blame the interpreters of our work for their lack, even though we know they don’t have expertise in the area. I, I totally get what you’re saying. I mean, one of my things is always, If you can’t explain what you do to somebody outside of your field, you don’t know what you do. So, yeah, I think this has far reaching potential beyond
educators. We probably need this a lot more across the board.
I wonder how important it is to the learning process that these doctoral candidates share their stories with their peers in graduate school as they’re developing them. Can they do it,basically, as a silo or is it essential that there is that peer feedback?
There’s definitely places for collaboration. There is a lot of group work, which usually gets the big collective eye roll but I think there’s value in it. And when students can kind of choose who they want to work with, that’s helpful, too.
I will say that a lot of the faculty take steps to make group work and that collaboration easier for our students. For example, by sending out surveys ahead of time and saying, “What do you prioritize? Is it time zone? Is it punctuality? Like, are you someone who likes to work really close to a deadline or would you prefer to work with somebody with a similar Problem of Practice. That can help to make those groups feel more intentional and purposeful. And it’s absolutely helpful to walk through that learning process so you don’t feel so alone.
One thing that we do — I mean, we do it in the summer before they even start our Problem of Practice — we call them PoP workshops, and we always say, “This is a workshop in the truest sense. Please don’t even try to be polished. Don’t try to sound smart. Just tell us the story. What is happening?” Why is this a problem?”
They’ll explain the context and I’ll say, “I’m sorry for being flip, but here’s my question: So what? You’ve done this really nice job of describing it… why, why is that actually a problem? Why does it really matter?” That’s when we get these really deep dives into kind of the context and the richness of the problem.
I don’t think you could do that by yourself.
No, definitely not. I mean, the other question that Brianne came up with a couple of years ago was, what would it look like if one of us walked into your classroom? Because again, going back to the earlier point about lack of something, they’re so immeshed in their context that sometimes they forget how to describe it to someone who’s not in that space.
I think it’s imperative that our students are collaborating and talking. And in fact, I often say to students, find a, a grandmother, a mother, a brother, a neighbor, and ask them for five minutes. See if you can explain that to them. And I always joke, when I was first teaching economics, my poor mother… I would make her sit across the kitchen table from me and listen to some of my econ lectures. She was a saint for doing that. But the point was to see if I made any sense, cause she doesn’t have an Econ background.
So yeah, they’re always getting feedback and they’re coming to my office hours, and Brianne’s office hours, and their instructors’ office hours just to bounce ideas off of each other. That’s part of the process.
Programmers have kind of a funny way of dealing with, when you have a problem with your code and you can’t figure it out, you pull out your little rubber ducky and you talk to it. ‘Cause, that way, you’re not interrupting somebody else. There is something about telling somebody, and, of course, the rubber ducky always has this very sweet little smile on his face. It never looks at you like, what are you…
[laughing] No judgement, no judgement here.
No judgement. And it’s surprising how often that really helps.
I have one more question that is specifically about the student experience. You’re clear in your article that you asked the students to bring their whole selves to the process, to be authentic. And moreover, you’re not trying to change who the students are. You want them to be able to present who they are and interact professionally with others being who they are. To me that reads as agency… agency is something that is essential for the process. Is that an intentional aspect of it? And do you see that as carrying through the storytelling process?
Yes, it is definitely agency, and it is, it is certainly intentional. Again, going back to this idea that this is an asynchronous, self-directed process. We don’t have the luxury of seeing them in a classroom, to say, “Dan, why is your eyebrow furrowed? I must have said something that didn’t make sense…” Right? I’m not with you as you’re reading that article and being confused about something. So I have to help you gain agency and efficacy by simply asking questions.
What ends up happening is Brianne and I do a lot of work around trust. We say, “Look, we need to make a deal right now that when you need something from us, you’re going to reach out, and when we need something from you, we will reach out. Like, I can’t read your mind and I don’t want you spinning in a mouse wheel worried about something.
Part of it ,then, is empowering them to reach out and to, take care and have agency around their learning, uh, rather than waste the time worrying that, “what if I reach out to Carey, she’s gonna think I’m foolish.” Having agency as a student is a good thing and it trickles through and in multiple places in the program.
I have two questions that are kind of related… I’ll ask them both and throw them to Brianne first so she can choose which ones she wants to answer…
…and make Carey answer the other one.
The things that I’m very curious about, because you’re talking about a threaded process that really goes through before the first year and deep into the first year, and really through the program. What are the transformational outcomes you see from this storytelling activist action plan? That’s Question One.
Question Two is, do you have a systematic, de-boarding process or disembarking process where you ask the scholars to reflect on the work that they’ve done. I recognize reflecting would have to happen while they’re still there because they’re all over the country and all over the world. So those are the two…
I’ll take the second one. Thanks for the choice! [laughter]
I knew she was going to take the second one [laughter].
Yeah, you did know that.
We asked the students to reflect all the way through. The first year is the most prescribed, and even that’s loose. There are still cohort leads for the second and the third year. There is some reflection at the end; however, it’s not nearly as developed as the first year on-boarding.
As somebody who just finished, I would say that that would be great to implement that. Because I felt like it ended, and by then you do have a strong community of your peers and we sort of debriefed together. But to have something more systematic and connected to the program… I actually think would be a great addition! As we speak of evolving, and growing, and kind of pulling this thread all the way through.
One of our faculty members said, you guys are about to embark on a period of neural healing, like N-E-U-R-A-L. I didn’t really understand that because I was still in the hype of having to read a lot of things and produce so much. And when it ended, I thought, “Oh my gosh, that’s so true! Cause I can’t read anything of substance.” I mean, I really felt like I was shutting down for a while. It would have been nice to kind of process that, I guess, a little bit more formally with my peers. So I think that’s a great idea, Dan.
Carey, as interim program director, are you taking notes?
Well, you took that question so you can take on that project. How about that?
Okay, got it.
Oooh… that is good delegation right there!
She’s learning so fast!
I love this question about transformational outcomes One, it reminds me, Brianne, that we need to get back into thinking about how to do some more measurement around on-boarding. Cause we’ve done a little bit, but not a lot. In speaking with students, watching them go into their third year and then graduate, the things that emerged, which is kind of cool, is they really begin to develop their own learner identity. That they came in just so worried that they were going to get something wrong. That they were going to fail. That the admissions committee made a mistake.
They’re re-framing this new experience — and not to shamelessly plug my book but that in-between moment of expertise in a practice to novice in an academic program — they’re able to re-frame and call it what it is, which is learning, not failing. Which is a huge transformational moment.
All related to that is, becoming a learner also means that you acknowledge that the process is as valuable as the outcome. So yes, the dissertation and the letters behind their name was the goal, but they recognize that there was so much more. They so often talk to us about, “You remember that time when I thought this, and now I’m like, ‘Oh, how did I ever think that before?’”
They have lots of these aha moments. They seem much more aware of themselves within their situation, whether it’s in their professional context or in the larger conversation around race and gender… all the things that we’ve been talking about as a country, which I think is, they do a lot more noticing, which I think is really a testament to the reflection and the pause that we have them embark on.
And then of course, I think along with being a learner, with these multiple narratives, is a deep sense of empathy. They’re no longer blaming and saying, “Well, it’s because the teachers don’t know how to do this,” or “Because the students can’t figure this out.” It’s not just that.
They’ve really, again, done a lot of re-framing to tell better stories. Better is the wrong word. To tell accurate stories of the lived experiences of the stakeholders within the system that’s relevant to their research, which is what we want to do with all of our students.
Well, and… yeah. I would argue to tell valuable stories. Not only are they potentially interesting and problem solving, but there’s value in having that story told.
Well, speaking of story, In the few minutes that we have left, I would like to do a call out to you, Carey, about your book, Dancing with Discomfort: A Framework for Noticing, Naming, and Navigating Our In-between Moments. It’s going to be coming out in October. Just next month, actually. Pretty quick. This is clearly something the doctoral students that you’re working with would be interested in, but the book is really for a larger audience, isn’t it?
It is. It’s funny, I just had a meeting with my editor today and we were having this very conversation, Kieran. Some of ideas we’ve talked about really apply beyond education. And so I feel very strongly that this notion of paying attention to those in-between moments can be valuable to leaders of organizations, teachers in classrooms, people who manage other people, I’m talking to a lot of student affairs officials and nonprofits who are tangentially related to educators.
I mean, I think we can all go on a personal journey to better pay attention to that transition, whether it’s expected or unexpected. I think being able to intentionally pay attention to those moments and leverage,
um, the opportunities instead of worrying so much about the what if. So, yeah, I think everybody should read it. Kieran, I mean, come on… [laughing]
We say that kind of laughing but who can’t benefit from becoming a better writer? And what makes someone a better writer? Improving their ability to tell the story that they are sitting down to write about in the first place. So thank you so much for that. I’m definitely going to check it out.
Carey Borkoski and Brianne Roos, thank you so much for joining us and giving us some of your time. I really appreciate it and feel like our audience is going to benefit from this, and also from checking out your book, and your paper, and your podcast. We will include links to all of that in our show notes. Thanks again.
Great to see y’all!
Thank you. It was a pleasure.
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Until next time, this is Dan Marcucci…
… and I’m Kieran Lindsey.
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