August 2020: From Beth Fisher-Yoshida

Dear SPS Faculty,

Storytelling is as old as humans inhabiting this world. Stories relay our cultural norms and practices and create social bonds amongst us. They reveal what is important, what is acceptable, what is scary, and what is inspiring and gives us hope.

Applying this to a topic immediately relevant to us all are the stories we tell about our programs. We need to consider the linkages between the image we envision of how we want our programs to be perceived, and the way we are telling the story of the program. 

It is also important to think about who is telling the story. This is why we look to alumni to tell their stories of how their experiences in the program impacted them and the career opportunities that came about as a result. We look to students to tell the stories of how engaged they are in the type of learning the program offers and the plethora of resources available to them. And we look to faculty to tell stories imparting content, your own experiences in the field, your joy of teaching at Columbia University, and all of this to be communicated with passion.

These stories create a sense of wonder so that prospective students are curious, excited, and want to be a part of this community you have described. During the program these stories continue to engage students and open up many more worlds of possibility, some of which you can only allude to and that they need to find out for themselves. The stories continue to live on in the alumni as they transition to their new roles and build into them their own professional experiences.

So if stories are so compelling, what makes a good story? Well, not sure if you have a favorite Pixar movie, or if you are claiming it is your child’s (right), but I think we can agree they are good storytellers. Here are the six rules they say are characteristic of good storytelling and that we can apply to the stories we tell about our programs:

  1. The stories are universal and should represent part of the human condition and by gaining an education in this particular field you are transforming into the consummate professional you dreamed of becoming. 
  2. They have a clear structure and purpose, even “Once upon a time . . .” provides a structure and our stories can convey the great passion we bring as scholar-practitioners.
  3. There is an underdog to root for and we can tell about students who overcame challenges with the odds stacked against them, but they succeeded.
  4. They appeal to our deepest emotions and stories about how graduates are changing the world can pull at our heart strings.
  5. They are surprising and unexpected, not all predictable, and there must be a surprise outcome somewhere, such as an unexpected guest speaker who became a mentor to a student, for example.
  6. They are simple and focused and perhaps the great elevator test of how you can describe the essence of your program in a nutshell.

In this pandemic time it is especially important to think about how we are telling the stories of our programs and how they continue to be sources of enrichment and engagement. We need to more specifically capture the joy and benefit of being part of our community to weather these times together as we seize the opportunity to not just get by, but make the most of the special time we have together.

What are the stories you are telling about your program?

Thank you,

Beth Fisher-Yoshida