Moving the MRE in career stories

And no, I’m not talking about the kind of MRE you might see being opened in a YouTube video, I’m talking about the MRE that narrative researchers talk about, the Most Reportable Event. The moment in the story that the teller – if subconsciously – presents as the one to pay particular attention to.  Every narrator will have her own linguistic style, but at the MRE a story listener might observe the invocation of strategies like slowing down the narrative action, shifting the deictic center, a changing of the verb tense into the historical present, or the noticeable introduction of constructed dialogue.

Sharing your story with a listener can be a great way to learn more – have them help you listen for your MRE.

From the career storytelling work that I have been doing for the past decade or so, I see the emergence of a clear pattern in that most of us need to move our MREs. In Bringing Linguistics to Work (BLx2W) I talked about this as having to do with agency and I used Michael Bamberg to talk about this as reflecting the difference between being the narrative “experiencer” or “do-er.” In that book, I shared two versions of a story that I had been using for years as my “discovering linguistics” story.

  • I used to tell a version that focused on the moment of discovery: There I was in Costa Rica, studying abroad, taking my first linguistics course (the language of instruction was Spanish) and all of these connections suddenly ignited in my mind about my own acquisition process in Spanish and the tiered unfolding that was happening systematically in my brain having to do with Phonological, Morphological, Pragmatic awarenesss!!  WOW!! It sure was a thrilling moment of discovery for me, and indeed it was life changing – it entirely redirected the course of my professional life, but as a career story, telling it that way really only helped listeners appreciate my passion for learning and discovery. While admirable, the qualities that my listener probably needs to know more about are those on display when I show what it is that I will DO with that important discovery that I made.  

So I moved the MRE forward in time.

  • A few months later, after I had returned from Costa Rica (and I do mention that there I had had this powerful realization there about linguistics being EVERYWHERE) I was living in San Angelo, TX – and I took a linguistics course at ASU and the professor tells me (when I go to office hours to say that I am interested in pursuing a higher degree in Lx) that I should “RUN in the opposite direction,” That linguistics was a dying field, and that there’s no career pathway other than that as a professor, which opportunities are dwindling. In that moment, even though I didn’t know how to say so, I knew in my bones that this professor was WRONG! Linguistics was absolutely EVERYWHERE and could be applied to absolutely ANYTHING, but our field was in need of a re-orientation. This set me on the course that I continue to follow today….

In the 3 years since Blx2W was published, I have been working more with the work interrogatives, and realize that doing some work with your WHYs beforehand makes it easier to think about how you might move your MRE.

If you haven’t taken it, one good resource to help you identify your WHYs is the VIA strengths finder.

When I take it, I get Love of Learning as my first strength.

It is therefore no big surprise that I like to tell stories which display this quality. And I find this to be true of many of the teachers that I have worked with over the years  We teachers love learning, so when we tell stories about work, our narrative focus tends to celebrate moments of insight.

With a recent client, we were working on crafting a story that focused on a moment of recognition of a cross-cultural misunderstanding in the classroom.  She saw it happen. And because she loves learning, she told this story in a way that stacked on a bunch of evaluative information focused on all the work that she had done to be able to pay attention in the way that she now does, everything from her research that informed her understanding of what was going on in that moment, a teaching workshop where she learned about what to do as a teacher when such moments occurred in the classroom. etc. etc. etc.

We moved the MRE to focus on what came AFTER, and the story came out sounding something like this:

“because of my research and all of the recent training I undertook at X institution with Y impressive person, I recognized the opportunity to do something in this moment. I abandoned the lesson plan that I had prepared to then break my students into groups deliberated constructed across lines of difference to focus on the observable linguistic features that we can use to understand how inclusion is an interactional achievement….” etc. etc. etc.

I worked with the storyteller to make this story celebrate a different WHY – that of valuing diversity and inclusion as an instructor. It could of course be reworked to instead focus on the importance of collaboration and teamwork, learning in community, social intelligence, or courage – the specific choices would just need to be aligned to the teller and her WHYs.

So, the task is that of being more aware of your WHYs:

what WHYs are your stories currently celebrating?

what WHYs could they be?

And ultimately, this ends up coming back to the idea of shifting your deictic center, the golden rule in the texts and interactions that comprise professional self-presentation. The stories that you tell in career conversations need to be recipient designed, such that they help your listener see qualities that they are looking for in a colleague and collaborator. In career conversations, it’s not about what you want but what THEY need!

What examples do you have of Moving the MRE in career stories?