1) What is your official current position and title?
I’m Professor of Gerontology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.
2) What is your educational background?
I graduated from Harvey Regional High School here in New Brunswick and went on to do a Bachelor of Arts degree at Harvard University (AB, 1972). I then went to Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto for a Master of Divinity degree (MDiv, 1976). After a year of PhD Studies in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, I did a Master of Theology degree at Princeton Theological Seminary (ThM, 1979). Following 11 years of parish ministry with the United Church of Canada, I returned to the University of Toronto, attended the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and completed a doctorate in the philosophy of education (EdD, 1992).
3) Talk a little about your career path? Where did your passion for the research/work that you do originate and how did it develop?
After 11 years of parish ministry (see answer to #2), during which time I served churches in Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick, I returned to university to pursue doctoral studies. My dissertation, entitled “The Stories We Are: An Essay on the Poetics of Self-Creation”, was published as a book in 1995 by the University of Toronto Press, an event which definitely helped to jump-start my (mid-life) career shift from pastor to academic. The fall of that same year I came to STU as a Visiting Chair in Gerontology and I’ve been here ever since. For 6 years I held the position of Research Associate; then in 2001, I made it onto “the tenure-track” and in 2010, was promoted to full professor.
My passion for the research and writing I do in “narrative gerontology” was seeded in childhood with my deep appreciation for the power of stories to shape our lives; was expanded in seminary where I became interested in “narrative theology”; grew in an organic manner during my time as a parish minister (listening to so many people’s stories!); and blossomed quite explicitly in writing “The Stories We Are”. Since coming to STU and collaborating with Gary Kenyon, a pioneer of narrative approaches to the study of aging, and with Beth McKim, Professor of English, my fascination with the narrative complexity of human development, particularly of aging, has expanded even more.
4) Tell us about one or two of your current projects?
With a team of colleagues here at STU in our Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative (CIRN), including Clive Baldwin, Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies, I’m involved in a project in which we’re exploring the link between older adults’ level of resilience (“resilient aging” replacing the more problematic term “successful aging” in gerontological circles) and the narrative complexity evident in the stories that they tell about their lives. Our guiding hypothesis, which we are in the process of testing out, is that the degree of resilience one displays before the challenges (physical, emotional, etc.) of later life is related in some way to one’s having, so to speak, “a good strong story” about one’s self and one’s place in the world. To the extent this hypothesis proves valid, then it would suggest that interventions aimed at helping older adults tell and explore their life stories in safe and supportive environments – interventions which represent what could broadly be called narrative care – can help to increase their resilience in the face of such challenges and thereby contribute in a positive way to their physical and mental health – i.e., increasing their sense of mastery and personal meaning and lowering symptoms of depression.
I am currently completing revisions to a book-length manuscript co-authored with Dolores Furlong of UNB and the late Rosemary Clews of STU, for publication (we hope) with the University of Toronto Press under the title of “The Tales that Bind: A Narrative Model of Living and Helping in Rural Communities”. The mss is based on a SSHRC-funded qualitative research project we have been involved in that explores the experiences of people working in small New Brunswick communities in one or another of the so-called “helping professions” – teaching, nursing, medicine, ministry, social work, etc. From the get-go, our hypothesis has been that the narrative complexity of life in rural communities – i.e., where, quite literally, “everyone knows everyone’s business” and where gossip, good or bad, runs rampant – presents professionals, regardless of their discipline, with a unique set of challenges for which their (often) urban-based training may not have prepared them.
Another project I’ve been working on behind the scenes is the articulation of “a narrative theology of aging.” Apart from one conference paper in 2010, however, I haven’t advanced much further in this venture. I do, though, see another book emerging from it. Perhaps when I retire!!
5) How do you see your research/work in terms of possibly contributing to evidence-based public policy?
I see myself as a theoretician of aging more than a practitioner or policy-maker. (Gerontology is “data-rich but theory-poor”, so some gerontologists have confessed.) I’m told that the writing I’ve done on such concepts as “restorying our lives” (Kenyon & Randall, 1997), “reading our lives” (Randall & McKim, 2008), and “narrative foreclosure” (Bohlmeijer, Westerhof, Randall, Tromp, & Kenyon, 2011) has helped to inspire empirical research which in the Netherlands, for instance (see Bohlmeijer & Westerhof, 2011, etc.), is directly effecting public policy in terms of funding narrative care (Ubels, 2011). The work of Daphne Noonan and colleagues on the positive impact of narrative care within nursing homes in New Brunswick makes me optimistic that comparable effects – and evidence – are just around the corner for us here (Noonan, 2011).
6) Discuss any past achievements that were significant to your professional path? Have any contributed to the promotion of evidence-based public policy?
Publishing books like “The Stories We Are” and “Reading Our Lives”, co-editing a journal called “Narrative Works”, and teaching a course each year on “Narrative Gerontology” (because of which, since 1995, nearly 300 students have now been infected by the “narrative bug”) – all of these experiences have been significant to my professional path. As to whether any have contributed to the promotion of evidence-based policy … apart from what I’ve said under question # 5, it’s not for me to comment.
7) Describe in a couple of sentences your involvement with the NBSPRN and how your relationship with the Network has contributed to your research/work and/or to social/economic policy?
I have worked directly with Eric Gionet of the NBSPRN, plus Gary Kenyon of STU’s Gerontology Department and Bob Fisher of the Third Age Centre, in planning and facilitating two “Showcase and Sharing” events specifically related to aging.
8) Any last thoughts?
Appreciating the richness and complexity of older adults’ lives – in short, listening to and honouring their stories – is absolutely central to their physical and emotional well-being, not to mention to the communities where they live and which they love.