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New edX Course From Davidson Helps Learners Harness Storytelling to Advance Careers

by | Sep 22, 2022 | Local, News, Stories from Davidson College

Theatre Prof. Steve Kaliski ’07 (right) is the inaugural Cornelson Faculty Innovator in Residence at The Hurt Hub.


Three years ago, urging someone to jump on a Zoom call likely would have drawn blank stares. But after the pandemic forced people to work from home, virtual meetings became not only commonplace; they became normal.

That seismic shift is still reverberating, and it seems that work may never fully return to the pre-pandemic routine.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The qualities that bind humans together–listening, teamwork, empathy, for example–remain precious. They are the bedrock upon which every enterprise rests.

And now, the same technology that upended office life is enabling people from around the world to reinforce those timeless human skills. On Aug. 25, the first of two new Davidson-led edX courses launched. (edX is a massive open online course provider created by Harvard and MIT with 150+ partners that engaged 40+ million learners in 196 countries. Davidson College has been a charter member of edX since 2012. Check out all DavidsonX course offerings.)

Powered by a recent $100,000 grant from edX for “essential human skills,” these courses are open to learners around the world who are interested in understanding the modern workplace.

Theatre Prof. Steve Kaliski ’07

Steve Kaliski ’07, a visiting assistant professor of theatre and writing studies, is leading the charge as the inaugural Cornelson Faculty Innovator in Residence at The Jay Hurt Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The new position was established by the estate of George H. Cornelson ’53 and provides one faculty member a year-long appointment in the Hurt Hub. Cornelson was a leader in the textile industry, serving as CEO of Clinton Mills, Inc. He also led the Bailey Foundation, devoting his time to improving the lives for his neighbors in Clinton, South Carolina. He served on a host of boards and committees, including a term as a Davidson College trustee.

In addition to leading the edX courses, Kaliski will teach Writing 270: “A Bit About Me,” in which students will learn to craft compelling stories about their identities in a professional atmosphere. They will be paired with a mentor from the Hurt Hub community as they familiarize themselves with the intersection between self and business.

All year, Kaliski will be helping students at Davidson–and from around the world–learn to apply storytelling and performance skills to the professional world. 

First up: the four-week edX course “Applied Storytelling” that helps students harness intentional and impactful storytelling.

Kaliski is also developing a second course, “Just Be Yourself: The Art of Acting in the Workplace” for release in spring 2023.

He shared more on the first course below:

Why is this course essential right now?

There’s nothing particularly new about businesses wanting their employees to be better storytellers. When I was in theatre grad school over a decade ago, there was a growing awareness that MFAs had quite a marketable set of skills as corporate trainers, which was a surprise to us at the time, because we thought we’d signed up for a hopelessly fringe profession! 

But the need grew as businesses realized that the bells and whistles of innovative tech should not overshadow the aspect of their brands that was distinctly human. 

What is unique and essential about this course, though, is the way it situates storytelling and performance training in an online learning environment. Online courses and trainings are pretty deft at imparting concrete skills; you watch some demos, you take some tests, you get the certificate. 

But it’s much harder to teach the skills we are teaching here.

I think when edX distributed $1 million across 10 recipients who were pitching “essential human skills in the virtual age,” they wanted to see who could crack the code for embodied learning in the sorts of remote, virtual environments we’ve become accustomed to during the pandemic.

This is more than just a way to present information at formal meetings. Can you describe how these skills can help in the less structured settings of networking, for example?

One of my goals here is to get learners to think about “storytelling” as something more expansive than beginning with “let me tell you about a time” and then having a captive audience for 10 minutes. 

One tip: Having specific examples at the ready can be powerful. They are very effective mini-stories that are useful in stressful, anxiety-inducing scenarios like networking. Instead of trying to hit it off with a business role model by word-vomiting generalities about how much you admire them, and ‘Wow, how much could we use some rain,” what if you had a list of three values you share with this individual, or three sports or culture fandoms you have in common?  These might not be complete narratives, but they have elements of story—specificity, relatability, perhaps a sense of event—that can spark your conversation.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d share with someone?

Rehearse. Every embodied practice, from acting to storytelling to athletics, requires a system of repetition that allows the act to become second nature. 

I was recently speaking with Coach and Leader-in-Residence Bob McKillop about how sports and theatre overlap. It’s so true! Steph Curry and Judi Dench almost never miss their free throws, literally or metaphorically speaking. The trap of an online course is that, lacking accountability in classmates or in-person professors, you figure that you’ve got the skill down once you watch the last video in the sequence. But that should only be the beginning. 

Something we’re trying to do on the “verified track” of the storytelling class is to keep our learners engaged on a Slack channel both during and after their asynchronous course progression. They can find “story buddies” in their time zones on the Slack channel, engage with each other about triumphs and failures, and sign up to practice with me directly in monthly alumni calls. Hopefully this extra level of access will get the message across about the importance of rehearsal. So, if you have a choice between the audit track and the verified track, take the verified track!

These skills probably come a little easier to you given your background–but I’m curious if you have a personal anecdote (a story, if you will) about how storytelling helped you meet goals or advance your career.

My first college professor job was teaching adjunct public speaking classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. They had a reputation of hiring theatre MFAs to cover their 100+ sections of public speaking (every student was required to take it, and it was a BIG school), so I went in there to interview on a Friday, figuring, “Why not?” I was hired to teach a section starting the next Monday. I had never taken a public speaking class, so I decided to keep my piddling imposter syndrome to myself and just stay a chapter ahead the whole semester. What I was not expecting was to totally fall in love with the discipline. Instead of pretentious oratory, I discovered that BMCC’s curriculum really emphasized storytelling as the bedrock of communications. 

One of my students’ early assignments was to tell a personal story about a figure in their lives who had changed them for the better. It was called the “brush with greatness.” Simple, obvious, intuitive, but the results always moved me to tears. I realized how important it was for storytelling to be highly featured in professional discourse. Without it, we must sit through a dreary onslaught of PowerPoint “takeaways” and irritating corporate jargon. With it, we are engaged on a whole other emotional level…I still use that assignment every time I teach public speaking, whether that’s to college students, corporations, or, in our current case, edX online learners from around the world.

Where can people sign up?

Course enrollment is available online. There are two tracks–a free audit track and a verified track, which requires a payment of $199 to access supplemental resources. 

Every learner can achieve all learning outcomes for the course through the audit track. The verified track offers a way for learners wanting to go deeper on a subject to engage with those additional resources.





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