I in Academic Writing

This is a topic with which I struggle. I don’t want my students to indiscriminately use the first-person pronoun. (Obviously the letter i is appropriate regardless of the level of formality in composition.) “I believe this is so” is significantly weaker than “This is so.” There are myriad constructions with I which are not appropriate as well: I mean, I think, you know what I think…

But I don’t want to indiscriminately ban the use of the word I either. How can students present something from their lives if they are not allowed the option of utilizing the first-person pronoun?

In her post arguing against the anti-I rationales Culture Cat says:

[F]irst person is rhetorically useful and appropriate for a wide variety of reasons, reasons more plentiful and far more sound than any I can think of to prohibit it.

Yes, exactly.

2 thoughts on “I in Academic Writing”

  1. I disagree wholeheartedly with Culture Cat.

    I teach from English at the local CC from the ground up–that is, from developmental courses up to electives. I insist they learn a lot of skills, from managing their use of viewpoint (POV) switches, to MLA, to creating a sound argument. Learning to write in the formal third person is just another skill I teach. I’m not hostile to the students (as she insinuates). I see the use of this more as an outgrowth of the “me” culture. In the developmental class, I don’t even address POV switches or the different qualities of POV at all, as we are still working on things such as verb tense and commas. But beyond that, I have found that students can write about themselves, from the I-point of view, with great ease. Indeed, one of their papers in the upper-level classes, is a first-person narrative, in which they MUST write from the first person point of view.

    But I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t teach them the formal third person POV, and the ability to stay within one point of view consistently through a short paper. Many of the papers CultureCat quotes drove me crazy, full of things I urge my students to drop, such as “announcing” the topic or argument (which creates wordiness). And I might argue that not all disciplines have adopted this I-centered type of writing; the hard sciences still resist that type of writing. (I know this because my husband is a professor of one of those hard sciences at Big U, and bemoans his students’ lack of POV abilities.)

    I have noticed that if a student consistently uses the “I” POV, they most likely have the second person “you” imbedded somewhere in their paper as well. That one is harder to ferret out and explain to them what the 2nd person POV “does” to their papers. It’s a skill we teach–not a rule–and we as English teachers are remiss if we don’t equip our students for all the different disciplines out there.

  2. I think Culture Cat has a point. While learning formal third person is a highly valuable skill (I do not deny this; I encourage it the majority of the time), the “I” in an academic paper can prove necessary. For instance, there is a difference between using “I” to express an opinion and “I” to establish credibility. It is true that a sentence beginning with “I believe” can come off as overconfident and unsupported. A paper can do without it. However, narratives and personal experience requires the first person (as the previous commenter mentioned). In an undergraduate psychology course on attachment research, I read several chapters of a work by Inge Bretherton, who often discusses her research in the first person. I had more respect for her afterwards because she is writing from extensive experience in the field. In the introductory academic writing course for which I am a teaching assistant, we instruct students to write papers based on experience.

    Do not get me wrong: I am strongly opposed to the “me” culture mentioned in the previous comment. I have experience teaching elementary, middle, high school, and college-level students, and all age levels are completely self-involved. It’s rather sad. But what’s sadder is that it is the only way some of them can learn! Quite often, I must create lessons so that the material, whatever it may be, relates to them. The class I assistant teach now uses this model nicely, because it turns a personal experience and narrative into an academic research paper; in a way, it is helping students become interested in academic writing. With my elementary school kids, I have to “trick” them into learning. To return to my original point, allowing the usage of “I” in a paper might be able to “trick” incoming college students into appreciating academic writing. They may have to write about an academic topic, but they also get to write about themselves! This, of course, is not true for all courses. In fact, it probably only works in the courses specifically focused on improving writing.

    Maybe the overuse of the first person can be diminished if you, as the professor, limit it to narratives only. This will keep them from using “I think” and “I argue that.” That really only works rhetorically if you are already credible source (that is one who possesses a PhD or equivalent). It’s harder to agree with what a lowly undergraduate simply “believes.”

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