Friday, October 23, 2009

The Use of I

One thing I have been experiencing in my sessions as a consultant is the notion students have adopted in which they aren’t allowed to have a voice in their own papers. Students circumnavigate their pieces trying to avoid the “I”—its literal use as in “I think” and its underlying use, when the paper sounds like how they would speak. While “I” isn’t necessarily voice, all the time, I think it is a good starting point at explaining voice to newer writers. I understand for more academic writing, students need to follow some conventions, but the idea of having to write scholastically is where writer’s block comes for a lot of students.

They have this notion that the “I” is a bad thing. I know a lot of teachers I had in high school said that we weren’t ever allowed to let an “I” slip into the paper. Trying to avoid “I” and navigate the language was very hard. A lot of times people would use “one” as in “One doesn’t need to go to the store for milk” (may be a bad example). Students were then tempted to switch to 2nd person and say “you” which was equally as bad. The other great device is people would try to use the royal “we” as in “We the readers of this text…”

Permission to use “I” seems to be a fix for some of these problems. I think that teachers started pounding this into the heads of high school students (soon to be college students), and it stuck. The notion of not using “I” makes sense in some respects, however. Professors want their students to get away from their feelings about texts (i.e. this story made me feel sad) and want students to instead rhetorically examine texts. They want students to ask themselves questions like, “How is this writer using literary devices to get certain effects?” or “How is the tone of this piece important to the theme?” etc. The only way professors, it seems, could get around this overly-sentimental “feelings speak”, was by abolishing the “I.”

What this does to students, however, is force them into thinking that they must think about the writing from a perspective that isn’t them (if that makes sense). They are taking on another persona to tackle responding to texts—a persona they think the professor wants them to be. What makes me feel sad is the abolition of “I” has transferred to other types of writing, for example, personal essays. How are they supposed to write personal essays without using “I”? In most situations, I have had to give students permission to be themselves. “You are the writer of this paper. You are allowed to have a voice,” I say. They look at me incredulously.


  1. Aunnie, I could not agree with you more. Your post is very timely, as I’ve had two consultations recently in which this topic surfaced in various forms.

    Attempting to examine and evaluate a text from an academic, literary, perspective can be daunting. Attempting this through a lens other than one’s own is tantamount to becoming someone you’ve never even met, and interpreting life through their eyes. Yikes.

    While overuse of “I” is certainly problematic, avoiding “I” entirely is equally awkward. I suspect that, in addition to high school teachers threatening decapitation over the use of “I”, textbooks, across disciplines and from secondary to post-secondary levels, are accomplices in this inculcation of insanely stiff writing.

    In her essay “Dancing with Professors” from Something in the Soil, Patricia Nelson Limerick speaks to the state of textbook writing, and academic writing in general. After two particularly egregious examples of incomprehensible prose, Ms. Limerick writes:
    “The problem is so blatant that there are signs that the students are catching on. In my American history survey course last semester, I presented a few writing rules that I intended to enforce inflexibly. The students looked more and more peevish; they looked as if they were going to run down the hall, find a telephone, place an urgent call, and demand that someone from the American Civil Liberties Union rush up to campus to sue me for interfering with their First Amendment rights to compose unintelligible, misshapen sentences. Finally one aggrieved student raised her hand and said ‘You are telling us not to write long, dull sentences, but most of our assigned reading is full of long, dull sentences.’”
    Limerick goes on to state: “It is, in truth, difficult to persuade students to write well when they find so few good examples in their assigned reading” (Limerick 335).

    WOW! And this from a card carrying PhD in American History! It seems to me that as writers, students and WC tutors, it is incumbent on us to break through the myth of “high-sounding” writing that is little more than smoke and mirrors. I think (ooohhh, that “I” word!) that times are changing with regard to writing. Clear, cogent expression seems to be more broadly taught and sought. Frankly, it’s often more difficult to produce clear, cogent, vivid writing than high-falutin’ fog. But it is exciting. Students sometimes need permission to “sound like themselves”, within appropriate conventions and context. With few (actually I can’t think of any at the moment…the process statement in a scientific lab report perhaps?) exceptions, it’s a well-expressed “voice” that makes writing engaging to both reader and writer.

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