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.