Using “I” Without Making it All About You

One of the cardinal rules of writing in high school is that you are not supposed to use the first person pronoun.  That rule generally gets relaxed once you get to college, and there is a reason for it.  Professional writers (and most of us who teach college writing are professional writers or at least trying to be) use “I” all the time.  Academic writers say, “in this chapter, I will argue,” “during my research, I discovered,” etc.  Those who write in less formally constricted environments, such as editorials, are even more promiscuous about the use of “I.”  But I’ve been hearing some colleagues talking lately about how they ban the word “I” in their student’s writing, and this sort of bothers me.

There is a reason why high school writers aren’t allowed to use it, and I get it.  But a great deal of my energy in getting students to produce felicitous (that’s a great word, isn’t it?) prose is spent trying to untangle the web of rather arbitrary-seeming rules and constraints handed down to them at earlier stages in their education, so it seems worthwhile to spend some blog time exploring why this is taught and how it maybe really doesn’t have the intended effect.

The reason students are told not to use “I” is because of the tendency of young writers to make the writing all about them.  No one ever told you that in 9th grade English, did they?  But there it is.  Kids are kind of narcissistic, and it does, in fact, get in the way of efforts to help them produce good writing.  They tend to rush to positions on an issue and then defend it dogmatically based on nothing more than their god-given freedom of thought:

“MY ARGUMENT IS THIS BECAUSE IT’S MY ARGUMENT AND I’M ENTITLED TO MY OPINION AND YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO THINK IT’S A FREE COUNTRY AND YOU SHOULD BE GRADING MY IDEAS NOT MY GRAMMAR.”

Moving from expressive writing that is focused on exploring the self and toward writing that is focused on tailoring an argument to persuade a specific audience is one of the most profound steps student writers take.  It’s sort of like that Lacanian moment when, as a child, you begin to recognize that you are a self that inhabits a world of selves, that the space you take up in the universe is bounded and runs up against the boundaries of others.  The problem is that the injunction against using “I” in writing doesn’t really help.  The tendency to make one’s writing all about the writer rather than the reader is an impulse that remains alive and well in college and even among adult writers.  So, instead of simply banning the word “I,” we ought to be teaching how to use it.  I actually encourage students to practice using the following statements in their formal, argumentative writing, especially in early drafts:

“I contend…”

“I argue…”

“I advance the position…”

“I have concluded…”

For one thing, freeing up students to work with these kinds of constructions actually helps them write stronger, clearer theses by forcing them to distill their main point in such straightforward terms.  However, there are a couple of phrases that I do tell students to look out for:

“In my opinion…”

“I believe…”

These constructions are in some ways inherently self-directed, while the former set tend toward other-directedness.  By saying “I argue,” you imply that there is a person on the other end of that argument, an interlocutor, a potential respondent, someone you have to persuade or at the very least engage.  By saying “I advance the position,” you are implying that there might be other positions out there, some of which you may need to acknowledge or rebut.  However, when you say “I believe,” you are talking about thoughts that are typically very private.  The implied relationships is not between yourself and the reader but between yourself and the entity you believe in.

That isn’t to say, however, that “I believe” statements cannot work.  They can.  In a lot of confessional writing (think Augustine, Tolstoy, or C.S. Lewis), in which the author is talking about beliefs, you get this kind of language all the time.  But even those writers were attempting to persuade their readers.  By showing how the workings of curiosity, doubt, and faith have led them to adopt a particular belief system, they are trying to say something about how it might work for other people, but trust me, they are almost always thinking about the reader in the process.  People who try to get you to convert to their religion are talking about “belief,” but they are also thinking about the rhetorical strategies that might get you to go along with them.

So, instead of banning “I believe” or “In my opinion,” I tell students to watch for these phrases in their writing and examine why they are using them.  Are they using them as a defense mechanism because they aren’t sure how to justify or substantiate their conclusions and want to render themselves impervious to criticism by resorting to the “well, this is just what I believe, and I’m entitled to my beliefs” stance?  Are they trying to similarly insulate themselves from critique by highlighting the inherent subjectivity of what they are about to say?  If so, then they should see what the statement sounds like if they restate it using one of the first four constructions I listed before.  Does it now sound like something that can be argued and supported with evidence?

I contend (Iseewhatyoudidthere) that banning the use of “I” really only limits vocabulary without teaching students how to see themselves, their beliefs and opinions, as entities that have to interact with other entities in the world, people who have to persuade other people, beliefs and opinions that have to acknowledge and respond to other beliefs and opinions.  Students often think that their writing is part of a hermetically sealed conversation between them and the instructor in which their argument isn’t so much an argument about whatever the assignment was but an argument for why they deserve an A.  And that’s just not how writing works in the real world.

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3 thoughts on “Using “I” Without Making it All About You

  1. I found your entry about the use of first person in an academic essay interesting. During my undergraduate and graduate experience, one of my mentors was ardently against the use of first person. She contends that your name is on the paper, so when you construct an argument, it should be clear which ideas are yours. At the time I tended to agree (though it may have simply been me giving my audience what they wanted, rather than any deep felt believe on my part).

    Since that time, I also prohibited the use of first person pronouns in my composition classes, though I do it for a different reason. Teaching at a small state school in Texas, many of my students seem to have a great difficulty in writing in anything other than first person, which is how they were taught to write in high school, and I believe this practice stems from much of the Texas secondary education system’s curriculum focused almost solely on the state’s standardized test. In my class I remove the use of “I” from writing because I want my students to learn how to write in third person. I show them tricks on how to make an “I” statement into a third-person one.

    However, upon reading your blog, I have to consider am I doing them a disservice by removing the first person? Does showing my students how an individual can construct a solid essay using first person without it coming across as self-centered? As the beginning of the semester looms just over the horizon, you thoughts have given me much to think about. Thank you.

  2. It makes sense. In High School you could never write in first person yet passive voice was equally offensive. Now the pendulum has swung again.

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