David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

In Praise of the First Person

Full pedagogyunbound

Every year, in my rhetoric classes, I assign a version of the late Ken Macrorie's “I-Search” paper. Even though Macrorie first proposed his radical revision of the research paper almost 40 years ago, it's a wholly unfamiliar type of assignment for my students, who are mostly in their first year of college.

In an “I-Search” paper, students choose their own topics (the idea is to come up with a question they actually want to know the answer to), research answers through traditional and untraditional means (including talking to any experts they can find), and then write and turn in a narrative of their search (instead of a traditional argumentative essay).

It’s a challenging assignment but there’s one aspect of the paper they struggle with the most: They have to write in the first person.

They flood me with questions about it: How can they write in the first person and still be objective? Won't writing the story of how they went about their research come across like a weird kind of diary entry? Many students — particularly the ones who were good students in high school — find the idea deeply uncomfortable. Most of them were not allowed to use the first person in high-school writing. To them, it reeks to them of third-grade “creative writing” assignments: What I Did on My Summer Holiday. They don't understand how writing can be both personal and scholarly.

Resistance to first-person writing is not restricted to first-year undergraduates. The reaction is much the same in a graduate course I teach on writing and in tutoring sessions with graduate students at our campus writing center. Many graduate students — particularly in the sciences — are loath to use the first person in their writing and some have advisers who expressly forbid it.

I'm here to make the case for writing in the first person, and to encourage you to adopt assignments that allow your students to practice using it in academic settings. I think it's important.

In her 2012 book Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword presents research showing that use of the first person is far more widespread — yes, even in the sciences — than you might guess. She found extensive use of personal pronouns in prominent journals from such fields as medicine, evolutionary biology, and computer science but identified only one journal (in history) that forbids the first person altogether. Style guides across the social sciences and sciences, she noted, have long encouraged the use of I or we.

And yet, in my experience, many graduate students in the sciences are still taught that use of the first person will diminish their apparent objectivity, the hallmark of any scientist's legitimacy.

Subjectivity and objectivity, in fact, have nothing to do with which grammatical person you choose to use. It's as easy to come up with examples of subjective writing in the third person (“The results of the experiment suggest a link between vaccines and autism”) as it is to conjure objective writing that uses the first person (“We measured the thickness of the diploë using morphometric analyses”). To always insist upon the third person is to pretend that there is no researcher and no writer — that the scholarship “just happened.” That's not objectivity; that's playacting.

Better to teach students that they need to maintain objectivity precisely because they are present. They won't achieve objective writing by pretending they don't exist; rather they must acknowledge their biases, understand how their presence affects their subject, and indicate to the reader that they are taking every possible step to mitigate such effects.

Additionally, when we prevent students from using the first person, we cut them off from a valuable writing tool. Certainly, the third person is a very useful mode, and may be appropriate most of the time in some disciplines. But to restrict yourself and your students to using the third person all of the time — to sentence yourself to a lifetime of reading students write sentences like “the subject of this study is …” or “here it is demonstrated …” — seems unduly masochistic, even for an academic.

Why not allow students to find the correct solution to each particular problem? In those circumstances when writing in the first person would make for sharper, clearer, more direct language, why forbid it?

Most important, practicing first-person writing encourages students to begin to see themselves as scholars. If students find using the first person strange and uncomfortable, it suggests that they find the scholarly identity incompatible with their own identity. (“I can't be a serious researcher; I'm just a kid.”)

But real scholars are real people — people who investigate scholarly problems and write about them. That is the main reason I love the I-Search assignment and why I insist my students use the first person for it. They need practice narrating the story of themselves as scholars. I want them to learn that academic practice is not reserved for lofty professors with expertise in arcane disciplines. Academic practice is just that — a practice — and the sooner I can get students to see themselves as practitioners, no matter how modest, the sooner they can leave me behind and start finding answers to the questions that matter to them.

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