Using "I" in Academic Writing

This post is going to be something like my official position statement on the use of "I" in academic writing -- or more specifically, a critique of the arguments against using "I" in academic writing, most of which I find utterly baseless. My opinions have been informed by conversations with many teachers over the course of my eleven(?) years teaching college writing, and I'm not singling anyone out. If you've said anything like the following statements to me, you can be sure that it's about the dozenth time I've heard it.

But also, I recently taught Kate McKinney Maddalena's wonderfully sensible "I Need You to Say 'I': Why First Person Is Important in College Writing, so my thoughts are informed by her essay too. Here goes:

Arguments against using "I"

"Students have to follow the rules in writing before they should be allowed to break them."

But "don't use first person" is not a rule. Do these people read academic writing, I want to ask. From the July 2010 issue of College English:

In this essay, I suggest that blogging is better understood as a technology that enables an expansion of the private sphere for the Orthodox Jewish women who write them...My analysis is based on research conducted between March 2006 and January 2008. In the earliest phase of research (March-November 2006), I began by following the blogging activity of three writers featured in the mainstream Jewish press: AidelMaidel, Nice Jewish Girl (NJG), and Chayyei Sarah.

That's from Andrea Lieber, "A Virtual Veibershul: Blogging and the Blurring of Public and Private among Orthodox Jewish Women," and "I" is used many more times in the article.

From the August 2010 issue of New Media & Society:

By addressing the historical role of telecommunications in the city, I attempt to contextualize the use of mobile social networks not as entirely radical and new, but as a next step in the intricate interdependency between communication technology and urban living. I next outline the mobile social network case study, Dodgeball, and discuss the data collection and analysis procedures. Then I introduce the concept of parochialization as a means of capturing the sense of commonality that emerges among participating co-inhabitants of the social space. I explain how Dodgeball informants used the service to socially coordinate and congregate with others in urban public spaces. I conclude by arguing that spatial factors are very relevant in mediated communication and suggest how this research might be extended to other social media.

That's from Lee Humphreys, "Mobile Social Networks and Urban Public Space."

From the Fall 2010 issue of Pedagogy:

[L]iterature is no different from any other art: how to quantify, for example, the precise amount of value contributed by provenance, condition, artist's stature, workmanship, and medium that go into the valuation of a work of visual art, not even considering the question of its perceived beauty? Confusion is abetted by the plethora of categorizations that have arisen to describe aspects of works of literature and their reception history. To allow for subtle distinctions, and to uncover similarities obscured by competing terms, I will break down these determinants into basic factorial elements, recognizing that any exhaustive classification system will have some ares of overlap.

You just read some of "Constructing Our Pedagogical Canons" by Joan L. Brown.

All that right up there is from published articles in academic journals, so I'd say it's academic writing. I can grab any other issue of any other journal I subscribe to and find first person used in similar ways. It's done ALL THE TIME, especially in the kind of argument-based writing we teach in first-year writing. All those authors who are using "I" in every article and book: are they breaking a rule? At some point, you have to realize that there is no meaningful rule against using "I," and that convention overwhelmingly favors using "I."

"It's better not to say 'I think' because it's the writer's paper; it's understood that everything in the paper is the writer's opinion."

Not so. Maddalena does a fine job debunking this dowdy idea. Not everything in the paper is the writer's opinion; most likely, much of what's in the paper consists of paraphrases of other writers' opinions, and my audience can become very confused if I don't set up contrast relationships properly -- if I don't make it clear when my summary of someone else's argument ends and mine begins. In fact, there's a pretty excellent book about just this!

"Yeah, yeah. OK. I know it isn't really a rule that you can't say 'I' in academic writing. But it still bugs me when students do it; I'm not sure why."

I see several assumptive possibilities here, which all involve an underlying generalized mistrust of or hostility toward students:

  • Students haven't earned the right to say 'I.'
  • It's presumptuous, arrogant, audacious, or otherwise off-putting for a student to say 'I.'
  • The urge to invalidate students' claims of authority and expertise: you don't get to have a boldly stated opinion, underling. You may only whisper it as echoes of a phalanx of experts in cited sources.

Even this article from Neural Development uses first person. And this article in Cerebrospinal Fluid Research.

Does every sentence that makes a claim have to be prefaced by "I argue," "I think that," "My position is," "I contend that," "I posit that," "I claim that," "My claim is," etc.? Of course not. But first 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.