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.

What's a reasonable, realistic graduation rate?

There's been a lot of buzz lately about the GRAD Act in Louisiana. Its goal is to increase graduation rates in state universities, and that has had me thinking about what might be a good goal to set for graduation rates in regional public universities like mine.

There will always be students who simply decide that college is not their thing, regardless of the particular institution, and students who relocate for reasons having nothing to do with any failure of the institution. Also, as Sara pointed out last night, there are always students who have life issues that put them outside the six-year graduation timetable. In other words, they finish, but they might have to take semesters off, and it might take them seven and a half years.

The goal this legislation sets for my university is 60%. This source, which may be false and/or outdated, puts our transfer rate at 40%. Even if this number is somewhat exaggerated, that's a pretty big chunk of the student population. I wonder how transfer students are counted in the graduation rate. I don't want to be put into a "graduate everyone that's left" situation. I guess what I'm saying is that I see a few categories of students in the "aren't graduating" cohort:

  • Those who simply decide that they don't like college, period (nothing personal!)
  • Those who take longer than six years due to life issues
  • Those who transfer elsewhere (if those students are counted in the graduation rates)
  • Those who are so underprepared that they don't manage to meet the requirements and outcomes despite the best efforts of academic support services -- or who just need more than six years to reach them (have to repeat some courses, for example)
  • Those who are well prepared but not mature or focused, so they crash and burn, but they might return sometime in their late twenties or early thirties
  • And of course, there are those who are pretty well prepared, but they don't manage to make it out in six years due to some actual institutional problems, like required courses that are only offered every two years, etc.
  • And those who are not that well prepared but are motivated, but could have been helped by academic support services that are underfunded, nonexistent, or otherwise inadequate

I wonder if 60% is a realistic goal. It sounds like it -- after all, you're still conceding that 40% won't graduate, and the GRAD Act is only ruling that Louisiana must rise to the rates of other southern states -- but I'm curious to find out the whole story about the compilation of graduation rates. I know dual enrollment students are not counted; they could take a year's worth of credit in high school, but the graduation clock starts only when they get OUT of high school and set foot on our campus. Gaming the system...

Goal Weight: The Ongoing Struggle

I think I'm more or less to my goal weight. My ob/gyn told me just yesterday that he thinks I'm where I should be and would do fine to maintain my current weight. And he seems to be a stickler for weight; I get weighed for every appointment whether pregnant or not. Obviously weighing during pregnancy is a gauge for measuring potential complications, but is it really necessary to weigh a woman when the point of the visit is to do a routine test for cervical cancer? I'm not complaining, but I know a lot of people, such as those in the Health at Every Size movement, have criticized doctors who give lectures about weight when the patient went there for an ear infection, for example. My doctor is great, but he's the type who might do something like that. He recommends a twenty-pound gain during pregnancy rather than the 25-35 pound recommendation from the field of obstetrics.

Anyway, point is, my ob/gyn and I are OK with my weight. But I want to stay mindful of what I eat and how much. I was catching up with my old grad school friend Greg the other day via his blog, and I ran across this post which recommended, in the strongest terms, Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. I read some of the reviews about it, and I ordered it from interlibrary loan.

The book seems to address the science regarding the consumption of protein, fat, and carbohydrates (refined and complex). In reading the Amazon reviews and Greg's thoughts, I came to a greater understanding about food (can't wait to actually read the book).

OK, so everyone knows the conventional wisdom that if you eat something sweet, you'll have some energy, but shortly after that you'll have a "crash," and so it's better to eat something with protein and complex carbs. I had always understood the "crash" to mean that you get tired and want to go to sleep. This does not happen to me.

BUT, Taubes is demonstrating that eating a bowl of white rice, a doughnut, or the like will cause your blood sugar to spike (of course. I haven't been living under a rock.). So your body responds with a surge of insulin to metabolize the sugar. The insulin is still surging once the sugar has been dealt with, and then you have the "crash." Again, somewhat nebulous but still more or less common knowledge.

The breakthrough for me came when I was reading about how he shows that sugar and refined carbs are addictive. You're hungry, you eat those foods, and they MAKE you hungry for more (edited to add, I guess that's why alcoholic beverages are supposedly an appetite stimulant? I don't drink, but it makes sense). THAT made me reflect a bit, and then I realized what the "crash" means for me.

Sometimes when I haven't eaten for a while, I get very weak and shaky. I'm not tired, but I definitely feel like crap in those moments. I understand now that when I eat some cake, I'm much more likely to get "the weak trembles," as my dad used to call them, shortly after that than when I eat some oatmeal. Now I really get the crash/addiction cycle that is going on with the sugary foods.

Another small but significant realization I made was from watching Thintervention on Bravo. One of the participants in the weight loss reality show was not losing any weight from week to week. Toward the end of the season, she confessed that she'd starve herself for most of the day and then eat a ton of food. Jackie Warner and the therapist on the show explained to her that she'd wrecked her metabolism. Of course all the sensible diet books say NEVER to skip meals, but their explanation really resonated; I'd also heard that starvation diets make the body go into starvation mode and hang onto fat/calories. But I'd always thought that someone had to go days without eating for that to happen. Apparently not...the body can think it's starving pretty quickly.

So now I'm going from "five small meals with protein per day and I don't quite understand why but I'm going through the motions anyhow" to "five small meals with protein per day and I really GET how to recognize and interpret the feedback my body gives me."

Grade Appeals and Informal Fallacies

As I was preparing for my class meeting about informal fallacies (specifically the appendix about informal fallacies in Writing Arguments), I realized that I've heard almost every one of these in the course of my duties as an administrator, specifically in the form of a grade appeal argument.

1. Student gets an F for missing fifteen class meetings. “I got an F, and I know I missed a lot of class, but I had car trouble, and then I got mono, and then I had a family emergency, and then I got a stomach virus, and then I got a sinus infection, and then I got arrested, and then I got called for jury duty.”
2. Student gets a D; got Cs/Ds/Fs on papers. “But I showed my papers to my tenth grade English teacher who's a friend of the family, and my roommate, and my sister, and my cousin, and they all think I should get an A or a B.”
3. Student gets an F. “But Mr. X is a terrible teacher! He wore the same holey black t-shirt every day and has an annoying high-pitched voice.”
4. Student gets a D. “But I got an A as my interim grade and a B on the first paper.”
5. Student gets a D. “But I came to class every day.”
6. Student gets a C. “But my dad is a professor at this school.”
7. Student: “Hello, I need to talk to you. I got an F in my 101 class, and my teacher is the worst teacher I've ever had in my life...”
8. Student gets a C. “But I should have gotten an A because I did outstanding work in the class.”
9. Student gets a C. “But I always got As on my papers in high school.”
10. Student gets an F. “But I'll lose my TOPS!”

Obviously there are legitimate arguments to be made in grade appeal cases, but these are not among them. Their next assignment is a definition argument, so I think it might be interesting to tie these two activities together. A successful grade appeal argument would persuade the administration that the teacher engaged in "arbitrary and capricious grading" and would argue that according to the program standards and outcomes and course policies, the student deserves a different grade. And, of course, any time a teacher gives a grade to a student's work, that is a definition argument (placing the work in a category according to the criteria of that category).

The Best Time in an Academic Career to Have Children

Yeah, there's no right time. Anyway, I was impressed by Sara's post a short while back -- she has done it both ways: one child during graduate school and one while on the tenure track. She says graduate school is a better time, which seems to be the consensus when I've read threads on the topic on places like the Chronicle forums, Mama PhD, etc.

I only know it one way: I've had both of mine on the tenure track. It has its stresses, but sometimes while doing child care I'll look at Jonathan and say, "Wouldn't it have sucked to do this in grad school?" He agrees. I've never been able to put my finger on why, exactly. After all, you aren't expected to spend much time on campus while in graduate school. But for me, after graduate school, there was this feeling of out-from-under that has, I believe, made me a happier and better parent than I would have been before. This post about a mock interview experience, written by a person I'm looking forward to getting to know better (on-blog, that is), captures the "under" feeling very well. I'm sure that a lot of people experience "under" while on the tenure track too, which is a probationary period, after all, but having kids during these years was best for us.

More from the childhood archives

My favorite things and my hobbies/pets circa second grade:



Fraser's "Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History"

From Nancy Fraser's article "Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History" (NLR Mar/Apr 2009, p. 114, my emphasis):

[Feminism works as] a general discursive construct which feminists [as participants in a social movement] no longer own and do not control -- an empty signifier of the good (akin, perhaps, to 'democracy'), which can and will be invoked to legitimate a variety of different scenarios, not all of which promote gender justice. An offspring of feminism in the first, social-movement sense, this second, discursive sense of 'feminism' has gone rogue. As the discourse becomes independent of the movement, the latter is increasingly confronted with a strange shadowy version of itself, an uncanny double that it can neither simply embrace nor wholly disavow. [...] This formula of 'feminism and its doubles' could be elaborated to good effect with respect to the 2008 US Presidential election, where the uncanny doubles included both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

I couldn't resist posting this. The article was published in spring 09, so Fraser probably wrote it at least a couple of months earlier. Palin's book was published in November 2009 (I think), and I don't remember if the title was common knowledge for a very long time before that. I hope Fraser's construction here is the simultaneously dismal and delightful coincidence I want it to be. Here's more on the confrontation of feminism with its evil twin.

First-Year Writing Files

This is just a collection of links to files associated with my administration of my university's first-year writing program. I may add files here later:

Instructor Manual

Syllabus for English 509: this is my syllabus for the teacher-training course I'm teaching this fall. Our program requires two pedagogy courses, one that leans toward the theory end and another that leans toward practice; this is the latter.

English 101 <-- This is the syllabus for my English 101 course this semester.

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