That pesky first person singular

Among the most frequently asked questions from my students: “Can we say ‘I’ in this paper?”  It’s obvious that they’ve often been taught an absolute prohibition on the first person singular pronoun in formal academic writing. But that prohibition is at odds with what I see in peer-reviewed journal articles: “In this paper, I will argue that . . . ”  “I would instead suggest that . . .” and similar formulations are common.  Students should develop their own judgment based on actual professional practice rather than learning a rule with no rationale behind it, and that’s what I try to communicate in answer to their question about “I.”  Sometimes it seems like the prohibition would be easier, as students’ papers still proliferate with “I think,” “I feel,” “I believe” and similar statements. Fortunately the Wall Street Journal recently provided a different rationale for minimizing I statements in speech as well as writing–or, if not minimizing them, at least using them more thoughtfully and deliberately: “What Saying ‘I’ Says About You.”

Given my own interest in gender issues I’m particularly interested in (though not surprised by) the data point that says women say “I” a lot more frequently than men do. It’s made me more conscious of how I express myself in the classroom in order to reinforce the idea that my standards are objective standards and not my own opinions and preferences.  Sometimes I have to make a conscious effort to say “It’s best to” or “MLA style calls for” instead of “I think you should.” I don’t know yet if the effort is paying off but I’m keeping an eye on my students’ responses to see if they begin to phrase their questions to me in similar language.

Research paper time-lapse

A friend of mine just posted this video on Facebook; I think it’s potentially a valuable little teaching tool:


I’ve noticed that students often seem skeptical about writing papers in any order other than beginning-to-end.  As a consequence they get “stuck” at the end of the first paragraph when they feel like they don’t know their thesis.  Or they write on through in an unfocused, impressionistic way and arrive at a really smart thesis 2 sentences before the end of the paper.  This video suggests a more successful strategy: although the overall development is linear, we can see the entire paper expanding from within all the way through.  In fact, 3 full pages are completed before the author fills in the introduction!

Students are also much too quick to delete content that they’re having problems with.  In conferences with students, if I point out a problem with a specific section, the student will often respond “So should I just take that out?” That question is harder to answer: sometimes, opening a new Word document and re-drafting “from scratch” (but actually with your previous work in your consciousness, just not in front of your eyes) is beneficial.  But I often suspect that students would rather “just take it out” than deal with the more challenging intellectual work of untangling their ideas and making precise choices.  So I was pleased to see that in this video, the overall direction is of growth.  We don’t see whole pages or even whole paragraphs going out the window.

The “About” information for the video reveals that the writer(s) produced 463 “intermediate versions” of the paper before presenting it.  Four hundred sixty-three! Leaving aside questions about what constitutes a “version” (because in the context of the writing process, the writer’s definition is the appropriate one), remind me to ask my composition classes how many drafts they usually write before turning in an essay.  How much would their writing improve if that number crept up toward 463?

What should children read?

This op-ed by Sara Mosle makes a well-reasoned argument for exposing K-12 students to more, better nonfiction writing.  I particularly like her acknowledgment of the value of models and her recognition that students need an explicit bridge from the personal, impressionistic, or purely informational writing they do in H.S. to the more formal but also more analytical/argumentative style that college demands.  I hope this conversation doesn’t become oversimplified into a “fiction vs. nonfiction” debate (too late, probably).  Surely the bottom line is revealed in Mosle’s opening anecdote about Malcolm Gladwell: the key is simply to read more.

When Blossoms Crash

I love this story about “crash blossoms,” which not only explains the etymology of that gorgeous neologism, but also breaks down the reasons that English so easily becomes ambiguous”*.  A more recent example of a crash blossom inspired me to Google** the origins of the phrase.


*Yes, “etymology,” “neologism,” and “ambiguous” all in a single sentence before 10 a.m.  I am a professional; do not try this at home.

** “to Google”: good example of the kind of part-of-speech elasticity that makes English both wonderful and confounding.

RIP, Gore Vidal; long live all things “epicene”

Twitter tells me that

Through my interest in gender issues I’ve become a fan of the epicene pronoun.  I occasionally write “zie” or “hir” in online discourse but don’t really use them out loud.  The facelessness of the Internet lends particular credence to the need for such words; cf. the vintage Web-joke “How do you know you’re addicted to the Internet? You don’t know the genders of your three best friends.”  A non-gendered singular third person pronoun also circumvents grammatical awkwardness. Finish this sentence: “Each student must bring a sack lunch with ___ on the bus”  (If you said “extra cookies,” you are my kind of person). “Him or her” is kind of clunky; rewriting as “Students must” is fine but doing that every time takes away an opportunity for sentence variation.  As for the singular they/them, the Canadian Department of Justice recommends it, but I’m not quite ready to.


Recent writing goodies

During the summer when I have a little more time to play around online, I try to collect good articles, infographics, editorials, etc. that might come in handy in the classroom.  Here are a few I’ve run across recently:

Wow. Apparently what I really do on my summer vacation is think about punctuation.