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.

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