Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Understanding I: The Rhetorical Variety of Self-References in College Literature Papers

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Understanding I: The Rhetorical Variety of Self-References in College Literature Papers

Article excerpt

It seems only fair to start with my own first-person admission: I am personally, pedagogically, and professionally interested in how students do and do not write about themselves in their academic papers. And as a composition instructor, I have seen that students, too, are deeply concerned with understanding the "rules" for academic writing, particularly around the use of the pronoun I. Their confusion is understandable: high school teachers, college professors, and writing handbook authors-all wrestling with how best to train students to becomes successful writers in and outside of the classroom-sometimes offer conflicting guidelines and advice. Some contend that first-person pronouns make a text more readable or better highlight a writer's own contributions, while others caution that first-person references are overly informal or subjective.1

Scholars, though, consistently use first-person pronouns in their own writing-though this, too, is not uncomplicated. In a survey of 240 scholarly articles from well-regarded journals across a variety of academic fields, linguist Ken Hyland found that every article in the sample contained "at least one first person reference," with scholars in the humanities and social sciences self-referencing particularly frequently ("Humble Servants" 212).2 Despite this evidence that scholars commonly use first-person pronouns, Hyland believes this practice is still at odds with traditional academic attitudes. He observes that impersonality in writing is often "institutionally sanctified" as a signal of disciplinary mastery, yet it is also "constantly transgressed" in our scholarship (209). Because of this contradiction, Hyland argues that gauging where and when self-referencing is appropriate "remains a perennial problem for students, teachers, and experienced writers alike" (208).

What becomes clear from this conflict is that we have historically and ideologically conflated first-person pronoun use with more informal, personal writing. But is this conflation warranted? To examine this, I argue that we must carefully refine what we mean by "personal" and "academic" writing. For although we have spent decades discussing the appropriateness and utility of these two writing styles (often as iterations of the seminal Bartholomae/ Elbow Debate, and, more recently, in productive explorations of alternative discourses and widened disciplinary conventions), we still largely intuit our own definitions of each kind of writing.3 And too often, these definitions are used to create a good-versus-bad, academic-versus-personal binary that student writing-and our own-simply does not follow. What makes writing academic? What makes writing personal? Can writing be both academic and personal? And, most relevant to the current study, does the use of first-person pronouns necessarily signal or encourage personal writing?

Individual instructors will always, of course, have different preferences around first-person pronoun use; some will welcome it as a style that bolsters a student's voice, while others will dismiss it as inappropriate in an academic setting. This study is not intended to adjudicate this debate, nor will I use the results to make claims about the overall rhetorical effectiveness of selfreferencing. Instead, the study aims to look at how such first-person statements function, to appreciate their rhetorical variety, and to offer a critical vocabulary by which to respond to them.

In addition to refining the way we look at first-person references, we also need to examine how frequently students are really using these pronouns or referencing their personal lives in their academic writing. Some instructors report that they consistently encounter personal responses in their students' papers, regardless of the assignment prompt, while others find evidence that students have rigidly internalized a proscription against using I at all.4 But beyond these conflicting anecdotal observations, there is surprisingly little understanding of our undergraduate students' actual writing practices. …

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