Professional Learning Teaching Writing Writing Assessment

Seeing Academic Writing with a New “I”


I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.

– Albert Einstein


In my senior year of college I received an honor that required my presence at an English conference held at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. Along with other honorees from state universities across Pennsylvania, I was expected to read a scholarly paper to demonstrate my worthiness of the bestowed honor. Wanting to dazzle, but not bewilder, I decided upon a final essay I wrote for a course on Shakespeare, figuring that those in attendance would have a more than adequate knowledge of Shakespeare even if they were not familiar with this less popular play, A Winter’s Tale.

Contrary to my usual practice of picking up all work at the end of a semester, I had left this paper in the hands of the professor. I had received my A for the course and assumed the paper bore the same seal. To be best prepared for the conference, however, I decided to retrieve the graded paper, and I found, to my surprise, a B. Grateful for the forewarning of reading a less than perfect paper to an audience of my scholarly peers, I asked my professor for some advice on making it conference worthy. He stressed that although it was interesting and made some valid points, he did not have a clear understanding of why I made certain assertions. I responded that I had made a connection to this play, written in Shakespeare’s maturity, because it spoke to me as a mature woman in her forties. He suggested I go with that, and although I was glad he respected my answer, I was still not sure how to “fix” my paper.

It seemed to me that the best way to revise my paper would be to state up front that I connected with the play because of my age and circumstance in life. How would I do this without using the forbidden pronoun? Can I use the “I” in academic writing? This practice is shunned in secondary schools across the nation, as teachers warn students they won’t be doing that kind of writing in college. Well here I was, in college, wondering if this was permissible. I asked a few other professors if it was acceptable to read a paper at an English conference that contained some of my personal thoughts and musings, unhidden or sheltered by the avoidance of “I.” Their answers were basically the same: Please include yourself in your paper—it makes the reading and listening much more enjoyable.

English teachers may be accustomed to the rolling eyes of their peers from other disciplines. After all, the study of English includes such “soft” activities as the reading and writing of poetry, writing journals, and performing Romeo and Juliet. The calculus teacher works in the “hard” medium of numbers and figures. The chemistry teacher conducts precise experiments with anticipated, measurable results. The social studies teacher analyzes the facts and dates to assess the world in which we live. Writing in these disciplines cannot afford to be muddied by personal thoughts. If E=mc² then we trust it is so after numerous experiments to prove it. The earth revolves around the sun because astronomers have calculated again and again and proven it so. If the economy is driven by supply and demand then we know this because study after study has supported that conclusion. There is no “I think” or “I believe”; just “It is so.”

Consider, however, the following great thinkers: Albert Einstein, Copernicus, and John Maynard Keynes. Could Einstein have given us E=mc² without first thinking or even writing, “I think this may be so”? Perhaps he even gazed at the stars and wondered about their beauty, their power, their mystery. So too did Copernicus look at those same stars years earlier and perhaps question how so many stars and planets could possibly be mere orbiting satellites, accessories to our own world. As John Maynard Keynes observed unemployment rates and the demand of goods and services, did he only think about how the economy works or did he think about all the unemployed? Did he recall being unemployed or have friends or family members that were unemployed? Without the musings, personal thoughts and connections of these and other great thinkers no great thoughts or ideas are born.

Science may need hard, irrefutable data, but that data would not exist if the curiosity of people did not drive the inquiry, the experiment. The “I wonder” or “I think” statements are crucial to scientific discovery. So why are we penalizing students for writing “I” in their papers? Do we send the message to these young thinkers that we don’t care what they think? Do we take the inquisitiveness of a promising mind and devalue it? No wonder so many are tempted to cut and paste their essays from convenient Internet sites. If students are led to believe their own ideas are worthless, they may believe that someone else’s are worthwhile.

More alarming, however, is the trend in education to eradicate the personal narrative, again the “I,” from the secondary English curriculum. This decision may be influenced by the powers that be—the men and women who create and mandate the assessments that drive the curriculum and terrify administrators, teachers, and students. In 2005 the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) removed narrative writing from the test given to all eighth and eleventh grade students. The reason posted on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website was that this change “reflects the expectations for writing that occur in post-secondary classrooms and the workplace.”

Certainly English teachers still assign personal narratives in the form of journal writing. Deep in our hearts we know that reflection and introspection are of worth, but students are receiving mixed signals when teachers first ask them to write what they think, then tell them to forget about it prior to the all-important high-stakes tests. Perhaps we think we are doing them a favor. We are preparing them for the real world of hard data and facts, where no one asks us what we think.

If a real-world job is not asking us what we think, to use our past experiences and insights to solve problems, and to work in collaborative thought with others, then we might as well be robots.

Just as the great thinkers of the past, no doubt, made a personal connection to their work, so too must the great thinkers of the future be permitted to personally connect to their work as students in today’s classrooms. Do we, as educators, permit our students to make personal connections in their academic writing?

While preparing to present an inservice program for teachers on the PSSA, the teacher-consultants and I were pleasantly surprised that a top-scoring eighth grade informative essay contained narrative elements, a strong connection to the author’s experiences, and frequent but skillful use of the pronoun “I.” Despite the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s previous decision to limit narrative writing to the elementary grades, the department still seemed to consider this style to be important. When we relayed this information to teachers in various school districts, however, the reception was not always welcome. Many teachers have a difficult time permitting students to make personal connections in their academic writing. The fear that test evaluators will look down upon (score harshly) those essays does not go away—even when we are given evidence that the PSSA scorers consider personal connections and the use of “I” to be an asset if it suits the purpose of the essay.

It is my hope that education will soon accept what was once considered unacceptable and personal. As educators we must ask ourselves: Has the execution of the “I,” the personal, caused students to dismiss their thoughts and devalue their contributions? Do we want our students to make personal connections to the world? To think with a curiosity that sparks great thought and achievement? Or do we simply want high test scores?

I think back on the English conference and my revised paper. I added a paragraph to the beginning and one to the conclusion that explained my personal connection to the play. The paper was read in a small room, comfortably filled with college professors I had never met. Three other award recipients read their scholarly papers as well. These students were gifted writers, but they painfully avoided the evil “I.”

I beamed with pride as I received my award, and as I read my paper to a smiling audience that laughed where appropriate and nodded with approval. I made a connection to them as I embraced the “I” in academic writing.