Activity Thirtytwo The use of I in course materials

Check some of the books or course materials you have to hand to see whether they use 'I', and, if so, where they use it and what the reason might be. Think about what effect the use or non-use of 'I' has on the relationship between reader and writer.

The matter of using the first person in your assignments is difficult to address because conventions vary between subjects. In fact, in some subjects the use of ' I' is encouraged and in others it is actually 'forbidden'. This can also vary between tutors, even within a single subject area. In some cases, the subject or the tutor is flexible about it and you may well find that it is quite acceptable to make use of the first person as long as you know why you are doing it. The use of the first person is also related to the question of bringing your own opinion into your work. In some subjects tutors will say that they want to know what you think, while in other subjects your own thinking is viewed as irrelevant. This kind of difference can be very frustrating for students. What are you meant to do?

You may have begun a course because it seemed to be about your own interests, but then you find that you are not expected to bring in your own experiences or opinions or yourself after all. You may find that you are expected to write as if you were not present in a situation when you were. For example, if you have carried out a science experiment, you will probably be expected to use the passive tense: to say 'this was done' and not 'I did this'. In social studies you may carry out an interview and yet not reveal this when you write about it. You may have been moved by a film but are rarely expected to discuss your feelings about it in a film studies assignment.

Underlying these questions is your position in relation to your material. Most importantly, if you do use 'I' and bring your own opinions into your university writing, you are still meant to stand outside your material and to be able to be objective about it, to think about it without being emotional or onesided in your opinions. This distance from the subject matter is a mark of academic writing, even when it is clear that the writer has a strong view about their subject. Yet it is still possible for you to have a sense of ownership of your material and authority in your writing if you are confident about using the subject matter. However, it can be difficult to get enough confidence to think that what you write will be adequate when you are dealing with a new subject. It is therefore equally difficult to claim the 'right' to write as 'I' when you don't yet have a clear sense of your identity as a writer of that subject.

What is it like to write as 'I'? It is important to remember that whenever we use 'I' in writing, the 'I' character is in a sense a fictional construction created for the purpose of claiming the right to say something in this particular piece. Just as we talk differently to different people in different situations, in writing our sense of 'I' depends on whom we are addressing and why, and how we are writing. Your university 'I' is different in each assignment you write.

In general, if you are not told otherwise, our advice is to use 'I' if it seems sensible for your purposes. Don't pretend that you don't exist in your assignment if you do, even if you have to find ways of putting yourself there such as, 'It seems to me . . .' or, more impersonally, 'The evidence seems to suggest . . .'. This is a good example of the writer who is 'there' in her writing, since it is she who is drawing the conclusion, while claiming that the conclusion just comes from 'the evidence'. However, she is only present in the writing invisibly, which is often the case in academic writing. She does not use 'I' because she seems to be suggesting that the 'evidence' is more important than her own views. We will explore this apparent 'disappearance' of the writer further in the readings below.

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