The “Scholarly I”: Using First Person in the Humanities Research Essay

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Laura Ritland, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2022

One of the most common pieces of advice undergraduates have absorbed before beginning their first Reading & Composition class is to avoid using “I” in their academic essays. The admonition against using first person in academic writing is a standard, useful restriction in contexts like high school English class, where students are steered away from personal opinion and towards evidence-based analysis. It is also a familiar convention in the sciences, where the tendency is to use “we” or passive voice constructions omitting subject pronouns. However, in the humanities, using “I” is not only more prevalent as a writing convention, it is a distinctive mode for how humanities scholars build knowledge in “conversation” with others. Its omission can reinforce the difficulty students face in research-based writing courses to identify their own original argument amid an overwhelming plethora of other scholarly voices. Indeed, many students enter the research-based component of R&C (R1B) with the assumption that “research” means merely collecting and summarizing secondary sources; they exempt their own argumentation in ways that can deepen their sense of alienation from academic writing. In my R1B classes, my goal is to cultivate students’ agency in their research. One simple but effective tool I’ve found to do this is through strategically re-introducing them to using the first person “I” in their essays—or what I call the “scholarly I.” 

Timing and contextualizing the reintroduction of this “I” is key. In my most recent R1B class, I set the stage by first assigning a short essay just focused on analyzing a literary text without any external sources. Here, based on previous academic training, students were comfortable making analyses and arguments about how a text works. In assignment 2, they collected scholarly articles and books about the text that they had examined in assignment 1 and summarized each source in a few sentences. Putting these two previous assignments together, their final assignment asked them to provide an original argument about their literary text in relationship to their researched secondary sources. Just before they started this assignment, I inserted a key lesson on using first person. A relatively simple but highly effective exercise attending to grammatical construction was my focus. In their summaries of secondary sources, students would use the phrase “[Scholar X] argues that __”; accordingly, I proposed, why not use the same sentence construction to summarize and reiterate their own interpretations, which they had already demonstrated in essay 1: “I argue that”? Using “I” was a perfectly legitimate academic convention here, I affirmed. I then assigned students an in-class exercise: practice filling out the blanks of the following sentence, based on their assignments 1 and 2: “Where [scholar X] argues that __, I argue that __.”

This exercise encouraged students to compare their insights with those of the scholars they had summarized—finding contrasts, resonances, and departures. But what was most striking of all was the effect that re-introducing the first person had on the students: surprise, delight, and excitement. Not only were they newly “licensed” to use first person after years of being banned from its use, they could recognize themselves in that sentence construction as scholars and thinkers in a conversation with other scholars. I finished class by explaining how this “I” is particular to academic writing. Firstly, this “I” is a representation of analytical interpretations (which they undertook in essay 1) rather than an expression of personal opinion. Secondly, this “I” only “lives” in relation to other scholars (Scholars X, Y, Z, etc.). It is a contextual “scholarly I,” meant to define an argument just as one would raise their voice to be heard among other voices.

In their final essays, every student was using first person in this particular scholarly way. At the end of the course, I asked each student to make a list of the top five writing strategies they had learned in this course, and nearly every one of them listed the “scholarly I.” Perhaps most gratifyingly, every student “agreed” or “strongly agreed” in their exit surveys that they were more confident in their academic writing abilities. To quote some of them directly, they felt that they “finally had a voice” and could “make their arguments their own” in ways they had never experienced before. Using the scholarly I made a significant impact on their passage into becoming thinkers, writers, and researchers in their own right.