The Academic “I”

From Patter:

The first major thinker who used “I” that I recall was E.P. Sanders in his Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and Sanders changed the game for many biblical scholars. Academics who write without an “I” have denied the personal context of all work; I-less writing is insufferably pseudo-objective.

It might seem that once you have made the decision to write as ‘I’ it’s just straightforward from then on in. Unfortunately, this is not so. There are conventions about the use of ‘I’ in academic writing that must be followed – or which you might consciously choose to disobey.

The key thing to understand is that the ‘I’ who writes an academic article is not the same ‘I’ who makes dinner, picks the kids up after school, goes shopping, and chatters with their friends on Facebook. This is a personal ‘I’. What is usual in an academic article is the academic ‘I’.

The academic ‘I’ does a range of academic activities – ‘I’ argue, infer, suggest, propose, conclude, offer, deduce, analyse, assess, evaluate, concur, trace, design, address, signal, signpost, flag up, situate, locate, affirm… Well, you get the picture. The verb that follows the academic ‘I’ is something associated with scholarship.

Now there isn’t a simple division between the academic and the personal and so it’s important to think about where and when you might want to be more ‘personal’ in your academic writing. Let’s take the verbs ‘believe’ and ‘feel’ as an example. I often see articles and first drafts which are liberally strewn with ‘I believe’ and ‘I feel’. Most often these can be crossed out, eliminated altogether, without losing anything from the text. After all, the writer wouldn’t be saying these things if they didn’t believe them and they didn’t feel them. Leaving them in is a question of style….

At this point, a caveat. It is important to note that there are disciplinary traditions which do use ‘I believe’ quite regularly. I’ve certainly read one or two philosophers who write in this way. So, as always, it’s important to check out the conventions within which you are the academic ‘I’ writing. Maybe yours is a discipline in which saying ‘I believe’ is usual.

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  • Preston

    Great thoughts, Scot! Most of the writing books I’ve read of late agree with you. And–not that it matters a whole lot–I agree with you. Do you see academic publishers moving in this direction? I’ve gotten away with the “I” in my own academic writing, but I’m not sure if that’s becoming standard.

  • This has been one of my least favorite parts of “academic writing” in school, so to speak. While I understand the desire to come off “objective” when presenting information, I liked the point made that there is a difference between an academic “I” and a personal “I’. Only a few more years, and then “I” can decide what writing style I want to adopt.

  • MatthewS

    we enjoyed reading this 😉

  • “I-less writing is insufferably pseudo-objective.”

    Oh, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Many of us were simply taught that the “academic ‘I'” is simply superfluous (as is the editorial “we”). Put differently, the more literary an academic piece of writing is, the less likely you’ll need to face this dilemma.

  • This commenter certainly finds this to be a very interesting post!

  • scotmcknight

    So the more literary the less there is an “I”?

  • Um, perhaps. I think maybe when the literary flair is flowing, the more mundane journalistic “I” just doesn’t come up.

  • Patrick O

    This is a common question that seminary students and undergrads ask me. I always tell them yes the I is fine, even preferred, and I explain it in a way very similar to your first paragraph. The troublesome thing is that the Writing Centers at the institutions I work at still officially point students away from it.

    I only have the English translation nearby, but it’s worth noting that the “I” shows up in Pannenberg’s foundational essay in Revelation as History, which dates to the early 60s in German and late 60s translation.

    Pannenberg came to mind second, but his work shows it earlier. Moltmann takes the “I” and runs with it. I don’t see it in Theology of Hope but it’s right there at the beginning and throughout of The Crucified God (early 70s). Translation, again, to be sure. But, even still, Moltmann increasingly blurs the line between the academic and personal “I”. For him, the personal is the academic source in many ways, so his Experiences in Theology has eradicated any distinction others might maintain.

  • Hello Scot, could that be to the Anglosaxon habit to self-congratulate oneself, which sounds quite odd to Frenchmen like myself? :=)

    greetings from Germany
    Grüße aus Deutschland

    Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Really, you ought to tell them that such usage is hardly ever necessary and that good writing shows, doesn’t tell (in which instance, the “I” will make its appearance).

  • Patrick O

    I don’t know what you mean. Show me.

  • The only way toward a cure for the insufferable mess that passes for writing in academic journals and books is to read stacks of great fiction and poetry.

  • “I” wish somebody had explained this concept better in my undergrad program. As a History major, I had the “I” beat out of my writing by almost all of my professors since it wasn’t considered academic. When I started my Masters of Divinity program, some of my professors wanted to see more clearly how “I” felt about a subject in my writing. It was only one letter, but it was so hard to put it back into my writing.