The Academic “I”

The Academic “I” August 19, 2013

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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