To Use “I” or Not to Use “I”: That Is Not Really a Question

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“How can I show my experience and opinion without using ‘’I’?” a student recently asked for about the billionth time in my teaching career. 

Hi everyone! This is TK from the Department of Composition and WAC at Purdue Global. In CM 107–our Composition I course–students progress from personal writing about problem-solving to academic writing. As part of teaching academic writing and formal language, we focus heavily on the point of view. Students struggle with avoiding “I,” often including unnecessary phrases like “I think,” I feel,” and “I believe.” Over time, I have learned that their struggle comes from several places and that it takes a slow reinforcement of the concept to help students change their default habit of using the first person to a new practice of mainly using the third person.

First, I spent time considering where the problem comes from in the first place. I distinctly recall learning in high school that when you write something, readers understand it to be your opinion. You don’t have to identify it as such. Instead, you remember ideas and words that belong to others–hence the need for signal phrases and citations. I’m 50, so I thought about what differed for the student writers I teach, most of whom are in their late 20s to late 30s. The answer came immediately. 

The internet rears its often-ugly head.

Online, especially in social media, posters challenge each other, demanding sources and evidence unless posters clearly say things like “It’s only my opinion, but . . . ” or “In my humble opinion . . . ” (IMHO). In traditional writing–be it personal, professional, or academic the audience understands and accepts that unless signaled otherwise, opinions expressed are those of the writer. 

Helping students understand how internet writing differs must start early in their writing instruction. One way I begin is by sharing links to opinion columns in our live seminars. We specifically examine the disclaimers posted with these pieces–that these are the author’s opinions–and then how the writers use or do not use first-person pronouns. I encourage students to imagine that their work has a disclaimer so that they do not need to set off their opinions and feelings.

Once I have exposed students to this concept, I introduce the use of signal phrases immediately. While we cover research and APA in CM 107l later in the term, students must reference their readings, labs, and other course materials in their discussion posts. I guide them via instruction and feedback to use signal phrases to show what comes from those materials. Since I already recognize the content of the materials, I can easily remind students where they need the signal phrases.

Next, I remove the opportunity for the habit of using the unnecessary first person to grow. In personal writing–especially in assignments such as the problem-solving blog post assignment–the first person is allowed. That does not mean the “I think,” “I feel,” and “I believe” disclaimers are needed. In addition to reminding them about the understood disclaimer, I encourage students to consider their assignment’s subject. When “I” dominates the writing, they are the subject. If that is the purpose, then fine. However, in the Unit 4 blog post assignment, the subject is the problem, solution, and encouragement for the audience. They will use “I” with active verbs to show what they did to solve the problem, but they do not need to use it to express their feelings.

Presenting writing as a process also helps. I encourage students to draft discussion posts freely, without worrying about the habitual “I.” I also urge them to eliminate all those phrases in revising and editing, so they can make their writing more precise and concise. Over time, they discover that their default setting no longer includes those phrases. They’ve instead adopted a new habit.

Ultimately, the academic writing section of CM 107–Units 5-8–is a time to bring together the ideas of the roots of unnecessary first person, the understood nature of ownership of thoughts and feelings in writing, the use of signal phrases, and the elimination of excessive uses of the first-person via revision and editing. As with most writing skills, effective and appropriate point of view develops with practice. Approaching the concept as a skill to learn rather than an error to correct allows students to develop the skills over time–meaning it has a better chance of sticking with them and their writing.

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