I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. While I’m no Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm (all praise its return), I do have several pet peeves. I have little patience for people who take up a lot of room on public transportation. I am ill-inclined toward loud chewers. Don’t get me started on people who assume my dog is public property just because we’re outside (is this the ultimate “pet” peeve?). Within the academic realm, however, my general annoyances are few. Still, there is one common phrase I can’t abide: “This paper will examine.”
I know you’ve heard a version of this stolid formulation: “This paper will analyze”; “This article shows.” No expression makes me bristle quite as much. I have to fight an immediate urge to shout: THIS PAPER DIDN’T ANALYZE ANYTHING! YOU DID. Why are we so afraid to say “I”?
Academic writing is no stranger to horrific, jargony prose. And the phrase is certainly just one among many stilted conventions of academic style. I have used it more than once, either out of habit or in an effort to appropriate an authority I don’t always feel entitled to. Recently, however, I’ve begun to think more consciously not just about my own writing but about writing instruction. Tutoring in a writing center for two and a half years has meant reading dozens of assignment sheets and essays from different composition courses. What I’ve come to realize is that the “this paper will analyze” syndrome is symptomatic of the very traditional ways we teach critical writing at all levels, especially when it comes to the all-important “academic essay.”
Why Don’t We Let Our Students Say “I”?
Sometimes we do, but only conditionally. Many students that I’ve tutored have been told explicitly not to use the first-person pronoun or have been wary of its propriety. I know – or at least think – that those who ban their students from saying “I” have good intentions and believe they are helping students craft compelling thesis statements. Yet it seems a strange paradox of the traditional academic essay that as much as we tell students to write in their own words, we ask them to couch these words behind an inactive or tacit authorial subjectivity. More than that, when we tell students they can’t say “I,” we (perhaps unwittingly) reinforce the idea that speaking in the first person is a weak rhetorical strategy.
In the absence of “I,” the traditional academic essay presumes a universal authority. It seems a relic of a historical (and often not so historical) academy when there was only one recognized authorial subject – white and male – and his role was to be a detached or objective critic. Whatever its origins, the assumption of a universal, detached, or objective author we implicitly or explicitly perpetuate through academic essays does a great disservice to the actual writing subjects in our classrooms.
From a theoretical standpoint, the standard academic essay reifies rationalist (and then masculinist) discourses that are no longer sustainable, particularly given the work feminist, queer, and other poststructural scholars have done to challenge our ingrained pedagogical, canonical, and social constructions. Knowledge, we have learned, is situated; so, too, is rhetorical power. Why strip students of their individual voice, agency, and embodied subjectivity? Why not allow students to acknowledge that their writing – their active participation in critical conversations – is always informed by their very real positions as subjects in the world?
Let’s consider it from a practical standpoint, too. In courses that require writing, we are tasked with teaching students how to compose persuasive, intentional prose. We are tasked, in other words, with teaching them how to communicate effectively, and we hope that this extends beyond our immediate courses. However, the standard essay’s presumption of an impersonal subject is incompatible with the modes of written (and oral) communication students engage in everyday, both in their personal lives, through texting and social media, and in their professional ones. I can’t imagine that a student would write to a future employer: “This cover letter will analyze my educational background, skills, and potential.” While this is certainly the work the document undertakes, it is not the language it employs. Purpose is not design.
Encouraging Student Ownership of Their Work
We should encourage our students to write in more personal, flexible ways. Such instruction could take many forms, starting by lifting the ban on “I.” I would suggest an even more comprehensive approach: offer your students the chance to write or produce assignments in a genre beyond the traditional academic essay at least once during the semester. For TAs or those who have less control over the syllabus, consider a smaller-scale, in-class written genre assignment.
I assigned my own composition students an “alternative genre essay” in the form of a class blog. Other instructors in my writing program ask students to produce podcasts, graphic illustrations, nonfiction stories, and other creative work. All of these genre assignments place students in the position of active cultural producer more directly than do traditional academic essays.
Benefits of Student Ownership
While most of us already use multiple genres in our courses, we less frequently ask students to generate them. But those who study “genre-based pedagogies” (a common consideration among ESL scholars) can prompt us to consider why they are beneficial. As Ken Hyland notes: “genre pedagogies help [students] to distinguish differences and provide them with a means of conceptualizing their varied experiential frameworks. Highlighting variability thus helps undermine a deficit view which sees writing difficulties as learner weaknesses and which misrepresents writing as a universal, naturalized and non-contestable way of participating in communities.”
While I could extol the virtues of the alternative genre assignment all day, here are some additional benefits I’ve discovered:
- Alternative genre assignments, especially used alongside standard essays, invite students to investigate and negotiate their voice(s). Students wrote much stronger traditional essays after having a chance to explore their voice in another way.
- They allow students to bring their own experiences, senses of self, and modes of language to bear on their writing, licensing more robust student agency while encouraging greater recognition of social and linguistic difference.
- Asking all students to write in a new genre can be a great equalizer in classes that contain both native and non-native students, especially since the standard academic essay may be familiar to some students, educationally trained in America, but obscure to those from countries where academic discourse follows other conventions or even to first-generation college students.
- They are memorable. Students get invested in and excited about their genre essays and the work often yields their most sophisticated thinking. At the end of the semester most students noted that the “blog” was their favorite (and often the most challenging!) essay to write.
- Genre assignments are fun to read. This is a selfish point on behalf of instructors everywhere, but how many more stiff traditional academic essays can you bear? Do you really want to suffer through another totally abstract introduction?
If I’ve learned anything, it’s how powerful it can be to see students actually write in their own words. They have so many remarkable things to say, but academic conventions can be stifling. Students are too easily (and regrettably) lead into verbal contortions that impede coherent meaning by writing like they think they are “supposed to” or attempting to conform to some nebulous “academic writing” ideal. While the alternative genre essay will not completely revolutionize the way students write, it is an invaluable means of transforming students’ sense of what writing can do for them and what they can do in writing.
With that in mind, I implore you: let your students say “I.”
Have you ever assigned your students an alternative genre essay? What were the results?
[Image by Flickr user CollegeDegrees360 and used under Creative Commons licensing]