A “Tense” Situation

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Joel Martin’s essay on Southern representations of Native Americans is typical for historical scholarship. The research is thorough and well-documented. The analysis is succinct and insightful. The finer points of grammar, however, are often lower on the to-do list than if he were writing for publication, say, with the MLA. The issue I found in Martin’s essay is one that often occurs in academic writing, especially in historical writing. “Eighteenth-century representations had centered on border-crossing types, individuals who moved freely between Indian and non-Indian cultures.” In this sentence, Martin uses the past perfect tense.

The definition of the past perfect tense from the Purdue OWL is that “the past perfect tense designates action in the past just as simple past does, but the action of the past perfect is action completed in the past before another action.”

 In this particular argument, he is not stating that the representation occurred until some other event. He explains only that the “border-crosser” was an eighteenth-century representation. The correct tense is simple past, and the sentence would have read “Eighteenth-century representations centered on border-crossing types…”

                Many readers may never notice the error; it is a minor one. However, due to our study of these tenses, and my additional study of them for foreign language classes, I was momentarily confused by the above section of Martin’s essay because I expected him to argue an event that changed the “border-crossing” representation. I had to re-read the section to be sure I had not misunderstood or somehow skipped over the information. Mixing verb tenses can confuse a reader, and distract from a paper’s argument.

Too Much “I” – Academic Writing and the First Person Rule

Although fiction will always have a special place in my heart, as a student interested in pursuing a career in academia, I dedicate most of my time to non-fiction, academic reading. Because my interests and activities lay within the realm of academia, I realize that my focus for this blog, and the subsequent project, should also be academic.
Happily (or perhaps not so, as you will see,) one of last week’s reading assignments afforded a usable example.

“Exhibiting Native America at the National Museum of the American Indian” by Amy Lonetree is a critical analysis of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), the history of the artifacts it contains, and a critique of the way it portrays the Native American narrative to the public. The essay encompasses a wide variety of sources and information, and draws valuable and insightful conclusions about the Native American narrative in American commemoration and memory. It was a valuable read and related perfectly to what we were studying in class. However, unlike some other reading we have done (like Brundage, from my previous post,) if this reading had not been mandatory, I would have quit reading after about four pages.
The essay was irritating to read because it repeatedly broke one of the most frequently stressed rules of academic writing: it overused the first person point of view.

Chapter three of Lonetree’s book Decolonizing Museums, the essay is about 49 pages long, but the first 5 whole pages are told in first person. In these pages, Lonetree describes, in detail, her experience in working with these museums, her scholarship, her internship, and her interests.
Oh my goodness.
I was dying.
Like I said, had this not been required reading, I would have never made it to the actual information because of the ridiculous amount of personal narrative at the beginning.

Even her thesis is centered on her: “What follows is an analysis of my multilayered engagement….” And then “Finally, I provide an analysis….”

There is something I always tell the students I tutor when they write this way: It is your paper. We know it is your analysis, we know it is what you think. Instead of stating that you are giving us your analysis, just give us your analysis.

There are three problems with breaking the ‘avoid first person’ rule:

First, and most simply, it is generally considered unprofessional. Different fields each have their own set of expectations for working and writing within those fields. Following those expectations is how professionals maintain standards and norms of practice and communication and is integral to participating in a discourse community.

Second, so much time spent on the author’s personal history and opinions is boring and taxing to the reader. I did not open that essay hoping for a biography of Amy Lonetree. With the exception of establishing credibility, an author’s experiences, history, and opinions are irrelevant to the a paper’s argument. Beginning a paper with an excess of information about oneself is an effective method for scaring away readers.

Finally, because using first person in excess is generally considered unprofessional, and because it is boring and irrelevant to the reader, doing so grants writing a pompous, self-centered tone. Lonetree managed to relate everything in her paper, nearly every detail and historical fact, to herself. While using oneself occasionally as an example, or pulling one’s own history into a paper can make a topic more relatable or provide context, repeatedly doing so removes credibility. Indeed, I felt through the whole essay that Lonetree was more concerned with proving her depth of knowledge in her topic, than using that knowledge to make an insightful argument or educate her readers.