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.


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

  1. I agree that it is very unprofessional to write a non-fictional works in first person, unless it is an essay about that persons knowledge or opinion. As a PR student, many informational speeches reduce the amount of “I’s” you use in your speech. An informational speech, like a non-fiction work, is not about the reader or listener hearing your opinion. The goal of the speaker or writer is to inform the reader or listener about the information they have researched.

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