About that “Academic” Essay, Act II: More on the “I”

In my previous post I claimed that an essay without the “I” is not a human essay. I’d like to say that I stand by that claim. I stand by it the way I stand by an embarrassingly awkward cousin: at arms length.

Clearly an essay doesn’t require the literal presence of the word “I” to be considered an essay. Also, the phrase “human essay” is a dumb thing to write because clearly there are no essays that are not products of human thought. There are no alligator essays.

I should just come out and say it: I’m a creative writer. Academia, to me, is unfamiliar. It’s like the far side of the moon. The far side of one of Saturn’s moons. And not just academia, but the whole world of scientific thought. Scientists are gangly aliens, to me. Strangers in the way they think and write and possibly even talk (haven’t talked to many scientists, so I can’t be sure about that last one). A good strange of course. But strange all the same.

I’m not saying I don’t like scientific thought, or impersonal academic writing. I just mean it is foreign to me – to what I write. I tried studying chemistry in college and dropped out midway through the second semester. Tedious. Methodical. Valuable for sure. If knowledge of things is what we are after, if it’s facts we want, then the scientific method is our Rosetta Stone. Not the “I”.

I’m also not saying that I’m incapable of logical, objective, rational thought. I think I’m a fairly reasonable person who can identify a logical fallacy with relative ease. I also know the difference between supporting a claim with evidence and making a claim based on personal feeling. I am perfectly aware that personal story is not evidence for anything but itself.

It’s possible I’m simply tired of making arguments. Yeah yeah, I know I’m making one now. At least I’m making a claim. I’ve got no evidence that my perception of academic writing is correct. It’s just my perception.

It’s also possible that the kind of research writing I want my students to aim for is a kind of personal research. Or an essay that requires a bit of personal research. I don’t mean they should write a personal essay. I’m teaching intermediate English composition, not creative writing. By “personal research” what I mean is an investigation into the assumptions we all make about the world, about right and wrong, logical and illogical. By “personal research” I am suggesting writers explore their own point of view and how it might color the way they look for evidence, or the kinds of claims they try to make. If we are to approach an idea or claim with any kind of objectivity, we must know what our individual points of view are. We must know what we can and can’t see. To recognize a subjectively supported claim, we must know the nature of our own subjectivity. We must know ourselves in a rhetorical sense, an analytical sense. If we don’t know ourselves, how can we expect the reader to understand us? If we don’t know our own assumptions, our own point of view, our own limitations, our own authority or lack of authority, how can we formulate an essay that acknowledges them and works around them?

So the “I” in academic writing cannot be ignored. Although I must concede that it doesn’t need to appear in the essay itself. In fact, too much “I” in an academic essay is a dangerous thing. As a good friend of mine pointed out in the last post, too much “I”, too much subjective argument (or the belief that a subjectively supported claim counts as an argument), often leads to all kinds of fanciful ideas that have no basis in reality. Too much I, I think, also risks making an essay seem pompous and pretentious.

But that is not the kind of “I” that interests me. The “I” that I want my students to use is the “I” that represents a conscious writer, an awareness not only of the subject, but of how the writer relates to the subject – for good or bad, logical or illogical. The “I” is not the evidence. It is the vessel in search of evidence, and as a teacher I want to know what kind of vessel I’m dealing with. Is it a rowboat, a skateboard, a submarine, paper airplane, rollerblades? No vessel is better than the other, they simply have their own limitations. Each has its specific vision. Being aware of that specific vision and limitation, I think, is one of the first steps toward a successful academic essay.

In this way, I stand by my original, slightly revised statement: an essay without the “I” is not really an essay.