In Defense of the Informal Academic Essay

My college and graduate writing education was informal. In college, classes were generally small and the instructor would sit in a chair same as the rest of us and open up class with a question and for an hour and fifteen minutes we would banter back and forth about whatever we had read since the previous class. I had one literature instructor who actually brought a gin bottle to class and periodically drank from it as the discussion progressed. It was filled with water, but we didn’t know that. We didn’t know because we didn’t ask. The atmosphere in class was so informal that a gin bottle didn’t raise any questions or concerns. In fact, I was disappointed to learn he’d been drinking water rather than gin. Other instructors were a little more formal. One in particular had clearly earned a PhD in literature because his classes felt more lecture-like. Meaning, he did most of the talking and his vocabulary was filled with literary jargon like post-structuralism, neo-liberal, new historicism, feminist postcolonial hermeneutics reader response theory. But even in his class there was a sense that he didn’t want to talk this way. He would often open class by saying “today, I want to be a fly on the wall.” Meaning he didn’t want to lecture, but to have a discussion more focused on what we wanted to say. It never worked out that way for him. A student would comment on some particular passage in a book and the fly would fall off the wall and morph into a kind of giant carnivorous plant with fat lips and dirty teeth and a gullet that could swallow the entire English department along with maybe half a gym and a few football players. I liked him. He was different. Odd. A true academian.

I learned a lot from all of my teachers. Even the academian failed-fly-on-the-wall taught me a lot about literature and how to understand what I read. In spite of his love of literary jargon and inability to stop talking, he still radiated a sort of informal vibe that saved his classes from becoming dry lectures and turned them into a real conversation (albeit a conversation where he did most of the talking). I graduated from college and graduate school feeling greatly enlightened and able to write and talk about literature. Poetry in particular. But my enlightenment was very informal in nature, very individualistic, personal, friendly even. I came away from school with the sense that good writing is like good conversation between friends. A kind of friendly bantering. The reading experience, I was taught, was like making a new friend, forming a new bond with a fellow human being. I was taught that we read for the same reason we seek out new friends, new relationships. To this day I have a hard time making a distinction between falling in love with a woman (or man depending on the circumstances), and falling in love with a book or author.

So when I first began teaching English composition, I was a little more than surprised to hear many students ask if it’s okay to use “I” in an academic essay. My initial reaction was a resounding “of course.” Since then I’ve realized the limitations of the “I” in an academic essay: the propensity to use it as a source of reliable evidence to support a claim, then tendency to sound more like a story teller than a researcher, and of course the temptation to use the “I” so much that the reader can find no place in it for him or herself.

The question remains unsolved for me. I’m uncertain what the “I’s” specific purpose is in an academic setting. I’m unsure how much “I” is too much. How much is not enough. And of course, there are certain forms of academic writing that really are diminished by the inclusion of the first person pronoun. Scientific studies come to mind. Reportage comes to mind. And it occurs to me that there are other ways to interest a reader other than writing yourself into your own work. Academic writing can be engaging, accessible, interesting, without the need for personal story or the use of “I” at all.
Perhaps the answer to the question should boil down to the writer’s specific purpose. Personal investment would actually damage the credibility of a scientific study. The scientific method, after all, is designed to eliminate the scientist from the experiment and any other outside factors that may muddle the results. On the other hand, I was not trained as a scientist – not even a literary “scientist,” as the man or woman of letters may be termed. I write as a human being who wants to connect with other human beings on subjects that affect everyone – mortality, love, identity, the human condition so to speak. Such topics are generally reserved for poets, song writers, fiction writers and the like, while the academic world tackles “issues” and makes statements that can be supported with unbiased, objective evidence.

I wonder, however, if this objectivity in academia has resulted in a stunted imagination. Has the push for proof kept us from exploring ideas that have no real proof? Have we in the academic world, begun to shy away from addressing “possibilities” and lean toward things that are more easily supported with studies and logic? I would argue that such a leaning toward the “provable” is not a good thing. Or at least, it seems foolish to avoid exploring the possible, even toy with the seemingly impossible, in order to push our understanding into uncharted territory. And what is more uncharted than the writer writing the essay; the subjective, singular perspective of the writer whose ideas are neither true nor necessarily false, but simply his or her own. Is it even possible to expand our understanding of the world around us, if we do not include ourselves in the discussion? And what is an “idea” without the individual who is thinking it?