The other day a student asked me if it was okay to write an argument essay using the first person point of view. I’m used to the question at the beginning of the year when I first meet students in my AP Language and Composition class. For years they’re trained to avoid the first person in their writing, especially argumentative writing, and to follow very prescriptive grammar rules and formulaic organization strategies like the five-paragraph essay in which they number paragraphs two through four as firstly, secondly, and finally. It’s writing that Scott Korb recently described as “dispiriting and soul crushing.”
“I am not writing. I hold no position. I have nothing at all to do with discovery, communication, or persuasion. I care nothing about the truth. What I am is an essay. I announce my beginning, my parts, my ending, and the links between them. I announce myself as sentences correctly punctuated and words correctly spelled.”
The timing of the question surprised me because it was just a few weeks ago, just before the AP Language exam and after months of writing instruction and practice where I try to give students their voices back, one of my first orders of business every new school year.
I realized how deeply the will to wash themselves out of their writing is ingrained in them, an impulse beat into them year after year.
I imagine the indoctrination sounds something like this: Don’t say I OK? Don’t say I OK? Don’t say I OK?
(I know that’s not what he’s singing. Call it a lyrical malapropism—the intentional misuse of song for an amusing effect.)
That night I asked my own son, an 8th grader, what his English teachers have taught him about writing in the first person. He told me that they can write narratives in the first person, but not expository writing or argument writing, because, he said they say, “it makes your argument weak.”
Coincidently I had ordered a recent issue of PMLA, the Publications of the Modern Language Association, whose formatting style English teachers from Harlem to Hollywood teach to their students. It is the holy grail of formal style, those one-inch margins, parenthetical citations, double-spacings, and works cited pages.
It seems we English teachers are so busy docking points from assignments that don’t follow MLA format, that we don’t have time to actually read the PMLA. If we did, we’d see it is LITTERED with first-person points of view.
YES, MLA members, writing in MLA style, do use first-person point of view—in all sorts of writing: expository, narrative, and (GASP!) analysis.
Here are a few, very brief excerpts that demonstrate the kind of first-person writing that’s found in the January 2018 issue of PMLA:
Poetry analysis by Joe Moshenska
“I happen to find reading Spenser’s poem, and thinking and talking about it, to be a delight, but my pleasure is informed, even heightened, by the awareness that trying to read or know The Faerie Queene can also be an exhausting struggle, a recurring encounter with the boem’s own violence and limitations.”
Poetry analysis by Benjamin A. Saltzman
“I suggest that this tension reveals another important distinction between Anglo-Saxon ideas about secrecy and our own.”
Drama analysis by Daniel Keegan
“I call this earlier statement Hamlet’s blurb to acknowledge its resemblance to the promotional copy on book jackets and to distinguish it from his later, more famous monologue known as his “advice to players.”
In fact, during a quick rifling through the articles I found that only three of 19 articles and book excerpts in this issue were not written in first-person point of view—the vast majority of the articles included some first-person writing.
So why do we teach students to avoid the first-person point of view? A couple legitimate reasons come to mind immediately.
The construction can get repetitive: I went to the store. I bought a candy bar. I thought the candy bar was delicious…
It can lead to weak arguments if students don’t follow up constructions such as I think and I believe with solid evidence rather than personal opinion.
And such training continues even at the high school level as students prepare for standardized tests.
But students taking the AP Language and Composition test, a test that, upon passing, can provide students actual college credit, instead of proof of college readiness, are not penalized for using the first-person point of view. Not even for their argumentative essay. In fact, the course description lists model texts for argumentative writing that are all written in the first-person.
Regardless, year after year teachers keep hammering away. Don’t say I, OK? Don’t say I, OK? Don’t say I, OK?
The results of such training, I believe, are insidious. It literally strips away students’ selves as writers. Korb says that these young writers “can’t see themselves as peculiar” and leads to them “writing so passively and with what they’ve been taught is appropriate and ‘objective’ distance from topics they often seem disinterested in, these young people signal..that they’re still waiting for something important or real to happen to them.”
“A writer is obviously at his most natural and relaxed when he writes in the first person. Writing is, after all, a personal transaction between two people, even if it is conducted on paper, and the transaction will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity.”
Rather than such an inflexible rule, why not teach and practice principles like: know your audience, know the assignment, vary your writing?
With less than a month left in this school year I’ve already started planning and readying for the next. After the epiphany of how hesitant my students are to write themselves into their work, I’m more excited than ever to reteach them to do just that. Here are a few things we’ll typically read and write early in the year. Sometimes I’ll do one or two but not the others. Next year I’m going to make sure my students get a heavy dose first-person point of view writings, maybe I’ll even construct a whole unit around point of view.
We read Joan Didion’s Why I Write in which she argues that “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying, listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” Sometimes I’ll ask students to write an essay describing why they write, or why they do something that they enjoy doing—Why I ___________.
Sometimes we’ll read Terry Tempest William’s Why I Write and they I’ll ask students to brainstorm a list of reasons why they write, to riff on Williams’ anaphora, “I write…” Then students select one reason why they write and I walk around the class recording them.
And for the past six years, ever since I came across it, we read Daniel Coffeen’s essay called Essay which begins, “Sometimes, I have thoughts about something.” Coffeen connects the act of writing to the act of thinking: “As I string words, sentences, paragraphs together I am forced to find connections — causal, affective, complementary — between and amongst my otherwise scattered thoughts.”
If, as Didion says, writing is the act of imposing ourselves maybe that’s why we teach students to avoid first person—god forbid they impose themselves on us. We barricade ourselves behind the doors of the teachers’ lounge. Forcing them to write in the third-person keeps them quiet, keeps them on the other side of our desks, keeps their ideas penned in so we don’t have to actually confront them. Like Ken Macrorie reminds us in Telling Writing, “most English teachers have been trained to correct students’ writing, not to read it.”