A couple of weeks ago, I was part of an interesting chat on Twitter about the use of the personal voice in academic scholarship. This is a bit of a fraught issue for classicists – those who do it well do it very well, while those who don’t get a bit nervous. (This BMCR review should give you a bit of an insight into the sorts of issues raised in the field, although it’s a little dated now.) The discussion raised the usual questions – is it safe for an early career researcher to use the personal voice, what sort of material does it work best for, when is it an appropriate strategy, what disciplinary areas are happiest with its use. My feeling is that reception studies is where most personal voice writing is done at the moment, not because it’s a ghettoised area, but because it’s part of the discipline that’s more comfortable with experimental writing (both stylistically and theoretically), and successful experiments eventually permeate back into the more traditional areas of the subject.
At about the same time, Times Higher Education published an article by Helen Sword (to publicise her latest book, Stylish Academic Writing), addressing the seven most pervasive myths about academic writing. Myth two states that “academic writing has to be impersonal and objective”, and Sword debunks this by explaining that the use of “I” and “we” in the article form is not actually breaking some immoveable taboo.
I found myself wondering whether this avoidance of the first person is something researchers have drummed into us from our very earliest undergraduate days – after all, I often find myself marking up student work with the dreaded words “don’t use the first person”! But now I come to think of it, this is more of a shortcut for pointing out an analytical error than a criticism of the grammatical structure itself. It’s shorthand for “don’t tell me your opinion, show me your evidence” or “don’t make unsubstantiated statements based on your own authority”. (My favourite example of this came from an undergraduate paper a friend of mine marked in the States, which offered the jewel “I like to think that Circe kept Cerberus as a pet”.)
The first person, in undergraduate work, often signals other faults with academic writing that we address by targeting the symptom rather than the cause. I’m starting to wonder whether there is a circular process of getting weaning off the first person at the undergraduate level, and then weaning oneself back onto it as one progresses as a researcher – not because of perceptions about who can and can’t get away with so-called risky writing, but because you need the intervening period to master other elements of academic writing. Misusing the first person aids and abets messy thinking; getting rid of it highlights the fundamental issues of communication, but should not be the be-all and end-all of stylistic improvement.