Classically Inclined

September 21, 2012

On the personal voice

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:58 am
Tags: , ,

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.


  1. Actually, at Leeds we quite openly say that students are encouraged to use the first person, so long as that’s done in the context of expressing an opinion which is backed up by supporting evidence. I give exactly that advice in my video for new students about doing referencing, towards the end of the video (about 2 minutes in). For us, this is all about encouraging a research mentality which includes drawing independent conclusions, rather than letting students believe that simply digesting and reporting other people’s ideas is enough.

    Comment by weavingsandunpickings — September 21, 2012 @ 11:08 am | Reply

    • I think that this is definitely the approach to aim for and the desired outcome, but I suspect that avoiding the first person often becomes (at least in the mind of the student) the practical impact of the feedback they receive. To be slightly more fair to myself, I think that I don’t critique the first person when it’s used effectively – but I think it’s actually quite an advanced writing skill to do that, especially in the first year when students are learning their craft. I wonder about the impact of that early advice through the rest of the undergraduate degree and any further research career.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 21, 2012 @ 11:14 am | Reply

  2. I think the point you make about the criticism of the first person usage not really being the actual problem is the key. It is lazy feedback that doesn’t help students learn. And avoiding the first person without understanding those underlying principles leads to some really tortured writing style, including overuse of the passive voice.

    Now that you have noticed what is often really going on, and brought it to the attention of others, you can find ways to comment on those problems and just leave the question of first person aside.

    In my experience, the issues of what is “analysis”, how to use evidence to support an argument, and so on that are really crucial to teach, especially to first year students.

    Comment by Jo VanEvery (@JoVanEvery) — September 21, 2012 @ 1:01 pm | Reply

  3. ‘A little dated’? You young whippersnapper!

    More seriously, I very much like your statement of the issues here.

    I confess I get a kick out of seeing that Nisbet 1997 is still the thing to cite on the personal voice in classical-studies pedagogy, but this also prompts a sense of regret at roads not taken; this is a conversation Classics should have kept on having. As you say, reception studies is where PV in Classics has tended to cluster, perhaps because it licenses intra-disciplinary critique – viewed in a certain light, everything we do as Classicists *is* reception already – and perhaps also because reception practitioners find more opportunities than most for communicating outside the discipline, so a vivid and engaged writerly persona can really count.

    I find myself very largely in agreement with your reasons for not encouraging undergraduates to write ‘I’ – or not to write it *yet*, until they’ve found their feet as academic writers. Like you, I pragmatically tend towards a ‘walk before you can run’ model; I also urge my students (especially in the Dissertation module, where we can have real impact on their self-development as writers) to cherish plain and concise expression, so that the argument comes across strongly and we don’t exceed the word count. I can think of numerous instances where I’ve steered stylistically unconfident students away from an excessive dependence on the verbose passive voice (‘it is thought by Y that X…’) towards an active voice which asserts their ownership of their knowledge, but this needn’t, of course, imply an explicitly personal voice. ‘I think X’ is, most of the time, a less strong construction than simply ‘X – and here’s why’. (And don’t get me even started on ‘I feel’.) And it eats up more words.

    There are of course practical exceptions – e.g. where we require students to write a blog, or a reflective statement, as part of the learning processes designed into a specific module or programme. And there can be principled exceptions – where the writer feels a duty of full disclosure of the agenda they bring to the question or to the evidence. But this is to edge us into the hand-wringing over academe and identity politics which, practiced with such complacency fifteen years ago, so ticked off a younger and angrier Nisbet who’d been led to expect something edgier.

    Comment by Gideon Nisbet — September 21, 2012 @ 1:29 pm | Reply

  4. Just out of interest, was the Twitter conversation one involving mainly Classicists, or a more general Ph.D. chat?

    Comment by tonykeen46 — October 15, 2014 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

    • I think, if I remember correctly, this was one of those chats that generally sort of begins on academic!Twitter and pulls in various people from various areas and career stages.

      Comment by lizgloyn — October 16, 2014 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

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