It seems every few months or so, a friend sends me an article about how students today can’t write. My argument that students can write but are learning how to express themselves differently in college often falls short of convincing anyone that I know what I’m talking about, even though I teach composition and work with 72 writers every semester. Part of the reason I lose this fight is the genius marketing of most publications that run articles with titles like, “Why Kids Can’t Write.” Literally; check out my Works Cited.
The article titles are often misleading. The editors do want us to read and engage with the pieces and the authors tend to write about more positive student interactions and student writing abilities. But in our slap-dash world of seeing article titles on Facebook and believing we have absorbed the content by osmosis rather than reading, we believe we understand that gist of what the author may be articulating from just the title. We’ve read these types of articles before, after all. One such article title—The Soul-Crushing Student Essay by Scott Korb—made me mad enough to want to read it.
Of course, Korb’s students are not crushing his soul. Although he doesn’t say this in so many words, I walked away from the essay thinking about all of the students I know who have had their souls crushed by other English classes. Korb writes about the moment many of us face in the classroom every semester—a brave student who asks the ultimate question—can they use I in their writing. Like William James and Peter Elbow, Korb makes a distinction between the private I and the public I our students present. We glimpse the private I who may laugh with a classmate before class starts, but we mostly work with the public I, who believes success means quashing their private selves and performing to some standardization in thought and articulation.
Korb identifies another hesitation students have, which is how to write about what they care about when they have been told they can’t use personal pronouns. He relates a story where he asks students to identify and discuss their own interests and curiosities, to the rousing chorus of crickets. I imagine that, in addition to not being able to use I in their essays, these students were also told they were not allowed to write about their love of video games, anime, or make-up. If students don’t have the language of personal pronouns, and they aren’t allowed to write about topics they are passionate about, how can they think, research, and write about their interests and feel any sense of agency in their work? They aren’t sure what they are able to write about and may try to perform to what they believe their teachers want. There aren’t a lot of topics I don’t allow in my class, but when I see them gravitating toward websites such as ProCon.org, I tell them I would rather they find a topic that they care about personally. For example, a student started writing a research paper about gun control. After talking with him for a few minutes, I discovered that he is a hunter and was learning the differences between gun laws in California (his home state) and Arizona. He was able to change his research topic to why the laws are different between states and how these changes will affect his ability to hunt certain times of the year. It was a richer research and writing experience for him than simply re-stating general arguments around gun control.
Our composition program values and promotes the use of personal pronouns in academic writing. One of our texts is Catherine Predergast’s Can I Use I?, which sets the tone for our writing for the semester. Students write three projects initially that help them (re)discover and expand their voice while building research and writing skills. The first project, the Occasional Paper, requires them to write about a recent event or experience and present their essay in front of the class. Even knowing that this essay is about their own personal experience, they still ask if they can use I in their essays. When I tell them they may write about almost anything using their own language, slang, and idioms, something akin to full-on panic sets in. What if it’s not correct? they ask. They are not afraid to write about their experiences, I realized. They are afraid that their expressions of these experiences will somehow be “wrong.” Although almost all of them dread reading these essays in front of their peers, they tell me afterwards it wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be, in part because they connect with each other through sharing these stories. I learn so much about the students and how they see and think about the world around them. The essays reflect students’ personalities and experiences and are serious (returning to school after leaving for a year), or humorous (a devotion to dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets), and sometimes both (riding the campus bus as a metaphor for life).
When I meet with students to review their drafts for subsequent projects, we have the shared language of their Occasional Papers as a basis for their thinking and writing. I validate their ideas and storytelling abilities and then indicate how to apply what they already know and how they already write to different genres. I’ll tell the student to add more of his “chicken nugget-humor here” in an essay. For the student who is stymied by drafts, I remind him he returned to school and that this project will not stand in the way of his overall success. And the student who was stuck on an interminable bus ride loop? Another round of revision of two particular sections (with specific examples) will make her essay shine. By making these connections, I demonstrate that what they wrote made an impression on me, that I care about them and their ideas, and that I believe in their abilities.
Students then write a Review and a research project called the I-Search . They are invited to bring personal pronouns to both of these projects and, in fact, the I-Search requires personal pronoun use because it is a narrative of the writer’s quest for an answer to a question they create. Many are uncomfortable using I in these essays, so I give them a few phrases to start: I observed, I noticed, and I think. We discuss that I feel, while a relevant and important phrase, is often considered emotional language by others in academic writing. When observing, noticing, and thinking, they use existing text from other writers to bolster their ideas and explain their thought process. During peer review and essay “polishing” (proofreading and editing) days, it is efficient for peer reviewers to look for these phrases and see if there is evidence to support their classmate’s claims, which helps engage students in more substantive revision comments rather than focusing on grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.
By the time we research and write our rhetorical analysis project, students are more comfortable writing with “I.” The project requires students to analyze three articles about the same news story from different sources. Students identify rhetorical strategies used by the authors rather than conduct their own research about the news story. I encourage students to look for news stories that may be relevant for their majors, or stories that just seem interesting (or even confusing) to them. It is then clearer to students how to infuse their work with their ideas and observations without using personal pronouns or accidently interjecting opinions. To Korb’s point about students sharing their own interests and curiosities, I explain that their selection of the news story and the rhetorical elements analyzed are their own personalities and ideas coming through. In this they understand that I is inherent in everything they write and that their observations, selections, and writing craft are the tools they have to express themselves. They can use the construct of I notice/observe/think to help draft any paper and then remove the construct for their submissions for those other professors who don’t allow the use of personal pronouns in academic writing.
Those other professors still care what you think, I assure my students. Now they also have experience knowing how to incorporate themselves and their ideas into essays whether or not they use personal pronouns.
Goldstein, Dana. “Why Kids Can’t Write.” The New York Times. 2 August 2017.
Korb, Scott. “The Soul-Crushing Student Essay.” The New York Times. 21 April 2018.
Martin, Bill. “A Writing Assignment/A Way of Life.” The English Journal, vol. 92, no. 6, 2003, 52.
Prendergast, Catherine. Can I Use I?: Because I Hate, Hate, Hate College Writing. Out of Pocket Press. 2015.
Shultz, Anya. “Review: Serial, a captivating new podcast.” The Daily Californian. 10 October 2014. Accessed 21 January 2019.
Stacy Murison is a Contributing Editor at Assay. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Northern Arizona University (where she teaches composition) and an MA in humanities from Georgetown University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, River Teeth, and The Rumpus, among others.