It might seem that once you have made the decision to write as ‘I’ it’s just straightforward from then on in. Unfortunately, this is not so. There are conventions about the use of ‘I’ in academic writing that must be followed – or which you might consciously choose to disobey.
The key thing to understand is that the ‘I’ who writes an academic article is not the same ‘I’ who makes dinner, picks the kids up after school, goes shopping, and chatters with their friends on Facebook. This is a personal ‘I’. What is usual in an academic article is the academic ‘I’.
The academic ‘I’ does a range of academic activities – ‘I’ argue, infer, suggest, propose, conclude, offer, deduce, analyse, assess, evaluate, concur, trace, design, address, signal, signpost, flag up, situate, locate, affirm… Well, you get the picture. The verb that follows the academic ‘I’ is something associated with scholarship.
Now there isn’t a simple division between the academic and the personal and so it’s important to think about where and when you might want to be more ‘personal’ in your academic writing. Let’s take the verbs ‘believe’ and ‘feel’ as an example. I often see articles and first drafts which are liberally strewn with ‘I believe’ and ‘I feel’. Most often these can be crossed out, eliminated altogether, without losing anything from the text. After all, the writer wouldn’t be saying these things if they didn’t believe them and they didn’t feel them. Leaving them in is a question of style.
But saying ‘I believe’ and ‘I feel’ are often not at all appropriate in academic writing. This is because readers are not looking for what you think, but rather what you’ve done – they are looking for the ‘evidence’ you have generated to support your beliefs. This is either analysed data, or what you‘ve taken from the literatures. In these instances, saying ‘I believe’ invites the response “Well if this is simply your belief and there is no evidence for it, why should I trust you?”
There IS a place to discuss beliefs in most academic research, and this is in any part of the writing which addresses the question of researcher position and reflexivity. Beliefs are made explicit so the reader knows where the writer is coming from. But readers also want to know what processes researchers have put in place to be critical about their beliefs and their practice.
At this point, a caveat. It is important to note that there are disciplinary traditions which do use ‘I believe’ quite regularly. I’ve certainly read one or two philosophers who write in this way. So, as always, it’s important to check out the conventions within which you are the academic ‘I’ writing. Maybe yours is a discipline in which saying ‘I believe’ is usual.
Feelings can also have a place in research, but generally not as in ‘I feel this to be the case…’ (See above, why should the reader trust this? Do they want to know what you feel or care about? They are probably reading what you’ve written because they are interested in the subject matter, not the writer.) A researcher might want to say ‘I feel’ and explain their own feelings/emotions in relation to a person, a situation, or an aspect of their research, in order to develop a particular analysis. If this is the case, it’s important to get clear in the methods section that this is the kind of research in which the researcher is intimately involved. You have to explain what making explicit the researcher’s feelings means and does, and what tradition(s) you are drawing on.
Another thing about the academic ‘I’ is that the writer needs to strike a balance between the focus on the self and the focus on the people or things that are being researched. Too much ‘I’ and the writing becomes all about the researcher. That’s fine if the research is an autobiography or auto-ethnography. But lots of ‘I’ is not OK if the research is about something or somebody else. Too much ‘I’ and the piece becomes narcissism. Me, me, it’s all about me. And the most startling/ironic/inappropriate use of the solipsistic ‘I’ is when a researcher writes about participatory research, going on and on about being collaborative while writing exclusively in the first person.
So where can you write more comfortably as ‘I’?
Well, for a start the blogging ‘I’ is not the same as the conventional academic ‘I’. The blogger may still be an academic, but the writing can be much more like the personal ‘I’. It’s quite possible in blogs to write about yourself in a more journalistic way. In a blog for example it’s perfectly plausible for an academic ‘I’ to laugh, cry and scream – acts that are well nigh impossible in most conventional journal articles. Blogging is just a more personal kind of writing altogether, more relaxed, less distanced.
‘I’ can blog, no worries.