Lexicon Valley

My Students Never Use the First Person Voice. I Wish They Would.

Dartmouth seniors attend their graduation ceremony.


At least once a week on the Dartmouth College campus, I see a student, eyes glued to a smartphone, literally walk into a tree or a pole or a peer. I don’t mean to laugh (and usually I suppress the urge), but c’mon, it’s a little bit funny. Sure, if this were a romantic comedy, students colliding with each other and dropping papers everywhere could make for a perfect meet-cute: heads would bump as both people bend down to collect the items, and the rest is history.

As a professor, this isn’t exactly the meeting of minds I’m looking to foster.

Each year, Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference coincides with university commencements across the country. From June 8 to June 12 this year, the corporate giant is announcing shiny additions to its line of phones, tablets, computers, and watches, already ubiquitous on college campuses. But as students proudly claim the latest smartphones and personal gadgets, are teachers encouraging them to voice their own smarts in a personalized manner?

In various stages of schooling, we’ve all had instructors tell us to eschew the first-person voice for purposes of critical distance and rhetorical authority. Third-person perspectives boast several strengths, enabling prose that can sound formal, professional, objective, generalizable, and persuasive.

I can’t help wondering, however, whether every time we discourage students from using the first-person—every time they sheepishly hit backspace after reflexively writing I or me—they’re taking to heart the implicit message: “I” don’t matter. It’s not about “me.” My hunch is that cultivating discursive habits of self-effacement can lead to subtle yet systemic detriments to students’ sense of self and self-worth.

Many scholars insist that academia and first-person narratives shouldn’t mix. Feminist theorists, merging personal and political, have often been accused of “naked self-interest.” Disability scholars who spend time divulging their own hardships are charged with indulging in narcissistic “moi-criticism,” appealing to emotions (and scoring so-called sympathy points) rather than to the intellect. And philosophers are, as Dartmouth professor Susan Brison remarks, “trained to write in an abstract, universal voice and to shun first-person narratives as biased and inappropriate for academic discourse.” Other professors at Dartmouth have also weighed in on this matter. Jeffrey Ruoff, who teaches Film and Media Studies, told me: “Students commonly come to me to ask if they can write in the first person, like it’s a transgression.” Or, as English professor Marty Favor says: “I want to see the students behind the prose.”

The goal, of course, isn’t to assure students that it’s all about them—that is, to condone attitudes of entitlement and egotism. The point is for students to recognize that they must listen inward, harnessing a voice from deep down, in order to reach outward and contribute to society at large. Yes, I realize such advice runs the risk of sounding clichéd and sentimental: believe in yourself, the truth lies within, speak from your heart. But I’d rather see students grapple with sentiment than to have them smudge it out altogether.

Because you know what else is a cliché? The notion that good writing stands on its own merits, or that good ideas speak for themselves, or that a good paper can practically write itself. When we empower students to write with I, what we convey is: Stand up for yourself and take responsibility for what you say. Once you’ve found a voice, start thinking of all the people whose voices continue to go unheard. Behind glowing phones and laptop screens, students need to look up and speak out, to collide and connect with one another through exercises in self-expression and self-evaluation.

Students’ identities aren’t measurable by the gadgets they own. After all, even though the “i” in iPhone promises individuality, the widespread adoption of such devices can make us largely uniform. In this season of university commencements, what I really want is to see students graduate from small i to capital I. I want them to take stock of the actual “self” amidst their constant selfies.

William Zinsser, who passed away earlier this month, stressed the importance of writing in the first person. Author of the bestseller On Writing Well, he advised: “Writing is an intimate transaction between two people, conducted on paper, and it will go well to the extent that it retains its humanity. Therefore I urge people to write in the first person: to use ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘we’ and ‘us’.”

Unlike endless iterations of iProducts, the real I should never feel outdated, replaceable, or dispensable. As students strive to make the grade, we’d do well to remind them that there’s no voice without I.