Can I use "I" in my English 211 paper?

        The following email exchange may help you to understand what the midterm and final papers are supposed to do for you, and for your readers, who are your colleagues in English 211 (inner circle), as well as the world of English literature scholars (outer circle, eventually).  In brief, the answer is "yes as long as it doesn't lead you to write too casually, that is, you should write using standard grammar and spelling."  However, the real question beneath the surface is "should I relate personally to the literature I'm writing about, and to the audience who's actually going to read my paper, or is the paper just a formulaic arrangement of words I learned to crank out in high school when writing papers on [insert name of author here]?"

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---------From: Concerned Student   Sent:   Wednesday, October 03, 2001 9:59 PM To: Sanders, Arnie Subject:  a few questions

 Hello!  I just have a few things I want to ask you...  or tell you.  [ . . . ]

Other thing- Paper topics... are these papers researched?  I ask this because I remember you telling us to use the word "I," which is shock enough in and of itself... good shock, though.  But are we researching or simply developing our own ideas?  Thanks very much!!  CS

Arnie replies: Yes, you're going to research the papers, in the simple and more common senses of the word.  First you have to research the work itself, literally searching through it again, carefully, for evidence and a more precise and intensely felt sense of its meaning.  And then, as you develop questions that can be answered by "research" in the second sense, looking at previous scholarship, you should seek it as needed, picking the most recent, most reliable, and most insightful scholars. 

            As I've been trying to emphasize with respect to our poets' development of their poems, nobody works in a vacuum as a writer.  Even if you're "developing your own ideas," you'd be operating with a chorus of previous teachers, papers, and other students in your mind, telling you something like "that's what worked last time, so let's find a topic where we can do that again."  My goal is to liberate you somewhat from those voices by enabling you to walk into any new work, and then to see something that's interesting, not obvious, that helps the work to succeed.  Describe how that thing works, including where it may have come from in the literary tradition, and you've got a thesis with support.  Then find out what other scholars have been saying about that part of the text and connect their insights with yours.  Take a look at the sample papers on Friday--they may help clear up any lingering doubts.  Also, I'll probably be holding a paper workshop Friday afternoon just after classes stop if that helps.  --a.

From: Concerned Student Sent: Thursday, October 04, 2001 7:21 PM To: Sanders, Arnie  Subject: RE: a few questions 

That would be absolutely super if you post a Q&A on the folders about our recent e-mail topics.  Also, on that anonomous thing, can you clarify your feelings toward the word "I" in research papers... that is a VERY new thing for me!  Thanks so much!--CS

Arnie replies (have patience--it's important stuff): 

            Now the use of "I" in an academic paper is certainly an interesting issue, and in fairness to your previous teachers it would have been unlikely to have been permitted by journal editors perhaps a decade or two ago.  They were teaching you to write as their teachers had taught them, and that all has to do with some changes in critical theory that challenged the notion of a disembodied, purely rational point of view from which literature could be read and understood.  That position, a product of the "New Criticism" of the 1930s-1960s, sought to make literary analysis as reliable and reproducable as any of the natural sciences, with a clear-cut method of things the critics did, a set of "illegal practices" (the heresy of paraphrase, the intentional fallacy, etc.) that would get you thrown out of the game, and an internationally established canon of great works to which the methodology applied.  When you try to do that, the usage "I" makes no more sense in literary analysis than it does to the chemist working with a reaction under the fume hood in Hoffberger.  Personalities don't enter into the study of chemical reactions, nor into the New Critical method for discovering the work's organic unity by means of identifying thematic patterns of irony, ambiguity, metaphor and simile, or other tropes which were said to reveal the work's "transcendent meaning" which was accessible to all readers who played by the rules.

            The "Post-Modernists" basically dismantled the NC position, piece by piece, starting with the critic's unique personal identity as an essential part of the machinery we use to produce literature.  Oh, and I just slipped into a Po-Mo usage there by saying that we readers are producing the literature as opposed to the NC position that authors produce it and we consume it.  Today there's a lot of emphasis on the "embodied reader" and the text as a kind of cultural battleground where writers and readers work do all sorts of important "cultural work" to dismantle and create values by which the society operates.  Feminists were among the first to lead the charge, pointing out that women who read those Petrarchan sonnets, for instance, had to perform a kind of "reading in drag" if they were to successfully read them from the male author's position rather than from that of his "Beloved."  Did you see some of that tension in the responses to Wyatt's, Sidney's and Spenser's sonnets on the public folders?  I meant to do more with the "Beloved's voice" business, when the male poet lets "Her" have a word or two in the construction of his drama of emotional entanglement.  In some sonnets it's almost like She need not really exist as long as he has his battle with Desire and Reason etc.

            But I now each critic's "I" is available for use in analysis even in a casual way, but it's still important to write with formal attention to grammar and usage.  If anything, authors are more stylistically self-conscious now.  So much has been written about the convoluted and bizarre prose of the Deconstructionists and other Po-Mo villains that writing clear and accessible critical prose has become a major goal.  Think of your paper as being addressed to the class in its best sense, not the occasionally sleepy or rowdy or confused state of its collective being, but as a group of attentive, widely read, curious scholars who want to know what you think about how a piece of literature works, what that means, and why it's important.  (to you?  Sure, why not?)--a.

P.S. for "the whole nine yards" about the development of critical methods, you'll have to take English 215, but you can sort of browse in it a little at the web site Mary Marchand and I constructed for last years' sections at