A student's comment to me today made it clear that there is a significant difference of policy on the use of the first person singular in historical writing among members of my department. I wouldn't worry about this, but it seems to be causing some confusion among our students. How do others feel or require on this issue?
My position is to encourage the use of the first person singular, based on the argument that no historian can be totally objective, and therefore it is more intellectually honest to use the first person to acknowledge that fact and to take responsibility for one's position. Thoughts?
As this will be an item for discussion at my dept. meeting tomorrow (11/29), you can post any reply to me privately.
Dept. of History
Date: Tue, 28 Nov 1995 18:17:15 -0600 (CST) From: RSPILLER@sfasu.edu
My vote's for using 'I' as appropriate. An advantage to requiring/encouraging first person singular among students on essays is that it would help them indicate what they themselves think vs. what 'people'/the text/your lectures, etc. think.
Dr. Ronald L. Spiller
Stephen F. Austin State University
Nacogdoches, TX 75962
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 95 08:26:28 EST
From: email@example.com (Joanne Klein)
Regarding the use of first person singular in history papers, I forbid it in all assignments. All essays and papers must be written in the third person without any references to "the reader", "one" or any other attempts to get around this restriction. The reason for this is that I get tired of papers full of sentences beginning, "I think" or "I suppose" and other variations on the same idea. One skill I try to encourage with writing assignments is more confidence in examining evidence and coming up with reasonable interpretations. Beginning interpretation with "I think" indicates a lack of confidence by the student in his or her conclusions. Students know from class discussions that two people faced with the same evidence might come to quite different conclusions. I am trying to teach them to support their own interpretation with evidence as well as account for other possible interpretations.
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 1995 09:35:18 -0600 (CST) From: Bill Cecil-Fronsman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I vote no.
I always tell my students that there is no point in writing something like "I think that the Civil War was caused by the expansion of slavery." I tell them: Of course you think it, why else would you have written it in the first place. There is no point in writing "In my opinion" since I assume everything in the students' papers is their opinion. Why else would they have written it.
Bill Cecil-Fronsman email@example.com Department of History Office: (913) 231-1010 x1317 Washburn University Fax: (913) 231-1084
Topeka, KS 66621
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 1995 09:46:51 EST
From: "Hughie Lawson, Murray State" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Here's my rule.
Hughie Lawson <email@example.com>
Murray State University
Murray, Kentucky 42071
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 1995 08:57:50 -0800 (PST) From: Christopher Jackson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I suppose it depends on how skilled in writing your students are; if the use of the first-person singular makes it "easier" for them to write, then the answer is no--your job is to teach them to write history, and history is written in the third person. If they are skilled, perfectly capable of writing either way, then a good classroom exercise would be to write on the same topic in both the first and the third person, and thus show the artifice of the writer's voice.
Christopher R. Jackson, UC Berkeley/Davis
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 1995 11:42:13 -0800
I encourage students to write in the 1st person; I want to know how they think and the ways in which they interpret evidence. This helps me encourage their analysis or suggest other alternative paths. With most of my survey students, I'm basically thankful if they actually write in complete sentences that convey some familiarity with the material under discussion! I figure the niceties of "proper history" might best be applied to jr or sr courses.
Hank Stamm <email@example.com> University of Alaska Anchorage
Date: Wed, 29 Nov 95 18:36:37 EST
From: Charlene Mires <MIRES@VM.TEMPLE.EDU>
Regarding the use of first-person, there's an important distinction to be made between "I think ..." at the beginning of a sentence, which is often unnecessary, and cases where students may integrate their own experiences into their understanding of history. Don't we want students to recognize their own lives are part of history? What message do we send if we forbid them to include themselves in history papers in appropriate ways?
>Date: Thu, 30 Nov 1995 10:16:53 -0400
>From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Bill Hogan)
>I believe that the use of the first person singular in the rendition of >History is inappropriate, unless of course the person actually participated in >the event.
>History, or rather the recounting of history is but a hypothesis of an actual >event based on one person research...To do anything less would render all >results questionable.
>There are several good examples of that in Canada....Ernst Zundel and Malcom >Ross, to name but a few.
>Woodstock High School
>Date: Thu, 30 Nov 1995 09:33:36 EST
>From: "Hughie Lawson, Murray State" <email@example.com> >
>On issues like first-person singular, we are dealing with conventions >rather than with some kind of natural law. Because we are teachers, >we are also dealing with writing assignments in the context of >promoting learning.
>For many immature persons, limiting the use of "I" probably has a >desireable effect in that it emphasizes a focus on the subject rather >than the person doing the writing. Moreover, it is difficult to >critique what somebody says about his own views, for the writer knows >more about his own ideas than the teacher does; for this reason, the >teacher will be driven to critique the subject presentation anyway. >
>But one case for using "I" is pretty clear-cut. This is in discussion >of research methodology used to produce the paper, where the writer >reports what she did to get up the research base for the paper. >Avoiding "I" in these cases leads to awkward passive-voice >constructions (for example, "the records were sampled randomly") or to >old-fashioned locutions such as "the writer sampled the records." >
>A similar issue is incomplete sentences, sometimes used by >professional writers for effect. I notice also that French authors >seem to use incomplete sentences without compunction, maybe a little >more often than American writers. My practice is to ban incomplete >senntences altogether, except in direct quotation. One exception: if >a student proves to me that she is a professional writer by showing >that a publisher has paid her for work, then "I" and incomplete >sentences may be used.
>Hughie Lawson <firstname.lastname@example.org> >Murray State University
>Murray, Kentucky 42071
>Learning to write includes learning to meet the conventions of some >publisher and the rules of some genre. Teachers need not apologize for >setting such rules for student work, especially if their purpose is >educational.
>Date: Thu, 30 Nov 1995 10:03:18 -0500 (EST)
>The First Person has no place in an historical paper. Leave the use of >First Person to the English and Philosophy classes. The thesis will >provide the students personal opinion. The rest should be based on >researched facts and critical evaluation of the research. >
>Scott M. Gyenes
>Western Michigan University / Kalamazoo Valley Community College >
> Bruce A. Peterson > University of Texas-Pan American > email@example.com
> "But do not despise the lore that has come down from > distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives > keep in memory word of things that once were needful > for the wise to know."
> J.R.R. Tolkien
>Thanks for all this first person stuff. I like the different points >of view and provides me some new material for presenting my case. >My view on the matter essentially was formed long ago at UH on my >MA where Dr. Linsley (a historian with a Ph.d. and a law degree) >more or less said that no degree would be granted to first person >writers! So I am anchored in that. I like the idea of having >students write same paper in the two voices. Think I'll try that >next semester. Is such an obviously wise thing to do. Just goes >to show--the "obvious" is only so, to the wise. Like my friend >Bob Bonazzi in college used to say, regarding one's response to >reading good philosophy: "OF COURSE!!....I knew that all along, >but of course I had to read Kant (or somebody) to "know" it!" >
>Thanks again. George
> Tony Edmonds > Ball State
>Date: Thu, 30 Nov 1995 17:34:27 -0500 (EST)
>From: Eric Rise <erise@UDel.Edu>
>I tend to be old-fashioned about this issue (even though I'm only 32 years >old). I prefer that my students write in the third-person, not because it >is more "objective," but because papers written in the first person tend >to be purely subjective, poorly conceived and executed, and devoid of any >supporting evidence. I have simply read too many sentences that begin >with "It is my opinion that . . .," "I feel that . . .," "I believe that >. . .," "It seems to me that . . .," etc. >
>Of course, papers written in the third person can be ill-conceived and >devoid of evidence as well. But "in my experience" (another phrase that I >loath), students who write their papers in the first person are generally >less likely to have conducted research in a variety of sources, considered >competing interpretations, and synthesized relevant information. Thus, >their paper is little more than a statement of their (usually uninformed) >personal opinion. Since my principal goal as a teacher is to encourage my >students to confront, challenge, and critically evaluate their most >cherished beliefs, I ask them to write in a style that encourages them to >step back from personal experience and to consider contrary perspectives. >
>I should add that I am not doctrinaire on this matter, and I have received >some very fine papers written in the first person. Thus, I think the best >route is to encourage and reward well-written, thoughtfully conceived >papers. I would not absolutely require first-person or third person >writing.
>University of Delaware
>From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Gregory Monahan)
>Date: Thu, 30 Nov 1995 14:38:18 -0800 (PST)
>I have enough trouble getting my lesser writers to quit using the second >person in their writing without laying into them about "I"! >
>Date: Mon, 4 Dec 1995 17:55:10 -0600
>From: email@example.com (Amanda Seligman) >
>Most of the discussion about the use of the first person in student history >papers revolved around the propriety of the first person singular. What do >H-Teachers make of the use of the first person plural, especially in the >case of "national" references? As in "we entered the war in 1941" etc.? >
>My initial inclination is to discourage it, but not too actively, on the >grounds that the student using the phrase wasn't actually there at the >time. Only if they recognize the application of a historical memory to >their speech, or if they were alive at the time, should students go ahead >and use the first person plural liberally. >
>But if we are indeed supposed to be teaching some sort of civics as well as >history, should we encourage (or at least not discourage) the use of "we" >and "our"? Should I not quash the nationalist sentiment of the American >student of Korean descent from Jacksonville, Florida, who insists on saying >"We won the Civil War"? No doubt this will take us back (in an odd way) to >the National History standards debate. >
>Finally, there are potentially powerful historical continuities that >students might be trying to draw out through rhetorical hyperbole: "It >wasn't any different when we were in slavery." >
>Obviously in the context of this group these questions will be most >applicable to American historians. But I am curious about how people >residing in other countries and teaching history of those nations encounter >this issue. What about people teaching Western Civ? >
>Department of History
>Evanston, IL 60208
>Date: Mon, 4 Dec 1995 18:28:58 -0800 (PST)
>From: Annette Laing <firstname.lastname@example.org>
>Thank you for raising this issue, Amanda. My old history teacher >expressly forbade his classes to use the first person plural, on the >grounds that his students had not yet been born when the events we were >studying took place and, perhaps even more significantly,because he believed >that patriotism was not the business of historians. I might add my own >reason, which is that as a British citizen who teaches American history, I >do not feel included in that smug "we", particularly when the subject in >question is the American Revolution. :-) > I have always thought it fascinating, by >the by, that students frequently ask, with a roguish grin, whether I >was taught as a child to refer to the Revolution as the "American >Rebellion." I am proud to tell them that I learned it as "the War of >American Independence", and that the aforementioned history teacher's >central theme in his lectures on the subject was the incompetence of the >British military leaders.
> The best history is one that searches for an ever-elusive truth >rather than consciously seeking to impose a political agenda, however >honorable, on the past. I believe in encouraging students to try to >practice according to the standards of the discipine, and this must of >necessity include their avoidance of nationalistic rhetoric. >
>Visiting Assistant Professor,
>University of Redlands
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