You wouldn't think of writing e-mail or a letter to a friend without using the first-person singular I, me, or my. If you were writing a letter to an editor or an essay in which it is appropriate and important to claim opinions and feelings as your own, you would, of course, use the first-person singular: I think, my opinion.
The following paragraphs are taken from a Labor Day (2 September 1999) editorial by Jeff Rivers in the Hartford Courant:
[My parents] were workers, union people, assembly lines and lunch pails, typing pools and greasy-spoon hot dogs. They worked as hard as they could for as long as they could. They gave out under the strain of their lives and dropped in the dust. Neither lived to be 60 years old.
Because of my parents' hard work, I walk along a less rocky path, which was their dream.
My parents were walkers. When I was a boy in Philadelphia, I'd go on long walks with one and then the other. When the three of us walked together, the trips were always short and full of purpose, like my parents' lives. But when I walked with just one of my parents, the trips sometimes became grand explorations of the city and life.
Rivers then goes on to tell us how his father would point out day laborers to his son, hinting broadly that his son should grow up to work with his mind, not his hands: "'Don't be like them, don't be like me.' . . . He wanted me to grow up to use my mind rather than my hands in work. I have, which was my dad's dream." And from there, Rivers goes on to say that today's workers have become more like microchips than mules, but they are still not valued the way they ought to be. Rivers' conclusion about society is allowed to grow out of his initial personal reflection; it feels personally justified. Click HERE for the entire essay. (Please note, though, that the very short paragraphs are appropriate for newspaper writing, but that academic text would undoubtedly gather many of those small paragraphs into larger units.)
On the other hand, to avoid any hints of subjective bias or a "this is just little ol' me talking" tone, most academic prose should feel as objective as possible. One easy test of objectivity in writing is the use of the first-person singular. Text in which I shows up over and over again will feel weighted with subjectivity, not objectivity. In the personal essay and the letter to Grandma, that is perfectly all right, and a personal essay without I's can feel oddly detached and cold. In objective, academic prose, however, that sense of detachment is often exactly what is called for.
Here is the introductory paragraph to a brief article in the online version of the September 1999 Atlantic Monthly:
The Kansas school board's recent decision to drop evolution from the state's required curriculum represents the latest episode in an ongoing battle between religious fundamentalists and secular educators over whether public schools should teach "creation science" or evolution or both. The Kansas school board claims that because evolution cannot be replicated in a laboratory, and thus cannot be directly observed, it should only be presented as theory rather than as fact. As a mere theory, they argue, it should be omitted from the curriculum or presented alongside other, competing "theories" (namely, creationism). Educators and scientists troubled by the Kansas decision point out that many scientific assumptions like the existence of atoms cannot be directly observed in a laboratory, but are accepted because they are supported by the best scientific evidence.
In this paragraph, there is not a single use of a first-person pronoun. The writer's opinions are undoubtedly lurking somewhere behind the piece, but they are not visibly betrayed by personal statement. Taking an objective stance like this might be a relatively easy matter if you, the writer, are removed from the events of Kansas and the creationism debate. What happens when your instructor asks you to write an essay about what you think about scientific theory versus creationism or about what is going on in a short story, or about some phenomenon in economics? How do you keep I out of it?
The vision of the poet is not just a private matter: "all who heard" and "all should cry." It is a collective enchantment with the poet at the center of it. The magic of the final spellbinding lines beyond explication is based partly on abracadabra incantation ("Weave a circle round him thrice") and our corporate recollections of holy visionaries. The poet compels the vision of the public, but at the same time he is an outcast among them untouchable and even cursed ("his flashing eyes, his floating hair!") by his gift. The lines become completely suggestive in their wild blend of holiness, sensuality, prophecy, and danger. The poet and poem have have become their own "miracle of rare device," and the reader has borne witness to the creative miracle.
In truth, it would probably be a great strain to avoid using the first-person pronoun in such an essay at least in the first draft. It is OK to write "In my opinion," "I think," "I feel." In fact, it's probably a good idea; it helps us to sort out what we're feeling and thinking from the more impersonal facts involved in the experience of reading the poem. Then, when we have them down on paper all these thoughts and feelings we can go back through the paper and eliminate all the I think's and all the in my opinion's. Many writers will move from what I think ("I think this shift in perspective is a purposeful attempt to trick us, and I feel confused.") to a statement about the experience of a hypothetical third-person reader: ("The reader has borne witness to the creative miracle.") to a simple assertion about the point of view ("The shift in perspective can be confusing.") What begins as personal, subjective "guess": "These lines feel to me like something completely suggestive. . . ." becomes an assertion of truth: "The lines become completely suggestive in their wild blend of holiness, sensuality, prophecy, and danger." We don't need to say that this is our opinion; the reader already knows that, and to reinforce that impression seems to weaken the text. The writer must learn to deal from strength or at least to appear to deal from strength.
Writing objectively also means writing fairly. What you feel about a poem, say, can never actually be wrong. Feelings can, of course, be based on misconceptions, but the feelings themselves are neither right nor wrong. This makes it important to express things as if they were objective findings, not personal feelings, as what happens to some reader (any reader), not what happened to me. Another part of objectivity is avoiding evaluation: it is the writer's business to point out how something works. In doing so, we imply whether or not it works well. Writing about the Kansas board of education's decision, we probably want either to praise the board members as independent thinkers who refuse to kowtow to the Lords of Technology and Science or to condemn them as dunderheads, but it is better to describe as objectively as possible what has happened and to allow our readers to form their own opinions. (That process can still be shaped by the words we choose or the order in which we describe things. In the paragraph above, for instance, the writer lets the Board have its say, but the last word belongs to science. But that is another matter.)
Having said this, we should be reminded that even in a largely third-person, objective essay the use of the first-person is not automatically to be despised. I can play an important (however cameo) role in the objective essay. One very effective strategy in writing about literature, say, is to briefly chronicle what professional critics and other people (casual readers, friends, classmates, people we make up) have said about a novel; go ahead and set them up with their benighted opinions. And then tell the reader what you think "I, on the other hand, believe that . . . ." blowing away the blunderings of predecessors and revealing the best, true way of looking at things, your way. In this strategy, owning your opinions and dealing straight from the self, from I, becomes a position of strength, not weakness. It would be a good idea to discuss this strategy with your instructor, however, before using it.