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Objective vs. Personal - Academic Writing for Evaluation

Dawn's picture

Dawn Hathaway

December 8, 2008

Critical Feminist Studies

Professor Anne Dalke

“Objective” vs. Personal – Academic Writing for Evaluation

A discussion in my Problems in Satire class last week made me reconsider our class discussion about the personal finding its way into academic writing. How important is it for authors to locate themselves? Looking at the class from McIntosh’s point of view, I suppose it would have to be placed in Phase 1, because we were looking at a collection of historical literature in which women were never mentioned, nor had they had a hand in writing any of it. However, I believe that there are other important factors besides the presence of women that can tell you whether or not a class can be considered feminist. We have already gone over the fact that different people have different feminisms. The fact that there is no set definition of feminism is one of the things that I like the best. From our discussions after the last paper, I am now convinced that the personal voice involved in placing oneself as the author is important in feminist discussion. It gives a level of honesty to the writing and clearly shows the perspective from which opinions are generated.

Now, where did that all begin? The context of the personal voice in most published writing was actually incorporated in the sixteenth century. Alexander Pope (Epistles, Epilogue to the Satires) was one of the first writers to begin to use it. During the last fifteen years of his career (1729-1744) he constructed himself into a brand name. The public, especially publishers, knew his writing. He collected his own correspondence as well. In a related field, he was an activist and enabler of copyright law enforcement. Most importantly, Pope used himself as a point of reference in his writing. He wrote what he knew. Before this point, institutional thinking was valued rather than personal views. In class Professor Briggs suggested that today, as opposed to pre-sixteenth century, through the evolution of the personal voice the world of writing is characterized by individualism. I happen to disagree with this idea. To a certain extent, yes, writing is far more personal than it was in the early sixteenth century, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that academic writing today is characterized by individualism. It seems to me, that at least this form of writing has pulled away from the increasingly personal trend.

All through high school, continuing on through writing workshop here at Bryn Mawr, it has been drilled into my head that I should never use the word “I” in an academic paper. To be perfectly honest, the lack of personal location in my previous papers was not intentionally dishonest on my part. It is an example of what I have been conditioned to do. I have read over my last paper about feminism in Islamic architecture with this new perspective, and I can see exactly why my lack of location could be construed as “playing God” and imposing my Western feminist ideals over another culture with no explanation whatsoever. I have been taught that the less personal, objective voice is supposed to be more professional. I don’t agree. I believe that we’ve seen many examples in this class where biases are exposed through writing. We are never truly objective. Why is it more professional to not locate yourself as an author? Personally, I find myself drawn to pieces in which I can place the author, ie Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein.” Her experience validated her claims for me. I felt as though I could trust her more, because I knew where she was coming from. The gender of the author doesn’t make a difference for me. I will use another example from Problems in Satire: Michel de Montaigne. He was a very influential writer in the French Renaissance, because he popularized the essay as a writing form. He did so by combining theoretical speculation with anecdotes and autobiography in order to explain himself. He wrote what he knew and placed himself as the author. He created a turning point in the history of published writing, one that I feel has been quite beneficial to the evolution of writing to what we have today. I trust him more than some of his contemporaries, because of his attention to the personal.

I would like to learn from experience and actually cultivate a level of the personal in my writing for a change. This paper is already very different from anything I have written for evaluation before, but I would like to take it a step further. I have already presented an example of an “objective” piece of writing – no personal pronouns, not much acknowledgement of myself as the author at all – however unsatisfactory that may have been. Even in this piece, though I have been writing from a personal perspective, I have not really placed myself. I would like to attempt a piece that is purely personal. We have had questions floating around all semester, such as: What is my definition of feminism? and Do I identify as a feminist? I would like to finally attempt to answer them with my personal definition (see Bitch Ph. D.) – something I have always hoped I would be able to do by the end of the semester.

“My Feminism”

My feminism is a Western feminism. It is important to me to understand different views of feminism from around the world, but when it comes down to the root of my beliefs, I recognize that they are influenced by my cultural experiences.

My feminism affirms genders – all of them. Judith Butler’s writing appeals to me as a sort of essentialist ideal, the idea of having no gender distinctions, but until I can truly wrap my head around it and understand it better, I will have to rely on my experiential ideal. All sexes and genders are supported by my feminism. I am biologically female and I identify as a woman, but I do not view my gender as being more important than any other. For example, I came to Bryn Mawr because of the singular, supportive atmosphere I found here, not because of the specific label, woman.

My feminism includes men. Yes, I realize that this is redundant, but I feel the need to make the distinction due to stereotypes that are thrown around, such as the “manhater”. My feminism doesn’t just like men, it includes them. I can’t honestly believe that I am striving for equality if I consciously leave out a known part of the population.

Sexuality is an important part of my feminism. While gender does not determine sexuality, unfortunately discrimination regarding both constructs goes hand in hand. My feminism will fight that. It will fight idealistically. It will fight for me to be queer and equal in any society, it will fight for me to love a man, to love a woman, to love any person of any gender I please.

My feminism is political. There isn’t a specific political arena for feminism – it can be liberal, conservative, socialist, you name it. All I know is that my feminism will get political if that is playing field presented. A woman’s right to choose, Prop 8…you better believe that I’ll be involved in these issues from a feminist standpoint to some extent.

My feminism is spiritual. I am usually in a space with a focus on the celebration of the divine feminine. This is important part of me, but I also branch out beyond the feminine.

My feminism is environmental in any sense of the world. I feel like I exist in an inherently feminist environment. I also believe that my feminism should be green, because the environment is a large part of who I am.

My feminism is local. My strongest support will closest to my heart, for those I love.

My feminism includes writing, exploring, fencing, and most important aspects of my life. It allows me to be me, but it does not demonize you for feeling differently than I do.

I must admit that I haven’t considered the material that much in my assessment here, but I have to say that yes, my feminism is material. I have come to terms with the fact that my body is irreducible, and it is a large part of who I am whether I want to admit it or not. I also realize that I don’t have to look at it like it’s a limitation.

My feminism is inwardly strong, but could stand to be stronger outwardly. I can’t say with a clear conscience that I would never back down in a fight. Not today.

My feminism isn’t perfect, there are aspects that I still can’t explain, even to myself, but they are parts of me. I’ll accept them for now and continue living them. One day I’ll be able to look more closely.

My feminism has flexible boundaries. That is important to me. I allow myself to learn and reconsider. Nothing is set in stone if I haven’t lived it yet. I don’t rule out possibilities.

Now that I have been as honest with you as I have been with myself (I don’t think I’ve ever really spelled this out in so many words before), is the purely personal helpful? Is it a viable method of presentation of ideas? I don’t know, that is for you to decide, I suppose. It is hard for me to step back and see the bigger picture, since this is my personal story. This was certainly a learning experience for me. If I were to draw a conclusion, however, I would say that this exercise in personal writing has helped me to create a framework in order to understand my location. It has provided me with ideas that could be used to locate myself as an author when exploring another topic, even if they are not particularly useful for the audience by themselves. I have set my stage. I feel that if I presented a snapshot of this to explain where I was coming from when dealing with another intellectual concept, I would feel more honest, and less like I was putting one over on my audience. What do you think?


Anne Dalke's picture

The sacrifice of objectivity

So much here for you to go on thinking and us to go on talking about! Thanks for continuing the engagement....

I'm especially intrigued by your hope that you might, in future papers and other courses, figure out a way to bring together the personal and the intellectual. For the Faculty Theory Seminar tonight, I've been reading Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison's Objectivity. It's a huge, heavy, fascinating book, about the history of this idea that has been so powerful in the academy generally, in the sciences in particular. Here's one passage that especially struck me, and might nudge your thinking further:

All epistemology begins in fear--fear that the world is too layrinthine to be threaded by reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect too frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstration; fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive. Objectivity is a chapter in this history of intellectual fear, of errors anxiously anticipated and precautions taken. But the fear objectivity addresses is different from and deeper than the others...Objectivity fears subjectivity, the core self....But there is no getting rid of...subjectivity...the precondition for knowledge: the self who knows...

This explains the power of objectivity, an epistemlogical theory more radical than any other because the malady it treats is...the root of both knowledge and error....Objectivity is to epistemology what extreme asceticism is to morality...The demands it makes on the knower outstrip...strenuous forms of self-cultivation, to the brink of self-destruction. Objectivity is...a sacrifice...Subjectivity
is the self.
Anne Dalke's picture

Imperfect Feminism


I'm pleased to see your range of experimentation here; in this paper, as in your first and your second, you link some of our critical feminist explorations with those taking place in other classes (how useful to have Alexander Pope and Michel de Montaigne evoked as the forefathers of our feminist 'personal' ethos!).

You might have gone a little further with this. Your argument begins with a statement about the "level of honesty" that is gained when an author places himself. You issue a direct challenge to the presumption that the "less personal, objective voice" is the "more professional one." So I'd be very curious to hear how you understand the intersection of this value of honesty with the genre of satire (which so often has a "dishonest" turn, in which the author pretends to be someone other than himself, and/or to hold positions--like those Swift so famously expressed in A Modest Proposal--that are not his own, or precisely the reverse of his own).

You turn then from what you're learning in your satire class, to apply your own hand at writing the experiential--not just theorizing about whether the personal is honest--and useful--but actually writing in that vein, trying it out to see how well it works.

There are a number of things that intrigue me in this experiment. First: is it possible to write what you say you are attempting--"a piece that is purely personal"? (Given the basic fact that language is social, a communally agreed-upon set of meanings? That many of your political and spiritual positions were acquired through social interaction and institutionalized education?)

Next: is there an inconsistency (or is it just a pragmatic limitation of energy and attention?) between the "local" quality of your feminism--which supports most strongly those "closest to your heart," "those you love"--and your earlier claim that "you can't honestly be striving for equality if you consciously leave out a known part of the population"?

I'd also like to hear more about the sort of feminism that "does not demonize others for feeling differently than you do." Or acting different? Or being different? Or discriminating against the things that make you different? What of those who oppose your views on equality, who want to maintain hierarchies?

I was struck, too, by your explaining that your "feminism isn't perfect." How about a femnism that accepts imperfection?! That seems to fit well with your very nice line about "not ruling out possibilities."

But probably most striking to me of all is your final gesture: your asking me to be the judge of the usefulness and "helpfulness" of this way of writing. Is that feminist (does it belong in the catalogue of "your feminism"?): to cede decision-making and judgment to another? To a voice of "authority"?

If so/if not...whereto from here?

Dawn's picture

Yes, Imperfect and also Embracing Imperfections

You actually bring up a point that I plan to look at a little further. My focus on the personal voice in satire stayed mostly on the first emergence of that voice. In that first case, it was the true voice of the author showing through, but I had not thought about how the voice of the satirist evolved - into a persona acting out something that, as you said, could be seen as "dishonest." I'm not exactly sure how I understand the interaction. I'll have to look at that more.

Looking back I see that "purely" personal was a bad word choice. I guess I meant that what I wanted to do was go completely in the opposite direction of what I have been taught: don't insert anything personal into an essay. I was hoping that being able to focus entirely on what I think and actually writing in an evaluative essay would give me the confidence to be able to use that sort of language and strategy in order to place myself as an author in other forms of writing - putting the two together. I do recognize that what I believe is based on social construction.

Maybe I'm not seeing it the right way, but I don't seem to see how inconsistent the non-exclusion idea is with the idea of feminism being strongest when dealing with the local. Is it possible to say that I don't exclude, but know most about what I'm familiar with and it is easiest for me to act on that behalf? Or is that really being exclusionary? Maybe I have to reconsider that idea entirely.

What I mean about not wanting to demonize others based on differences with my views is that I understand how deeply rooted my belief system is. I realize that other people who maintain hierarchies and don't share my views on equality probably have generated their belief system in the same way. I would like to make it possible for more equality, but it would be better to enter constructive conversation and understand where they're coming from as well, rather than making them out to be the bad guys.

What I meant by my last gesture is that I recognize that I have an audience. I don't necessarily see that audience as an authority figure. I know what this writing exercise has done for me, but I didn't write it just for me. I know others will read it. And, because of that I'm curious. I want to know what (if anything) my writing something like this did for you, the class, or anyone who happens to stumble upon this online.