We have all read the thesis or dissertation chapter where there is no frame narrative, no explanatory container.
In such cases it can feel like the writer has done a good job of marshaling sources but has not yet figured out how to talk about them. Sometimes it is impossible to discern the author’s stance or even what they did or aim to do. This kind of text feels like what one of my clients called “all bricks, no mortar.” The result is usually a bewildering read whose signature question in the mind of the reader is: why am I reading this?
This failure to act as the narrator (conductor, curator—choose your metaphor) probably has multiple etiologies. Graduate students are asked to occupy the paradoxical position of novice and expert at the same time. They often feel deep insecurity about moving into the role of authority, yet this is precisely what the thesis or dissertation process demands. This anxiety may be expressed through a greater comfort with citing and analyzing sources than assuming a stance, even as the narrator of their own text.
While first-person language is not necessary to clear narration, most students have been instructed not to use it at some point in their education. This is true even for students working in fields where first-person language can be appropriate. These students may miss out on the full range of narrative tools available to them. But even in fields that don’t use first-person language, students need to learn to recognize the ways that authorship, authority, and stance are signaled. Recognizing these rhetorical features can also be difficult for language learners who may struggle with the different cultural norms around authorial presence.
Rather than simply tell students how to behave as authors, use this inductive exercise to help them understand the conventions around authorial presence in their field. Ask the students to write a summary of their findings and their conclusions about how authorial presence is expressed in their field. If you are working with an interdisciplinary group, having them share their findings will help illustrate how varied authorial conventions are across disciplines.
Helping Students Express Authorial Presence (pdf download).