Vignette: Gettin Crunk with Composition Studies

Vershawn Ashanti Young

Composition Studies continues to seek to discipline me—as if this a one-way street, when it ain’t. As if, as the Valley girls say. As if!

Tryin to discipline me! 

The Black dude from the housing projects of Chicago, who wrote in his first article and repeated in his first book[1] that he was looking white administrators in the face at the high school where he taught, telling them with his eyes to kiss his ass and really did turn that cheek toward the vice principal who told him to stop teaching Black-authored poems to his mostly white students. 

Yeah, Me! 

The PhD student who turned that other cheek toward the well-known textbook author and administrator of the writing program in UIC’s English department where he was completing his PhD—the one who told him that his six years of teaching high school English, as the tenth-grade writing test specialist, his training and experience as an elementary school principal, and his then contemporaneous full-time faculty status in a writing program at a reputable college up the street could in no way demonstrate that he was already qualified to teach freshman composition without the assistance of the white, female, MA student, who was assigned as his mentor, a mentor who had no previous pedagogical training or experience beyond having sat in the professor’s class and having taught two sections—only two now—of freshman writing the year before. 

So, naw, me and composition studies ain’t never been the best of friends (partly cuz it keep lookin sideways at my double negatives, and I keep tellin it to leave the fact that I put ‘me’ before ‘composition studies’ alone!). 

But we on speaking terms (and no, the verb ‘are’ don’t belong tween the ‘we’ and ‘on’ in this sentence; I grew up speaking AAL and if composition studies keep insisting on its own willful ignorance, as if it don’t know nothing about the copula in AAL and ain’t been schooled in the language of Black America by Dr. G, James Sledd, Mary Rhodes Hoover, April Baker-Bell and nem[2]). 

So, like I was sayin, we on speaking terms (or maybe since composition still in willful denial about the inescapable and beneficial influence of speech on writing, as if Elbow ain’t penned a dutiful damn word on the topic,[3] maybe I should use another metaphor—not speaking terms (composition studies willfully ignores speech, remember) but perhaps dancing below, since there used to be a white rock band playin at the composition conference each year until a Black program chair said: “enuf!”). 

In any regard, I’m saying we in a dancing relationship of sorts. I mean, it was Marilyn Cooper[4], who was editor of College Composition and Communication—the field’s flagship journal, affectionately known as CCC (a harmfully disciplining acronym, as I see it, because it puts communication under erasure, attempting to discipline communication—particularly oral communication—out of the field), who published my first article, “Your Average Nigga” (2004). I remember Cooper writing encouragingly that I was uncompromising in my insistence that AAL should be up front and center in Black students’ academic writing. So, since then, I been inviting composition studies to dance. And it has been responding. And no, we not steppin’, we ain’t that cool. We ain’t doing that cool, grove, two-step, Black move, that R. Kelly made really famous with his Chocolate Factory track “Step in the Name of Love” (2003).[5] 

We ain’t doing that culturally sacred dance, because composition studies ain’t intimately Black enough yet for that—composition still gotta get some more rhythm. Instead, we doin a derivative version of b-boying, of breakdancing. Yea me and composition studies be gettin crunk. (If composition studies don’t know what crunk is, I suggest it use a reading strategy and consult an urban dictionary.) If composition studies think it ain’t crunk, thinkin too much of itself, as much too academic, much too sophisticated, then let me point to that wild, multi-move, improvisational Writing Program Administrative listserv group-dance debate where some composition studies compositionists were trying to discipline me (me!) (again!)––this time when I’m heading up the Conference on College Composition and Communication, CCCC, as program chair. Yes, ain’t that something?!

Composition studies was besides itself, calling me out to crunk with em, cuz they was upset that I wrote my cfp for the 2019 CCCC in Black English[6], in AAL, with flair and flavor. They was crunking this way and that, saying out one side of they mouf that I was setting a dangerous standard for college freshmen writing, and out the other side, saying my call was gimmicky, phony, dangerous to student writing, all because I wrote in Black English, actually a version of Black Standard English, as Hoover would call it. 

Now if composition studies keep tryin to discipline the head of the very conference program and soon to be head of the CCCC organization itself, demanding that he leave his Blackness somewhere else, but not to bring it nor his research or performance on the topic to his role as the head of the largest organization dedicated to composition AND communication, then what you think composition studies be doin to students? To undergrads, the most vernurable? To grad students? To grad student writing instructors? To adjunct writing teachers? And what you think they doin if any of these students and teachers are Black? Black English writers and speakers? I shudder to consider. I shudder. 

Naw, they ain’t calling students to crunk, they ain’t giving them that kinda of street or academic respect, as I’m giving to them. They much too authoritarian. Much too—dare I say it—(well, hell, yeah Imma say it) much too metaphorically Nuremberg to respect students’ voices and allow them to develop into skillful rhetors, drawing from their own rhetorics and bringing their linguistics powerfully into interplay with theory, with discourses, with school rhetorics, with composition. Nope, they just straight tryin to discipline. (If you didn’t notice, I switched to ‘they’ as the pronoun for composition studies instead of ‘it’, because any field is made up of people, of a host of scholars and teachers, and they can’t be hiding behind no inanimate titular designation when they discipline. Each one, individually, and then collectively, is accountable.)

So each time that composition studies tries to discipline my tongue, my heritage, my Blackness, my sociolinguistic and embodied language performance that twins up academic and AAL discourses, that code meshes, it’s/they calling me to get crunk. And composition studies, I’m ready. I was born ready. Let’s do this. Let’s get crunk. Cuz I know I’m going to win when it comes to my own tongue! You ain’t got no claims, no authority, to discipline that.


[1] See Young, Vershawn Ashanti. "Your average nigga." College Composition and Communication (2004): 693-715 and Young, Vershawn Ashanti. Your average nigga: Performing race, literacy, and masculinity. Wayne State University Press, 2007.

[2] See Smitherman, Geneva, and Geneva Smitherman-Donaldson. Talkin and testifyin: The language of Black America. Vol. 51. Wayne State University Press, 1986; Sledd, James. “Bi-dialectalism: The linguistics of white supremacy.” The English Journal 58.9 (1969): 1307-1329; Hoover, Mary Rhodes. “Community attitudes toward Black English.” Language in Society 7.1 (1978): 65-87; and Baker-Bell, April. “‘I never really knew the history behind African American language’: Critical language pedagogy in an advanced placement English language arts class.” Equity & Excellence in Education 46.3 (2013): 355-370.

[3] See Elbow, Peter. “The shifting relationships between speech and writing.” College Composition and Communication 36.3 (1985): 283-303 and Elbow, Peter. Vernacular eloquence: What speech can bring to writing. Oxford University Press, 2011.

[5] Kelly, R. Step in the Name of Love,” track on Chocolate Factory, February 18, 2003 by Jive RecordsSee YouTube for a video

[6] See “Call for Program Proposal, Performance-Rhetoric, Performance-Composition, 2019 CCCC Annual Convention, March 13–16, 2019, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Program Chair: Vershawn Ashanti Young.