A Study of the Teaching Discourse at CCNY

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Posted on 12 Apr 2013 06:01

Medwin Chiu


This research looks at how the faculty at the City College of New York fits into the model of a discourse community as presented by various linguists such as John Swales and Elizabeth Wardle. Its initial goal is to prove that the faculty at City College is indeed a discourse community but goes on to extend the already existing study of discourse communities. The research uses written documents used by the faculty as well as direct observations and study of faculty members. After that, the research goes on to compare the findings to the findings of Swales, Wardle, and Sean Branick.


Throughout the last few decades, there has been an extensive study by various individuals on the idea of discourse communities, or groups that share a common goal. By using examples throughout society, these individuals have been able to give a definitive definition to this once vague and abstract idea. One of the major contributors to the literature of discourse community is John Swales. In his writing, he creates a definitive model of a discourse community; it must follow six criteria in order to qualify as one. Over time, other writers have built upon Swales ideas; Elizabeth Wardle writes about how one’s identity effect the niche one fills in a discourse community. Sean Branick writes about how football coaches fit under the definition of discourse communities. The combined contributions of these authors have created a wide array of literature on the subject. By understanding discourse communities better, people are able to cater their writing and interactions to that specific group.

The purpose of this research is to prove that the faculty at the City College of New York qualifies as a discourse community. From a student or outsider’s perspective, it can be difficult to see how the faculty as a whole operates together. However, this research hopes to prove that the faculty as whole, not just individual portions of it can be seen as a discourse community. Another question this research hopes to tackle is whether getting employed as a faculty member automatically makes one a part of the discourse community of the faculty.


To research the faculty at CCNY, my original plan was to divide my research into the various academic departments in an attempt to connect how each department operated. My hope was that I would be able to interview various teachers from the few departments I chose in order to get data that would provide evidence on how the faculty operated as a discourse community. My other plan was to search for documentation that related to each department or the faculty as a whole. As looking for documentation was more accessible immediately, I decided to proceed with that first. In this manner, I planned for my research to emulate that of Sean Branick’s, who interviewed and observed football coaches and looked at their written documents in his paper “Coaches Can Read Too: An Ethnographic Study of a Football Coaching Discourse Community.”

The first piece of written evidence, the CCNY faculty handbook, changed the way I approached my research. After going through it, I decided that instead of looking at and connecting how each individual department operated, I decided to look at how the government of the faculty (the Faculty Senate) facilitated the inner workings of the faculty itself and brought the faculty together as a whole. To put it into perspective, I decided to study a tree not by the individual branches, but by its trunk and its roots. I changed the target and questions of my interviews; instead of targeting and asking about how individual departments functioned, I decided to ask about how departments and the entire faculty itself interacted together to work towards a common goal.


The first piece of data I looked at was the CCNY faculty handbook. The Faculty handbook the faculty at CCNY uses to “provide new members of the faculty with a general introduction to the College and to serve as a permanent reference containing information of importance regarding organizations, rules, procedures, and services to all members of the faculty, who are urged to familiarize themselves with the material collected here.” Although the handbook is targeted at the entire staff that works at CCNY, it seems that the main audience is for those who have just begun a position of teaching at CCNY. The handbook is a means for which to integrate these new members. The existence of such a handbook proves that there is an intention for the faculty to be united as a whole.

One interesting section is the one detailing the faculty senate. The document states that “The Faculty Senate maintains standing committees on: Administration, Financial planning, Educational Policy, Extension and urban services.” One interesting note is that the Senate consists of members of various departments, and is “the collective voice of CCNY faculty.” This makes it clear that at some level, there is interaction between the departments at CCNY.
Another interesting note is that the faculty handbook is actually outdated. Many of the links are outdated or broken and do not work. Some links are duplicates of others and others provide an undetailed summary of information that can be found in another link. For example, the link leading to the Faculty Senate provides only a general overview. To see a detailed description of the Senate, one must go to the link labeled Governance Plan. Therefore, it can be assumed that although informative, many of the sections have fallen into disuse. The most recent posts date back to 2008 and data is only given in a certain, limited range (Ironically, a note at the bottom says otherwise. “This handbook is continually updated.”) From this, it can be concluded that although there are attempts to maintain a tight-knit group amongst the faculty, these attempts are falling short.

The 2nd source of data comes from observing and speaking to actual faculty members. By observing and talking to faculty members, I was able to get a general idea of how they interacted with one another. I saw that faculty members may or may not have offices together with other members within their specific department. Within this shared office space, faculty members can interact with one another. Faculty members can develop a level of friendship and trust with one another. However, I realized that this is solely based upon the individual. If an individual does not wish to interact with his/her peers, they do not need to. Some faculty members limit their interaction with one another on a daily basis, coming and going simply to teach classes and then going home. As schedules for different members vary semester to semester, they may or may not see the same members of the department as often. One other thing I have noticed is that faculty members try not to interact with one another in the presence of other students in an effort to give their full attention to the students themselves. From my observations, I saw that the ideal situation described in the handbook is not exactly reality. Although certain individuals within the faculty will interact outside their department, such as those on the Senate or those running extracurricular activities, the general faculty member limits his/her interaction with those within their given department.

Analysis & Discussion

When comparing Swales model to the faculty of CCNY, the faculty is almost a perfect fit. The faculty has a defined goal which is stated in the first paragraph of its handbook: “to create a positive environment where research and scholarship thrive.’ The faculty communicates with one another on an individual basis via conversation and talking. On a larger basis, such as the departments or school wide, the faculty communicates via emails or memorandums. The faculty has a means of providing feedback and improving on itself. Faculty meetings and the committees within the faculty senate are created so that improvements can be made. Furthermore, there are terms and ideas that only members of the faculty would understand. Finally, one must be hired to become a member of the faculty at CCNY. Even then, they must work there to actually begin to understand the inner workings.

Having established that the faculty at CCNY is a discourse community, one large question remains: what makes an individual an insider in this discourse community? Yes, obviously these individuals are connected through the institution of the school, but what exactly makes them part of the discourse community of teachers? To answer this question, one can look at Elizabeth Wardle’s model of how one enters a discourse community. Wardle talks about how a new member of a community must engage imagine and align themselves with the already existing faculty. For an individual who has just become a faculty member at CCNY, they must effectively do this within their department or risk not fully becoming part of the community. All members of the faculty must attend “professional meetings” and members are encouraged to cover for their colleagues. If one does not participate in these activities, not only are they violating the code of conduct set forth by the school, they are also isolating themselves and preventing themselves from becoming a part of the community. Similar to Alan’s Story in Wardle’s piece, if one does not eventually become fully part of the community or feel welcome, they will probably eventually leave.


To conclude, the faculty at CCNY is definitely a more complex community then meets the eye. Despite its complexity however, it is definitely a discourse community. Many members may only interact with a small number of individuals within the entire discourse but nonetheless work together to improve upon the overall final goal like cogs in a machine.

For further research, it would be interesting to see how other schools function as discourse communities. It has come to my knowledge that many other universities break themselves apart into distinctive schools such as a School of Arts and Science or a School of Engineering. It would definitely be worth it to research a university with such distinctive divisions as opposed to CCNY, where the only heavy divisions are in majors and subjects.

Work Cited

Branick, Sean. (2007). Coaches can read, too: An ethnographic study of a football coaching discourse community. (pp. 556-573).Print.

Swales, John. (1990). Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP.

The City College of New York (). The City College of New York Faculty Handbook. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www1.ccny.cuny.edu/facultystaff/provost/CCNY-Faculty- Handbook.cfm. [Last Accessed 11 April 2013].

Wardle, Elizabeth. (2004). Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in New Workplaces. [ONLINE] Available at: http://enculturation.gmu.edu/5_2/wardle.html. [Last Accessed 11 April 2013].

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