The American Society of Civil Engineers: An Evaluation

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Posted on 13 Apr 2013 01:59

The American Society of Civil Engineers: An Evaluation of the Society As a Discourse Community
Nelsyda Perez
The City College of New York


Discourse communities are studied for the purpose of learning how groups of people interact with one another. People wanting to fulfill a common goal intercommunicate and participate within a group. That is the main purpose of a discourse community. Authors such as John Swales, Elizabeth Wardle and James Paul Gee had their own interpretation of what a discourse community is. After asking how the discourse communities benefit the members, I look into the ASCE as a discourse. Going over the history of the group and what its purpose seems to be, I then talk more specifically about the different components of the group while keeping in mind the “insider-outsider” barrier that I have to face. Focusing mainly on the ASCE Student Chapter at City College, we look over the supposed prerequisite for national membership. Assuming that the prerequisite is preparing students for a larger, more involved version of the student chapter, the setup of the ASCE is painted in the most general sense. Also, looking at the public information that the ASCE presents gives an idea of what the ASCE wants outsiders to know. In the end, the ASCE is evaluated as a discourse community and then evaluated based on the information gathered. The information is not enough to give the most substantial evaluation, but this leaves room for further research and a better evaluation in the near future.

Keywords: discourse community, The American Society of Civil Engineers


There are many discourse communities existing in our world. Each one is unique in its own way, but there are some similarities between them. The difficulty in answering what a discourse community is comes from determining what are the common characteristics of a discourse community. Authors such as John Swales, James Paul Gee and Elizabeth Wardle have looked at discourse communities enough to come up with their own definition of what a discourse community is. While keeping in mind what discourse communities each author looks at, one can see the similarities between their definitions as well as where they differ.

The most straightforward and basic definition of what a discourse community is the definition presented by John Swales in his chapter “The Concept of Discourse Community” (1990). Rather than give a dictionary explanation of what a discourse community is, Swales focuses on presenting six criteria that he feels are present in all discourse communities. According to Swales, a discourse community must have:

  1. A broadly agreed set of public goals,
  2. Mechanisms of intercommunication,
  3. Participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback,
  4. One or more genres used in the communicative furtherance of its aims,
  5. A specific lexis, and
  6. A threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise (p. 471-473) [6].

By setting up a list of criteria to meet, Swales simplifies the definition of a discourse community enough to allow other people to evaluate their other discourse communities with it; however, some discourse communities might not meet all of the criteria. Despite this, Swales’ model seems appropriate for most discourse communities.

Other authors such as Elizabeth Wardle and James Paul Gee look at discourse communities from different perspectives. Gee looks at discourse communities, or Discourses as he calls them in his chapter “Literacy, Discourse and Linguistics: Introduction and What is Literacy?” (2001), as a community that you will never be a member of unless you were born into it. Wardle in her article “Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in New Workplaces” (2004) looks at the workplace as a discourse community where one has to adapt in a matter of “fielding new calls for identity construction” (p. 4) [7]. All of these authors talk about how to identify a discourse community and how to become a member of a specific discourse community. What they do not touch upon is the usefulness of the group for the group that they are trying to attract in general. Some discourse communities are restricted to outsiders and offer plenty of “perks” for insiders or members of the community. Are those perks worth the effort it takes to become an insider or are they unnecessary and completely optional? I took a look at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in order to evaluate its usefulness and in turn fill this niche that is missing from the concept behind discourse communities.

The American Society of Civil Engineers

The ASCE is one of the oldest engineering societies in America. The society was founded in the year 1852 as a way of bringing civil engineers together and providing awareness of America’s failing infrastructure. The most apparent actions of the society is providing political and public connections for civil engineering firms resulting in an improvement in the quality of civil engineering projects in general. Membership in the national ASCE is limited to civil engineers and supposedly anyone who was a member of the ASCE student chapter at their college or university.

As a civil engineering major at The City College of New York I found the task of researching the ASCE as a beneficial one that will not only allow me to further myself in my college career but also allow me to gain more general knowledge about the civil engineering community at City College and possibly the entire nation. Questions that other civil engineering students might have could potentially be answered just by researching this discourse community. One question in particular I sought to answer through my research was whether or not the ASCE is a discourse community worth joining. There is a lot of prestige associated with becoming a member. By becoming a member of the national ASCE you get the "perks" that were mentioned before; however, can you manage without them? While the conclusion seems simple due to the fact that no one is forcing any of the civil engineering students to be a part of the ASCE, it really isn't. The benefits of the national society might be completely worth the time spent in the student chapter and beyond. Considering the competition that is associated with getting a job as a civil engineer, joining the ASCE might be one of the best decisions you could ever make. Before we can say that however we have to look at the national society in a way other than at face value. We have to look deeper into the group and make a conclusion on the subject.

Because I am not a civil engineer yet, I can only look at whatever outsider information is provided to me. However, upon discovering the ASCE Student Chapter at The City College of New York (ASCE-CCNY), I realized the amount of insider information that I had. Initially, I planned to look at what one has to do to become an insider or how involved an outsider can be. This purpose became an evaluation of the ASCE as a whole. Does becoming an insider have more benefits in relation to the time one spends becoming qualified to join?



The first aspect of the ASCE that I looked into was the information that was most accessible to me at the time: the ASCE SmartBrief newsletter. The newsletter barely had any articles that directly talked about the ASCE in detail. Instead, the newsletter had information relating to civil engineering projects that are either being considered or are currently taking place. The newsletter is public, online and available to anyone that subscribes. After looking at the newsletter in detail I looked at the types of information the ASCE posts to their public blog. I also briefly looked at their YouTube channel and their Facebook page in order to see how they use social media to present information to outsiders or insiders that check in regularly.

I planned to interview the members of the Executive Board of the ASCE-CCNY by email, but I was unable to obtain a response from any of them. The questions were basically asking if membership to the ASCE-CCNY was necessary for national membership, what the national ASCE does in terms of actual civil engineering projects and the recipients' thoughts on the ASCE in general. These questions would have helped a lot in terms of gaining an evaluation easily, but the problem was that the Executive Board was made up of students and not staff members. Based on my own knowledge of college life, students in general do not look at their emails. Also, the email system at City College changed recently so two of the four recipients might not have received the questions. This drove me to go directly to the ASCE student chapter office in room CM-18 in Steinman Hall at CCNY. I did not find an interviewee since I learned that the main members of ASCE-CCNY are students who have other things to do. Instead, I learned about some of the activities that they were involved with.


Goals. The ASCE has two goals:

  1. To improve America’s infrastructure, and
  2. To position engineers as global leaders building a better quality of life.

They want to benefit the civil engineering community and make sure that it receives the recognition that it so rightfully deserves. The ASCE doesn't really do much in terms of directly aiding a civil engineering project through manual labor. Instead, the ASCE acts as a "cheerleader" providing moral support and encouragement for all civil engineers. The civil engineers are the ones working towards the goals of the ASCE. The purpose of the ASCE is just to "facilitate, […] encourage, […] promote, […] develop, […] support [and] advocate" (ASCE, 2011) [1]. None of the verbs used in the brief "mission statement" referred to the society taking action. When people join the ASCE the society seeks "provide essential value to [their] members and partners" that will allow them to make a significant impact on the civil engineering world and the everyday world in general. The resources provided would aid civil engineers, but not necessarily students. That is where the ASCE-CCNY comes into play.

Participatory Mechanisms. I could not see most of the resources that are available to professional civil engineers. What I can see is what resources are made available by the student chapter at City College. Most are their resources are shared with members during the seminars that are scheduled during club hours at the college (Lin) [4]. These resources mainly help with career preparation. Another way to prepare students is to give the students some civil engineering experience by giving them work through the activities that are set up. Recently, "ASCE-CCNY members played a lead role in creating a CCNY chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB)", a branch to a national organization that allows students to participate in actual civil engineering projects that might take them to other towns/cities around the world, hence the name of the organization. The ASCE in general also host the national Concrete Canoe competition, in which the ASCE-CCNY plays a huge part of as they are contestants in the competition. These activities are made for the enjoyment of the students, but these activities also give the students work experience as well as academic experience. EWB lets students view and be a part of every step that takes place when working on civil engineering projects. The Concrete Canoe club preps for a national competition while also applying what is learned in Physics and their core engineering classes to an actual interactive experiment. The ASCE-CCNY also allows involved members to attend a national conference that will discuss the past, present and future of the civil engineering community: what happened before, what's happening now and what will/could happen in the future. In this way, the most influential student learns more about civil engineering in our world and, because it is assumed that they are the most involved, will share what they learned with their peers.

The projects the ASCE references in their public documents are large scale projects where not all insiders might be working directly in it. As mentioned before, the information that is on the national website is restricted to members only, so I cannot access this information. I am assuming that the civil engineers at the national ASCE are just as involved as the students are with the ASCE-CCNY. But, as an outsider, I can see the general information related to civil engineering that works alongside the promotion and the avocation aspect of the national ASCE.

Communication. One of the primary means of communication is through national meetings. As referenced in the ASCE-CCNY mission statement, their is a national meeting for college students to attend and discuss the issues going on with civil engineering (Lin) [4]. Assuming that students will be exposed to a similar setting as members of the national ASCE, this could be the primary form of communication between members of the ASCE. Outsider information about civil engineering can be found in the public newsletters, blogs, podcasts, and social media. The information presented is not in direct relationship to the ASCE, but it acts as free engineering news for anyone interested in engineering. Some of the most recent topics in the ASCE newsletter include Obama's budget containing billions for transportation infrastructure, an article on employee trust and student interaction with STEM professionals at an engineering expo (Hicks, 2013) [5].

Another form of outsider communication the ASCE uses is social media. YouTube, Facebook and blogs seem to be the least looked at forms of communication, but are still used nonetheless. The views on each video and the lack of comments on the ASCE Facebook page reveal that these methods are not the best means of communicating with the outsiders. The newsletter, while not the most direct form of information about the ASCE seems to be the most accessed since it always goes into your email inbox.

The information is great and all, but what does it mean for the ASCE? Does all this information become useful for insiders and outsiders?


There is no doubt that the ASCE meets all of Swales' categories [6], but that is not what we are looking at. We are looking at how it functions as a discourse community and how beneficial is it to join the society. One of the most apparent characteristics is the fact that outsiders cannot be readily integrated into the society. The ASCE-CCNY, according to the Civil Engineering Department at the college, "costs $5 per semester, and is a prerequisite for national membership" (City College, 2013) [2]. James Paul Gee talks about how "Discourses are connected with displays of identity; failing to fully display an identity is tantamount to announcing you don't have that identity, that at best you are a pretender or a beginner" (Gee, 2001, p. 529) [3]. In some ways, being part of the student chapter allows you to integrate yourself into the ASCE. This leads to Wardle's idea of forming a new identity in the workplace [see 7]. As a member works to become a professional civil engineer one becomes more involved with the civil engineering community and, in turn, the national ASCE.

The ASCE works to promote the actions that they hope civil engineer will take in their career as civil engineers. They want to improve America's infrastructure by making sure the civil engineers in America have the appropriate resources available to them. Again, I ask the question "are these resources worth it?".

Evaluation and Conclusion

The research I have done is not by all means substantial enough to give a final evaluation. However, based on what I know so far, I have learned that the ASCE is a great resource for civil engineering students. They have activities that relates to civil engineering and assistance in finding career opportunities through professional preparation. They also allow civil engineering students to get together and discuss civil engineering issues and become directly involved. At the national level, I do not see any other purpose for being a member other than to reinforce what you have learned in the student chapter. I assume that the national ASCE announces projects that different firms could be a part of which will then expand the company and their influence in improving America's infrastructure.

I hope to find more information on the ASCE so I can give a proper evaluation; a community as broad as the civil engineering community. The ASCE being a part of such a broad community has to have more involvement that what I have so far. The interviews I was unable to conduct and an even broader view of the different college activities the ASCE promotes will aid my research further. I have a general idea of what I think about the ASCE, but more information will ensure a better evaluation and therefore a better assessment of the ASCE.


1. ASCE (2011, 25 May). Vision, mission and goals. Retrieved from
2. City College Civil Engineering Department. (2013, 12 Apr). ASCE student chapter: Who we are. Retrieved from
3. Gee, J.P. (2001). Literacy, discourse and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy?. In Cushman, E. et al (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (525-534). Boston, MA: Bedford/Saint Martin's.
4. Lin. (n.d.). ASCE student chapter: what we do. Retrieved from
5. Hicks, J. (Ed.). (2013, 11 Apr) ASCE smartbrief.
6. Swales, J. (2011). The concept of discourse community. In Wardle, E. (Ed.), Writing about writing: A college reader (466-479). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's.
7. Wardle, E. (2004). Identity, authority, and learning to write in new workplaces." Enculturation, 5.2. Retrieved from


Interview Email

This is the email that I sent to the Executive Board members of the ASCE Student Chapter at CCNY.

From: Nelsyda Perez <ude.ynuc.liamytic|11zerepn#ude.ynuc.liamytic|11zerepn>
Subject: Email Interview on the ASCE (ENGL21007)
Date: April 7, 2013 5:54:52 PM EDT
To: Benjamin Lau <ude.ynuc.yncc|30ualb#ude.ynuc.yncc|30ualb>, Evin Ye <ude.ynuc.yncc|00eye#ude.ynuc.yncc|00eye>, Rianna Yuen <moc.liamg|39neuygnihcgnihc#moc.liamg|39neuygnihcgnihc>, Andy Singh <ude.ynuc.yaluacam|hgnis.ydna#ude.ynuc.yaluacam|hgnis.ydna>
Cc: Nelsyda Perez <ude.ynuc.yaluacam|zerep.adyslen#ude.ynuc.yaluacam|zerep.adyslen>

Hello. My name is Nelsyda Perez, a civil engineering student in her second semester. I am doing research on the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as a discourse community as an assignment for my Writing for Engineers (ENGL21007) class. I would appreciate it if you would answer the following questions in the bottom of this email in your own spare time. Your answers will be used in my research paper as a means of evaluating the usefulness of the ASCE for prospective civil engineers and the civil engineering community in general. It will be shown to the members of my class and my English 210.07 professor, Andrew Lucchesi. It might be posted on the course website, which is limited to members of the class only. Feel free to answer any or all the questions and add any additional information if you wish to do so.

Thank you for your consideration and your time.

Nelsyda Perez
Student | The City College of New York

Interview Questions:

1) In the "Who We Are" section of the ASCE Student Chapter website it says that school membership is a prerequisite for national membership. How many semesters must a student spend as a member of the ASCE student chapter in order to qualify for membership into the national ASCE? If one learns about the ASCE after graduating from college is there still a chance of gaining membership into the national ASCE?

2) How involved is the ASCE in terms of civil engineering projects? Does the society mainly fund projects and help with connecting civil engineers to important public figures and government officials, and/or does the ASCE go directly to the site location for a project and directly aide civil engineers? In general, how important is the ASCE to the civil engineering profession?

3) As members of the ASCE Student Chapter, what made you decide to join? What do you gain from being members of the ASCE student chapter that other civil engineering students might not have access to? How much information does the ASCE give to members as opposed to how much information the ASCE gives to non-members. Do you recommend all civil engineering students to join the chapter? Why or why not?

ASCE-CCNY "What We Do"

This is an overview of what the ASCE Student Chapter does as prepared by the members of the Department of Civil Engineering at CCNY. [4]

YouTube Video

One of the many sources of communication the ASCE uses includes the use of YouTube videos. This video talks about how well America's infrastructure is holding up.

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