Lifeguards of Nelsonville Water Park:
An Ethnographic Study
November 2, 2012
A discourse community ethnography study can enable one to explore genres, language, and possible complications or advantages within that group. For this ethnographic study, I will study the lifeguards of Nelsonville Water Park. To verify that that they are in fact a discourse community, comparison to John Swales’ six characteristics of a discourse community is exhibited. Furthermore, emphasis is directed toward the novices, or newcomers, to the community. From personal experience, observation, and interview responses from fellow guards, it is apparent that these members appear to have difficulty in assimilating with current members. Authors such as Elizabeth Wardle and James Paul Gee offer theoretical explanations for this difficulty. Based on their work and their connection to the lifeguards of Nelsonville Water Park, it can be argued that enculturation into this new work place may be hindered by current practice. Due to the overall goal of swimmer (or patron) safety, it is necessary for a guard to be distinguishable as a commanding figure by patrons- and that may be inhibited by their faulty integration into the community. Existing members should facilitate this experience though an introductory initiation class at the beginning of each summer session that encompasses all terminology, procedure, and literature necessary for one to be appropriately identified as an authoritative figure by patrons.
The Lifeguards of Nelsonville Water Park engage in discursive practice as well as social practice every time they go to work. Such procedure would signal that this community might be a discourse community. To verify such notion, I tested it with the six characteristics of discourse communities presented by Swales.
The first characteristic that Swales describes is, “A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals” (471). At the Nelsonville Water Park, lifeguards have one main goal- protect the lives of swimmers. To do so, every lifeguard knows that first aid, AED, and CPR certification is necessary. Knowledge of proper save techniques is essential as well as cooperation with fellow guards and knowledge on how to check, change, and maintain proper chemical levels.
Swales then claims, “A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its member” (471). To adhere to the goal of protecting swimmers, it is necessary for guards to always have their eyes on the water. Thus, the main mechanism for communication is face-to-face contact on the deck (area around the pool) or in the office. Telephone calls, texts, and social media sites are used for outside communication regarding meetings, scheduling, and input on the happenings of the pool.
Thirdly, Swales explains that, “ A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback” (472). As stated previously, there are several communication options for the lifeguards of Nelsonville Water Park. Face-to-face contact usually involves sharing information of possible hazards around and in the water, feedback on experiences with particular swimmers, and the sharing of knowledge regarding precautionary measures that may need to be taken to ensure the safety of swimmers. Phone calls, texts, social media sites, and the meetings themselves usually regard information on scheduling or new rules and feedback on the performance of the staff.
A fourth characteristic that Swales describes is, “A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims” (472). Genres utilized among the Nelsonville Water Park Life Guards include memos, first aid incident forms, work schedules, the American Red Cross Life Guard Guide, and the procedures for first aid, CPR, and AED use. Also, any communication via phone, Internet, or word of mouth could be considered genres. All of the genres that are used promote safety, stability, and organization of the pool.
Furthermore, Swales claims, “In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis” (473). Lexis is essentially jargon. Jargon used among the Nelsonville Water Park Life Guards includes deck, patron, surface dive, rotate, splash, lanes, chemical check, zone, duty, break, and many more.
Finally, Swales states that, “A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise” (473). At the Nelsonville Water Park, experts are the managers and head guards. Regular members are returning guards, and novices are the new guards hired each summer. Experts and regular members heavily outweigh the novices in most summer seasons.
Elizabeth Wardle states (in reference to work by Etienne Wenger) that, “authority is continually negotiated within communities of practice” (525). At this particular water park, there are managers, head guards, veterans, and novices- all of which are trained lifeguards. Managers oversee all workers, head guards oversee the workers that fall below them, veterans have particular expertise, and novices are the new guards that come in each summer who are essentially in training. There is a clear division of labor at this facility. This division of labor also suits as a division of authority. Authority in this sense is derived from seniority, level of expertise, initiative taken in opening and furthering communication, and extended use of the genres within in the community. Authority is an important quality for a guard to have. Outside of that division of labor, all guards have authority in regard to patrons. It is essential that a patron recognize who to listen to and who to go to for help in a swimming area.
To put it simply, identity is incredibly important for a lifeguard. As mentioned before, there is a division in the staff. Each member knows their job title and can be identified as such. Wardle refers to identity as well when stating, “Joining new workplace communities [is] …a matter of… fielding new calls for identity construction” (525). Personal and social identities change as guards further assimilates into the community, learn the full lexis, and habitually use all the genres available.
The changes that occur in regard to identity vary, but are nonetheless important. As new guards learn the use of the different genres, they are essentially becoming multiliterate and each new literacy leads to the acquisition of “identifiers.” Identifiers can be associated with personal identity or social identity and are attributes attached to a member that highlight their qualities. Personally, one may have a sense of importance, accomplishment, responsibility, and intelligence. For example, a guard may identify themselves a chlorine and chemical manager, a safety enforcer, or an emergency expert. However, what is most important on the deck of a swimming pool is social identity, and thus, social “identifiers.” Attire alone will not render the “identifier” of lifeguard. If patrons do not know who has authority- how do they know who to respect as an authority? A guard must submerse themselves in their discourse community and learn the body language, terminology, and knowledge necessary for patrons to recognize the social identity of a lifeguard. This is important to avoid confusion in times of crisis.
[Interviews inserted here to provide evidence for the following conversation]
It is clear that authority and identity are crucial to enforcing the goal of the lifeguards at Nelsonville Water Park, but new guards may have issues with identifying themselves and presenting themselves as authoritative at first. The real issue is not exactly that novices do not “get it” right away, but that they might fake it. James Paul Gee describes this as “mushfaking,” or, “strategies to ‘make do’” (490). Though mushfaking may be appropriate in several other discourse communities, it may be deathly here. The lifeguards of Nelsonville Water Park have other lives in their hands. There is no room for error, miscommunication, or confusion. This marginalization chance must be removed.
Novices must be assisted in a different way. Gee provides another term, which can be related to the issues that novices may have: apprenticeship (484). Gee coins the term apprenticeship as another way of discussing enculturation (both terms mean assimilation). As I proposed earlier, novices are essentially in training. This apprenticeship, enculturation, or training is proving to be inadequate in preparing new guards for use of all the genres within the community, on top of the authority and identity issues.