Rickey Lowdermilk – The Discourse Community That is Zeta Psi

The Discourse Community That is Zeta Psi

Rickey Lowdermilk 


There are many organizations that exist on each college campus with one of the most prevalent ones being a fraternity. A fraternity can be described as a group of men that offer and display the highest level of academics, comradery, fellowship, leadership, and service to their respective university and community. There are over 5,500 fraternity chapters in the United States constituting millions of members with the earliest chapters dating back over 200 years (Greek Statistics). Each fraternity has their own goals, most of which are very similar in the sense of achieving the best version of the individual and giving back to the community. Greek life is the “largest network of volunteers in the US, with members donating over 10 million hours of volunteer service each year,” and “over 85% of the student leaders on some 730 campuses are involved in the Greek community,” (Greek Statistics). Even with all these ideal and explicitly stated motifs, beliefs, and statistics deciding to become a part of Greek life is a difficult decision to make. Especially with the negative stereotypes that exist amongst fraternities. They can be seen as dysfunctional groups of men without any goals, motifs, or rules. However, fraternities can be further evaluated and analyzed by describing it as a discourse community and the genres that accompany such a community.

Fraternities have been around for a while and resisting change in their core values, principles, and aspirations is a pressing issue that requires it to have characteristics of a discourse community. A discourse community can be described as a group of people who share the same interests, goals, specific language, and forms of communication, (Swales 471). Furthermore, another significant component of a discourse community is the use of genres. A genre can be described in multiple ways. One of which is how a genre is a “flexible response to fit the needs of the discourse community or social setting,” (Devitt 574). Another way to think about genres within a discourse community, according to Devitt, is the use of a genre set, which is a grouping of multiple genres that can be predicted and repeatedly recur within that specified community.

In this paper, I will specifically look at the members, including myself, of Zeta Psi (Zete) at the University of California, Davis. Zeta Psi is a fraternity that was founded in 1847 with a mission statement and specific goals. Members of Zeta Psi are “committed to the development of leadership, character, intellect, their communities, and mankind.” Furthermore, “Zeta Psi strives to be the premier international men’s fraternal organization dedicated to forging academic excellence, and life-long bonds of brotherhood,” (Zeta Psi). This paper will ultimately show how Zeta Psi uses a multitude of genres to achieve their mission statement and goals, and how those genres make Zete a unique discourse community.


To exemplify Zeta Psi as a discourse community, I conducted three interviews in total. These interviews, alongside secondary research, will show specifically what genres are utilized by Zeta Psi. The three people I interviewed include the following: a currently active member of Zeta Psi at Davis, a recent graduate of Zeta Psi at Davis, and our chapter advisor who graduated from Seton Hall. All three members during their time as an active, undergraduate member held executive positions within their respective chapters. Everyone was asked the same baseline questions which included the following: what technologies or platforms they used for communication, what was the most common form of communication, what they thought was the most effective and efficient form of communication, how communication could have been improved, and lastly what goals were set during their time on the executive council.  However, in addition to the baseline questions, they were each asked questions uniquely for them.

The first interview I conducted was with a current member who holds an executive position as the Sigma Rho. Per Zete by-laws the Sigma Rho has many responsibilities including, but not limited to, ensuring that proper decorum, ritual, and order is maintained at all functions of the fraternity, assisting the President in enforcing the fraternity rules, by-laws, and procedures, and keeping the overall safety of the house. Aside from the baseline questions, I asked him how he became well versed in the ritual language of the fraternity. In addition, he was asked what his techniques are for keeping the fraternity safe and how he communicates the rules and by-laws to the fraternity.

The second interview was done with a recent alumnus who was the president upon graduating. According to the Zete by-laws, the President is responsible for the following: Provides motivational and directional leadership to the fraternity in terms of setting and reaching goals, keeps accurate and complete records of actions taken during their term of office, and learns and understands the rules of parliamentary procedure. Interviewee two was asked what goals were set during his presidency and if those goals were achieved. Furthermore, he was asked how he kept accurate records of actions taken, by what means he communicated with other organizations, and how he fostered good relations with those organizations. Lastly, he was asked about his involvement as an alumnus and how genres used after graduation compared to that while an active, undergraduate member.

The third interview was done with our chapter supervisor who also supervises fourteen other chapters. He works for the national headquarters and was asked the following questions in addition to the baseline questions: How do the forms of communication across the chapters you advise differ, and how are they the same? What are the goals set on a national level and how are forms of communication used by nationals the same or different than that of a single chapter?

A multitude of genres were analyzed and collected, however, forms of communication and language such as the ritual book and by-laws that were also analyzed will not be discussed in detail. Furthermore, an activity triangle was used specifically for the Zeta Psi chapter at Davis. The use of an activity triangle will help correlate the genres and tools used within the Zeta Psi community to the goals and values that Zeta Psi sets out to achieve.

Results & Discussion

After analyzing the content of the three interviews there were several reoccurring genres at the Zete house in Davis, CA. The genres or tools that were collected and found in all three interviews included the following: A written ritual text, governing by-laws, an explicitly stated mission statement, an official website, minutes taken by the secretary at meeting, Google and its applications, and various forms of social media or communication platforms i.e. Facebook, Instagram, and Groupme. The genres found at Davis that are parallel to those used by other chapters and the national headquarters include written ritual text, governing by-laws, an explicitly stated mission statement, minutes taken at meeting by the secretary, and an official website. Other genres and tools were discussed when the Sigma Rho was asked how he became well versed in the ritual language of the fraternity. He stated that there are two sources that helped him become Sigma Rho, one of which was “an educational course offered by the national headquarters,” and “written text with instructions and lessons of how to be the Sigma Rho,” (Interview One). Furthermore, after interview two was completed, there was a common genre or tool that was referenced multiple times in the several questions I asked him. The most important tool for being a capable president that achieves all goals set by Zeta Psi, according to interviewee two, was “studying the by-laws and attending the Phis’ (Presidents) conference held by nationals,” (Interview Two). Through interviews, as well as secondary sources, it become evident that even though there may have been slight differences in the forms of communication or genres used at different Zeta Psi chapters, all the chapters and the national headquarters shared the same objectives.

Delving into the identified genres, the ritual text is what provides the specific language of the Zeta Psi discourse community and instructs the brotherhood about how certain events should be carried out. The specifics of ritual will not be discussed any further, as previously mentioned. In addition, the motives or the mission of Zete is to provide and develop leadership, academic integrity, character, intellect, and service to their brothers, their communities, and mankind. Such motives, objectives, and purposes is what constitutes the mission statement of Zeta Psi. There is also written language and text that provides the main rules, regulations, and law of the entire Zete community. This governing body of rules is to be adhered to by all currently active members and alumni. In addition, there are by-laws tailored for each individual chapter to further assist in achieving their goals. The division of labor section of the activity triangle, for this discourse community, describes the chairs and executive positions held within the chapter. These positions and executive titles are dictated by the slating process in which the members elect a candidate to the position by a majority vote. The language used in the candidates’ speeches is not only formal, but also conveys why the candidate is the most suitable person to execute the beliefs and goals of the Zeta Psi mission statement. Even though there may be different genres used at different chapters, all Zete chapters have similar activity systems that help them stay in line with the same interests, core values, and purposes that define Zete as a discourse community.

Figure 1: Iota Delta Chapter of Zeta Psi


Using secondary research and conducting multiple interviews allowed me to analyze Zeta Psi as a discourse community. The research and interviews yielded a wide range of genres, all of which were used to achieve the goals and missions set by members both at an individual chapter and nationally as one unit. The continuous use of such genres is what allows Zeta Psi to accomplish and achieve the objectives set out in the mission statement. Furthermore, not every activity triangle for each chapter is going to be the same. This means that the genres used within Zeta Psi are “fluid rather than rigid, and can be modified to fit the situation,” or to achieve the same goal, (Devitt 579).

Each member within Zeta Psi plays a role in making sure that the genres are well maintained. That is, the treasurer makes sure that all bills are payed, and all funds are accounted for, the secretary keeps well documented records of rosters, service hours, and meeting minutes, the External Relations and Philanthropy chairs make sure we foster good relations with both campus and community, the Scholarship chair makes sure all brothers keep their academic integrity, etc. Regulation by the members creates a well-maintained genre set that assists in obtaining the goals laid out in the mission statement, ultimately classifying Zeta Psi as a diverse and complex discourse community. Lastly, such genres allow people outside of Zeta Psi to understand more about the daily activities and why Zete can be classified as a discourse community.

Works Cited

Devitt, Amy J. “Generalizing about Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 44, no. 4, 1993, pp. 573–586.,


Devitt, Amy J., et al. “Materiality and Genre in the Study of Discourse Communities.” College English, vol. 65, no. 5, 2003, pp. 541–558., www.jstor.org/stable/3594252.

“Greek Life Statistics.” The Fraternity Advisor. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 March 2017

“Interview of former Iota Delta Chapter president and current alumni.” Phone interview. 10 March 2017.

“Interview of current Iota Delta Chapter Sigma Rho.” In person interview. 11 March 2017

“Interview of Chapter Advisor and graduate of the Phi chapter at Harvard,” Video conference interview. 12 March 2017.

Marro, Victoria. “The Genres of Chi Omega: An Activity Analysis.” Stylus: A Journal of First- Year Writing 3 (2012): 25-32.

Swales, John. “The Concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis. English in Academic and Research Setting. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-22. Print.

“Official Website of the Zeta Psi Fraternity, Dedicated to Forging Academic Excellence and Life-long Bonds of Brotherhood.” Zeta Psi Fraternity. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.