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ASU professor guides students to realize own revelations


Sarah Tracy, a faculty member in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication

Professor Sarah Tracy in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on organizational communication, leadership, happiness and qualitative methodology.

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September 18, 2017

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and communication from the University of Southern California, Sarah Tracy did a short stint in public relations before deciding she wanted to become a professor. 

When asked why she wanted to enter academia, Tracy said, “when I was an undergrad, I fell in love with the Dean of Women Joan Shafer — renowned for her kindness, passion, great empathy and brutal honesty. She had a gift for listening, saying exactly what needed to be said, and creating community and excitement in everything she touched.”

In 1996, Tracy received her master’s degree in communication from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She returned to the university as a doctoral candidate and earned her doctorate in 2000. After working as a teaching and research assistant for the University of Colorado Department of Communication, Tracy joined the faculty at Arizona State University in 2000.

“I have continued to work toward creating the type of community Dean Shafer modeled for me at the University of Southern California more than 25 years ago,” said Tracy, a faculty member in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.

As the Jeanne Lind Herberger Professor, Tracy teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on organizational communication, leadership, happiness and qualitative methodology. She is also the co-director of the Transformation Project, an initiative focusing on transformative communication and how it can improve lives and relationships at all levels of human interaction.

“The best way to learn is to discover for oneself,” Tracy said. “It matters much less what I tell students or what knowledge I convey, and much more the questions I ask and the environment created in the classroom so students can come to their own revelations. I think it’s vital to create structures where failure is not a problem, but rather is evidence of courage and practice."

Tracy’s research focuses on emotion, communication and identity in the workplace. She examines work-life balance, burnout, bullying, compassion, engagement and generosity. Her research comes from a use-inspired standpoint and takes place in naturalistic contexts.

As a disciplinary leader in qualitative research methods, Tracy’s research has resulted in two books, “Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting Evidence, Crafting Analysis, Communicating Impact” and “Leading Organizations through Transition: Communication and Cultural Change.”

Currently, she’s researching and writing the second edition of “Qualitative Research Methods.” Tracy said she’s passionate about her research that involves talking and interacting deeply with other people. She also enjoys writing about traditional qualitative methods (such as interviewing, ethnography and participant observation) as well as more innovative and arts-based methods (such as drawing, photo-voice, performance and Legos as serious play.)

“An ongoing goal in my research is to talk about complex research methods in a simple and understandable way,” Tracy said. “I also want to encourage researchers to be OK with being snubbed, ignored or offended; provide tools for effectively justifying and explaining qualitative research; and help writers understand how to effectively present their qualitative research. 

Tracy has partnered with a couple of doctoral students to create “Get Your Qual On,” a YouTube channel that features short videos about qualitative research methods. She also worked with a past doctoral student to analyze how school bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff interacted with a would-be school shooter and ended with his surrender.

“My hope is that people leave my scholarship feeling moved to practice listening, connecting with and supporting others,” Tracy said. “It may spur others to practice compassion with people who might, on their face, seem angry, distant or even violent.”

Tracy said she believes the most important skill for tomorrow’s workforce will be the ability to listen, authentically understand and rigorously communicate other people’s concerns and interests into future plans, missions and project — a critical piece of the relevance of liberal arts and sciences in the contemporary world.

“With the rise of digital technology, it’s easier to suffocate ourselves in a sea of viewpoints that are exactly the same as our own,” she said. “I think the 2020s will demand courses that specifically train students in face-to-face communication and will require research that encourages connection with people who have disparate views.”

When asked about her greatest achievement, Tracy talked about racing the Ironman Triathlon — a race with a 2.4-mile swim in Tempe Town Lake, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. Despite 15–20 hours of training each week, she ranked in the lowest 10 percent of all finishers of the race.

“From the back of the pack, I discovered humility and gratitude. I learned I can face fear and feel triumphant even when all external signs point otherwise. I also better understood how being in the bottom does not equate with lack of effort,” she said. “I learned that good comes even when — and perhaps only through the process of — not excelling compared to others.”

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