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ASU professor wins Distinguished Scholar Award from National Communication Association

A coffee shop break after teaching with ASU's study abroad.
Photo by Brad Hendron Photography

September 21, 2020

Sarah J. Tracy, professor of organizational communication and qualitative methodology in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, is the recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Scholar Award from the National Communication Association (NCA).

Presented annually, the NCA Distinguished Scholar Award is the association’s highest accolade. It honors a lifetime of scholarly achievement in the study of human communication. Recipients are selected by their peers to showcase the best of the communication discipline.

“NCA’s Distinguished Scholar Award is the ultimate honor bestowed by our largest professional association,” said Hugh Downs School Interim Director and Professor Paul Mongeau. “Only four or five of these awards are provided each year, so this means that recipients are in the top 1% of the top 1% of scholars in our discipline. This well-deserved honor reflects the quality and scope of Sarah’s scholarship. We are very proud of having her as an important part of our scholarly community.”

Over the last 26 years, Tracy has developed a significant program of study in the area of emotions and well-being in organizational communication. She is also recognized as one of the best-known qualitative methodologists in the field. Through the model for qualitative quality and the phronetic iterative approach to qualitative research, Tracy’s work continues to influence scholars throughout the subdisciplines and has been used by several other disciplines including education, management and sociology.

Tracy was hired by President’s Professor Janet “Jess” Alberts in 2001, then the director of the Hugh Downs School.

“Sarah Tracy is an outstanding scholar and leader in the communication discipline,” Alberts said. “She consistently produces important research that breaks new ground in areas such as workplace bullying, work/life issues, compassion and happiness, as well as qualitative methods. Furthermore, Sarah is an exemplary teacher of graduate and undergraduate students. She has mentored many graduate students who have gone on to have outstanding careers and is a recipient of the Western States Communication Association’s Distinguished Teaching Award.”

Tracy calls the award humbling and says it invigorates her to ask how to further her work. Recalling a meeting she once had with late broadcast legend Hugh Downs, Tracy says she knows she has more to offer.

“Years ago, soon after I joined ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, Mr. Hugh Downs took me out to lunch. Among other things, I asked him to what he attributed his success. He told the story of how he found exactly what he was good at when he was quite young, and then put all of his passion and energy into it. He ended the story by saying, ‘It’s so sad when people work really hard, but at the wrong thing.’ I feel so fortunate that I found my ‘right thing.’”

Left to right: Assistant Professor Heewon Kim, Professor Sarah Tracy and President's Professor Jess Alberts at a writing retreat with The Transformation Project in Payson, Arizona, in 2018.

Ragan Fox, a professor at California State University Long Beach recalls his time as a graduate student at ASU and the impact Tracy had on his research and instruction.

“Her 'Qualitative Research Methods' course is the most rigorous and rewarding class I ever took. I also admire the amount of feedback she provides on assignments," Fox said. "I had my fair share of professors who left little-to-no marginalia on major research papers I submitted. Dr. Tracy’s extensive feedback resulted in a revised final project that landed in a peer-reviewed publication. Dr. Tracy not only taught me how to write like an academic, but she is the professor I emulated once I entered higher education.”

Professor Tracy’s research — which includes ethnographies on cruise ships, 911 call centers, correctional facilities and detailed case analyses of workplace bullying targets and hospice workers — is regularly featured in courses and books related to both organizational communication and qualitative research methods. Her scholarship has resulted in theoretical development of communication as it relates to identity, emotion, organizational well-being, burnout, communicative craft practice and compassion.

Tracy is well-known across disciplines for her expertise in qualitative research methods. This research has garnered a number of top articles, papers and disciplinary awards, including the prestigious Charles Woolbert Award from the National Communication Association.

An academic leader and award-winning teacher, Tracy is the director of The Transformation Project, a consortium of faculty, students and community members who seek to discover and promote creative change processes that encourage healthy communication patterns, collaborative group behavior, and equitable forms of social organization. She regularly provides interdisciplinary workshops and public-outreach workshops and hosts a YouTube channel called “Get Your Qual On.” 

“NCA’s annual awards honor communication scholars’ teaching, scholarship, and service,” NCA Executive Director Trevor Parry-Giles said. “NCA is proud to recognize Dr. Tracy’s significant contributions to the communication discipline with this award.”

Tracy’s award will be presented virtually on Nov. 21 at the NCA 106th annual convention. For more information about NCA’s awards program, visit

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