Karen Tracy outside

Chair of Department of Communication, Volunteer Mediator in Local Courts

Karen Tracy is fascinated with talk. She studies how people converse everywhere from academic meetings to 9-1-1 phone calls. She wrote a textbook that answers “everything you could think to ask about talk,” and she’s now analyzing how lawyers and judges have made their arguments during the controversy over same sex-marriage.

Tracy began her career as a speech pathologist, treating patients with speech disorders.  Then she got personally interested in a more everyday problem. “I had a friend—a fellow graduate student—who I liked, but who also irritated me,” she remembers. Why was it so frustrating to talk with him? What makes conversations work or break down?

That drew Tracy into the field of communication and ultimately to her work as a professor.  Now she focuses on communication in the legal system and government, studying how people converse at school board meetings and in court cases. Her interest in the legal system goes beyond work—she also volunteers as a mediator to help people settle disputes in a Boulder court. “It’s just fascinating to see the conflicts of ordinary life,” she says.

Tracy brings those experiences back to her students. In a class on mediation she talks about difficult cases she’s worked on. She sends students out to ride with police officers or to observe trials. Sometimes class discussions inspire her research. Her upcoming book on how lawyers and judges talk and write about same-sex marriage grew out of a classroom discussion.

The classroom is a great place to combine her research with her love of teaching, Tracy says. “Talking one-on-one with students melds the personal and intellectual in a way that is deeply satisfying. It often leads to a relationship that continues well past the life of a class.”