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“Very quickly I found that studying communication helped me to answer puzzling questions about my experience with that ‘real’ job,”

Dan Lair

Dan Lair’s interest in communication and work-related issues came about through his first “real” job as a marketing representative for a managed care corporation.

Although he had no interest in marketing or managed care, he threw himself into the higher paying job by working extra hours without being asked and reaping no financial incentive. Six months later, it came to an abrupt end when he lost his job during a corporate merger and found himself going through a brief bout of depression.

After losing the job, Lair started a master’s program in organizational communication with the intention of going into training and consulting.

“Very quickly I found that studying communication helped me to answer puzzling questions about my experience with that ‘real’ job,” says Lair, now a DU assistant professor of communication studies. “Such as, ‘Why was I willing to work so much with little incentive? Why would working a job shift my political outlook or make me more materialistic? And why would losing a job I never really liked after six short months have such a profound emotional effect?’ As I tried to answer these questions, I realized they spoke to a much broader set of concerns that we all face about the relationship between our work and our identity.”

Lair says studying communication provides a window into the processes that shape working life and helps workers make more deliberate and careful decisions about their work and how they relate to it. It also makes people more aware of assumptions and ways of speaking.

“For example, why would I assume that my marketing job was a ‘real job’ and all of my previous work experience as a construction worker, janitor, debate coach or bookseller was not?” Lair asks. “In the workplace, or in conversations about work, we often encounter everyday expressions that appear innocuous to us that actually are loaded with ideological and ethical implications. I allude to the notion of a ‘real’ job. While we are almost universally familiar with this expression, we rarely pause to consider its function as an expression, which is to legitimize certain forms of work for certain people while delegitimizing others. When I explore this expression with my students, usually at least one will reveal an embarrassing case where they described their work as not a ‘real job’ to a co-worker for whom it was very much ‘real.’ For example, the student working a summer job at a retail store making an offhand comment to a worker whose job at that store is their career.

“There are a host of similar expressions. Spending a bit of time carefully reflecting on what these expressions mean and how and when they are used can turn out to be a very revealing and liberating exercise that can loosen many of our taken-for-granted assumptions about work.”

Much of Lair’s research focuses on the representation of work in popular culture.

Recently he has examined the blurring of the fictional world of the TV series Mad Men and the real world of contemporary work as people follow their favorite Mad Men characters on Twitter in between episodes and seasons as the characters “tweet” the mundane details of their everyday lives, much like we do.

In the classroom, Lair teaches an introduction to communication course, organizational communication and freshmen seminars on happiness and the meaning of work as well as an advanced seminar on the representation of work in popular culture. He also teaches seminars for graduate students in organizational communication, organizational rhetoric and critical theory.

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