Evening and Online campus English instructor Renee Field helps students discover literature – and maybe themselves.
Renee Field, adjunct English instructor for the Columbia College Evening Campus and Online Campus, was born and raised in Los Alamos, N.M., a tiny town built expressly to house the Los Alamos National Laboratory, its employees and their families. Her father worked in the weapons program at the lab, probably best known for its role in the Manhattan Project.
Sure, security was tight in the 1960s, but Field doesn't remember any crime, elderly individuals or poverty. Everyone was well-mannered, middle class, white and of course smart as heck.
She didn't get a taste of the real world until she attended Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Beaumont's population is roughly ten times that of Los Alamos, with a sizeable proportion of its population living below the poverty line.
"It was a shock but also a relief," says Field, "because I was able to meet all kinds of people of different races, ages, lifestyles, socioeconomic and academic levels -- I found that I really enjoyed getting to know all kinds of people. That set the stage for wanting to teach."
Field was at first undecided about her major but found she really loved literature and writing and had some "awesome professors" who steered her in that direction, she says. Field liked English enough to pursue a master's degree at Lamar, where her thesis was on Native American women’s poetry.
After some time spent back in New Mexico and Colorado, she moved to Missouri in 2003. She began teaching English composition and fiction for the Evening Campus in 2004 and for the Online Campus in 2009. She also developed and taught a short story course online for the first time this spring.
Field is such an inspiring teacher that she was recently awarded the Governor's Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Missouri Community College Association (she also teaches at Moberly Area Community College). The prestigious award was presented to her at a ceremony in Jefferson City, Mo., after an address by Governor Jay Nixon. She also gave the 2011 commencement address at Moberly Area Community College, an address in which she managed to work in Shakespeare, Charlie Sheen, "Star Wars" and "Spiderman," Thomas Friedman, a bald eagle cam in Iowa and Ayn Rand.
Student evaluations say she's a very tough but very fair, relaxed and impassioned teacher – a seeming contradiction almost anywhere but in the classroom. "Lots of writing, reading and outside homework. Hard class!" says one student's evaluation. Another says, "Relaxed classroom atmosphere. Spent most days chatting about what the homework reading was about."
Field says she sees herself as more of a discussion leader than a teacher and that she prefers perching on a desk leading discussions to being behind a podium lecturing. This, she says, allows students to speak more freely and to discover the beauty and rigor of the English language for themselves.
“Every student has to feel their voice is heard and feel comfortable speaking," she says. "I try to never give my own opinion so students feel it’s a fair atmosphere... I’m more of a guide. I tell them why they are learning what they are learning."
As for her own tastes, Field says she enjoys many modern poets and writers, especially those writing on nature, going back to Walt Whitman right up through modern authors such as Rick Bass and Edward Abbey and poets like Mary Oliver. "I admire writers who can put into words the massive, awe-inspiring aspects of the natural world in new and innovative ways," she says.
Missouri, with its snowpocalyptic winters, violent springs and torrid, muggy summers can be awe-inspiring. But it's a long way from the majestic vistas of the dry, mostly temperate Southwest – doesn’t she miss it?
"I will always miss the Southwest, especially the climate and the mountains , but I have gotten used to Missouri," she says. "And I really love teaching at Columbia College because of the dedication of the students and their willingness to succeed … I feel like I am actually making a difference. I feel like bending over backwards for that single mom in class because I know she’s bending over backwards to help herself.”