Biology with Rebecca Fields

By Elizabeth Ferguson

To imitate the birth of a star, Rebecca Fields has her students stand in a circle and spin, moving in towards each other. They are all laughing as she screams at them to spin, eventually spinning into the circle herself.

“She’s crazy,” they all say. But, it’s with affection.

Her teaching style is, to say the least, unconventional. “Fields makes herself vulnerable every day in the way she teaches,” says her colleague, classroom neighbor, and friend, Michele McCorkle. “She doesn’t change her teaching based on expectations. She’s open to being evaluated badly, because she believes that the way she’s teaching is the most effective.”

This would please Fields, as she is a fan of vulnerability. She was raised to keep an open mind and not fear failure, no matter how defenseless it made her feel. Her parents constantly “harped” on her and her siblings not to close themselves to new experiences merely because of the fear of failure and being made to feel vulnerable.

But, like most things, it’s easier said than done. We have all felt the anxiety of presenting to a class, of talking to a crush, and of the first day of school. There is immense pressure to prove oneself and then, the daunting, “what if I fail?”  

“Failure is just an avenue to figuring out the next thing. And if you take failure as a negative thing, you may never learn,” Fields says.

This is translated throughout her research at IUPUI. Fields likes to think of science and research as the search for ignorance and boundaries, an investigation of those boundaries and, finally, a way to move past them in search of new limits.

However, she would say she is more fond of teaching. “[Teaching] feeds my ADHD,” she says, and laughs. Fields’s laugh is loud and guffawing, requiring a head thrown back to fully accomplish. “I love research, don’t get me wrong. I love the challenge of research and pushing the boundaries of my understanding. But it’s boring because you do the same thing over and over again every day in the laboratory…and then, eventually, you end up talking to the bacteria.”

Some may find her views on failure just as unconventional as her teaching, in a society where we are constantly pushed to achieve more and more and more, and never fail. However, to her, it’s just a standard.

“The personalities of my family defined who I developed into as being a teenager,” Fields explains. “My parents took in individuals. They took in seminarians, they would work with married couples; women that had lost children.”

Inviting complete strangers into their home and around the children became a symbol for accepting vulnerability for a ‘greater good.’

“So, through that example, it led to me developing an idea of pushing boundaries,” she says. “And you’re still scared…I have anxiety. When I put myself in a vulnerable situation where I don’t know: I don’t know what’s going to happen…I have major anxiety. But if I let that rule who I am and my actions, then I can miss out on an opportunity.”

However, not everyone grows up with that kind of a family environment. And one’s environment, as Fields says, “…has more of an impact on an individual’s identity than predetermined assets.”

Most teenagers today have been made to constantly feel as if they are being urged to compete against one another. They are being pushed, not to be the best version of themselves and succeed at exceeding their personal boundaries, but instead to be the best, period.

When she is confronted about this societal situation, Fields shakes her head. “I see that in the classroom. I understand that. So, my one advice to all of my students is to always experience everything that you can,” she says, “because you have to accept your ignorance; you can’t know everything of a content. You have to test the boundaries of what you know in order to search for that next question.”
This view on failure and vulnerability is rare in our society. Imagine the way that we, as humans, would interact with one another if we all understood that failing is more than acceptable, and in the words of Fields, “The only way you can grow is through looking for vulnerability.”

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