Betty Houchin Winfield (PhD, 1978): Professional Pioneer

Betty Winfield By Amanda Weber –

Betty Houchin Winfield (Ph.D., 1978) is an award-winning scholar, recently retired from the Missouri School of Journalism where she served on the faculty since 1990. Despite her retirement, Winfield remains active: She was named the Distinguished Fulbright Chair at the University of Warsaw, she serves on three doctoral committees, and she is heading up research projects on journalism and mass media. To top it off, she is now one of the newest inductees into the Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame.

Winfield wasn’t always involved in the study of communications, and becoming an academic didn’t cross her mind as an undergrad. “I knew I would go on and get a master’s, but I never thought about being an academic then,” she said. The idea of pursuing a Ph.D. popped up while she finished her master’s degree at the University of Michigan, but the timing wasn’t ideal. “It was during the Vietnam War and my husband had to go into the military. We ended up living in Japan.”

Eventually, Winfield found herself back in the Northwest, teaching at Washington State University; the time during which she came “through the back door,” into the study of communications. Her interests in communications bloomed while teaching American studies to international students. As she received questions from her students about mass media, she decided to learn for herself how the fusion of American mass media had impacted international students.

“I just kept asking questions and going back and forth as I was teaching American studies, and finally people said, ‘You know, you really should think about getting a Ph.D. in communications.’”

Winfield took that advice and ran with it, applying to the Ph.D. program at the former UW School of Communications. While taking her doctoral seminars her first year, she sat in on undergraduate courses in theory, methodology, mass media and society, and communications law to catch up. “That was pretty intense,” she said. “In American studies I was trying to put pieces together about how our society works. There is a connection between the fields because communications certainly plays a role in that, but I didn’t see that at the time. I had to learn that.”

Winfield sees that connection now, and she has plenty of accolades that can attest to it. In 2008, she received the 24th annual Covert Award in Mass Communication History, and the American Journalism Historians Association’s inaugural teaching excellence award. In 2003, Winfield was honored as the first journalism professor to receive a system-wide University of Missouri Curators’ Professorship, and in 1998 she received the MU’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award for an “academic career embodying the Jeffersonian principles and ideals in scholarship and teaching.”

Winfield has accomplished much in her career, but she has always been sure to put her roles as mother and wife first. “I’m proud of my family and I kept thinking that if I fail at being a mom then nothing else really matters,” she said. She juggled her responsibilities as mother, wife, and scholar, and made it work, as tough as it sometimes was. “I remember taking them to soccer practice, or ballet, or piano, and sitting up straight in the car and sleeping while I’m waiting.”

She also remembers coming to one of Don Pember’s classes in the 1970s, a time when people usually dressed “really grubby” for class. “I came to class in a red dress and high heels and everybody was blown away because I didn’t normally dress like that.” Pember announced to the class that Winfield had to leave halfway through class so she could take her daughter to the mother-daughter Girl Scout Brownie Valentine’s Day party. “We’d been making cookies for weeks!” she exclaimed.

Looking back at her time as a student in the Department, Winfield said she wouldn’t be who she is today without the support she was given by her peers and professors. “One of the things that was really positive about my experience at the UW is the faculty really encouraged my ideas; especially Bill Ames, Don Pember, and Richard Fremont Carter,” she said. “In a creative way it impacted my teaching, and that’s been my mark of a different and creative way of looking at the field.”

Winfield’s creativity and inventiveness has shined through over the years. At the University of Missouri, she recalls teaching a large lecture on mass media history. To keep the content alive, each year she would focus her teachings on a specific concept. One year she focused on entrepreneurship, looking at big players in mass media history. Winfield said that semester, “the students did an April Fool’s version of their student newspaper. I couldn’t believe it. I opened it up and there was my obituary! It said I had died of extreme creativity. You have to have a sense of humor to do this!”

Although she won’t be teaching classes anymore, Winfield still serves on three doctoral committees and is deep into two research topics; one on how journalists use history; another looking at how the role of mass media, along with other forms of communication, build a reputation. She’s working on a book about the Corp of Discovery, or the Lewis and Clark expedition, looking at the point at which people became aware of the individuals from the expedition, and how that fills a societal need.

“I’m always looking for challenges, I’m always learning, and always willing to take risks in learning,” she said. “It’s so engrained, you just think that way. The road never ends.”