Dr. Rowena Briones Winkler

A Confession Letter to the Academy

As I dug deeper into the recent NCA/RSA Distinguished Scholars/RPA controversy, I found myself reacting very strongly — with the need to ponder, reflect, and write. For additional (and in my opinion, more eloquent) insights, I would highly recommend reading Dr. Mohan J. Dutta’s blog post or following Dr. Lisa Corrigan on Twitter, but here is how I’ve decided to comment on the situation.

FYI, this wasn’t easy to write and was even harder for me to hit publish. But as my academic/life goals crush Brené Brown says to herself every morning: “I choose courage over comfort.” And so, here we are: a letter.


Dear Academy,

When I first met you, it was truly love at first sight. I came in fully intending to get my master’s, but realized the power of teaching and conducting valuable research. It seemed like you were into me too.

For years, I fought hard to win your affection. I networked and collected the best mentors in the field. I honed my teaching craft through professional development opportunities to win over students. I applied for awards and won those awards to pad my CV. I took on leadership positions and did my best to excel in those positions. I spent hours upon hours poring over journal articles and memorizing theories and citations to become an expert in my field. I did my due diligence to make you proud — as a perfectionist, I was sure of that.

Then our relationship started to shift, and it got to the point where I could no longer smile and deny it anymore. I was sensing that we needed to part ways.

Maybe it was when I kept noticing the same types of research studies being published and cited over and over again by the same, small group of [privileged] people. Maybe it was the way colleagues didn’t understand my need to advocate for students when there were other “priorities” that seemed more important. Maybe it was when the global advice was to “stay quiet until you got tenure” but I knew I couldn’t when there were serious cracks in the system that so desperately needed to be addressed.

Between serving as a role model for minority students, sitting on committees to hit a “diversity quota,” conducting research studies that might be deemed too “provocative” to be publishable, and feeling like I needed to be “grateful” for my job and that I owed something to the system, something in me snapped. I had to take matters into my own hands and walk away.

Yes, I was ashamed and embarrassed. Back then I felt like a complete failure: unable to “cut it” in academia, the rockstar who got too burnt out, a loser. But as I’m sure other faculty of color could sympathize, I did what I felt I had to do — it was my own self-preservation tactic. I was disappointed and overburdened, and I simply couldn’t do it anymore. The bottom line: there was only so much invisible labor I could take before I would either be deemed a troublemaker or a conformist.

I chose neither.

I chose to leave the only career I knew and loved, even for a few years, so I could recalibrate and reassess what I really wanted.

Please understand that it was SO freaking hard. To this day I see updates from friends and colleagues, and wonder what would have happened if I just stuck it out. I’d have tenure by now. I could have made a difference through my teaching and research.

I could have stayed. Maybebut more likely if I were white.

But I’m not, and this was my experience. I also know that if I had stayed, I would have gotten more sick, anxious, and unhealthy in the process.

Trust me, I know that I’m a huge part of the problem. Years of therapy and journaling exposed where my need for external validation stemmed from, and how I need more self compassion and mercy.

But Dear Academy, I need to call it out for what it is: you normalize it, even encourage it. You make junior scholars feel less than if they’re not working around the clock, or wasting time focusing on the “wrong things,” or having lives outside of your walls. You claim there’s a “diversity problem” but your tactics for change are shallow and cosmetic, and oftentimes you barely attempt to tap into the source — you’d rather fill your committees with token POC faculty than take the time to actually be reflexive and unpack what’s really going on here.

But I understand. It’s SO hard to flip the script when the main offenders are tenured folks who are not yet woke. And yet, you scratch your heads and seem legitimately confused when faculty of color seem hesitant to downright irritated when they need to step away from their [double/triple] work to YET again give YOU perspective? Don’t you understand, Academy? It’s fucking exhausting. Especially when these additional efforts clearly don’t meet your tenure requirements.

For the past two years I kept my feelings close to my chest. For the past two years only a few people knew the whole truth of what drove me away. But recent events have called me to come clean. Current discussions in our field are now coming to a head. And so, I needed to send this confession letter to you. Maybe we are meant to stay separated. Maybe hearing about this controversy was meant to bring me back to you, even for this pivotal moment, to speak my truth. In any case, I’m through with acting like things were amicable when we separated. What I went through with you, by the end, was difficult and painful.

But if anything, it helped me emerge stronger than ever. Now I know the extent of my gifts and talents as a writer and communicator. Now I firmly believe that I am capable of doing so much more than what you expected.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rowena Winkler

Me in South Africa during one of my last trips as a tenure-track professor, 2016.