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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.
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STRIVING FOR MOTHERHOOD: A STRUGGLE REVEALED

In April, I participated in CampNaNoWriMo to work toward writing one of my (many) book ideas: a memoir. Here is an excerpt.

For as long as I could remember, I have wanted to be a mother. From the time I could talk, I was caring for my “baby” dolls, rocking them to sleep and cradling them in the house. By middle school, I had names picked out for my first son and daughter, even though I barely knew how babies were made. Every serious boyfriend and I would discuss how many children we wanted, and oftentimes I would start stories with the phrase, “with my future children…”. I just knew it was a done deal for me.

In 2016, I married a wonderful man who was also my best friend. After a year of marriage, we decided to start talking about the possibility of having children, which was something we both wanted. And so, in November 2017 I finished my last pack of birth control and we officially started “actively trying.”

And trying. And trying. And trying.

Me and my husband, Derek.

As a Type-A, organized planner type. I sprang into action. I downloaded a bunch of apps to help me keep track of my cycle. I talked to Derek in advance about which days would be the best to “target” with our intimate activities. I started thinking about baby names and how to convert one of our offices into a nursery.

Looks like I was getting way ahead of myself.

Due to the fact that I had been on birth control over 10 years at this point, my body wasn’t quite sure what to do with itself without all the hormonal assistance. Each month was a guessing game of whether I would get my period for a day or two, or if it would continue for several weeks on end. My time of ovulation was so sporadic, it was barely trackable. My husband and I would try as best as we could, but we never got the timing right, and even then, the performance anxiety for us was getting so incredibly debilitating that we couldn’t relax and get into it enough for it to be remotely successful. I quickly became someone who enjoyed having sex to someone who would get so hype about it because I wanted to make sure things were “just right” in case we got pregnant.

A year came and went, and we found ourselves at the end of 2018. We weren’t pregnant, and as we watched several of our friends have beautiful babies, we decided we needed to get the medical field involved. I made an appointment with my Ob-Gyn to see what she could do.

Turns out this was going to be more complicated than I had originally thought.


If you are a recovering perfectionist/planner like me, I’m sure you can understand how frustrating it is to want something so badly and not be able to get it by following all the “steps” that are needed. I got a Ph.D. in three years for goodness sake, and yet, getting pregnant was a whole new level of work and frustration. Every month Derek and I would hope “this would be it,” only to be disappointed when the dreaded Aunt Flo came to town. There was even a month that I didn’t get my period at all, and even though the pregnancy tests said otherwise, I was certain I was pregnant. I even withheld alcohol at our friends’ wedding just because I was so sure. But soon after, my Ob-Gyn told me that this was not the case, and after a lot of tears, we had to repeat the whole cycle all over again.

All the negative pregnancy tests. Hooray.

Speaking of drinking, that became a whole vicious cycle in and of itself. I would refrain from alcohol for about a month in case I were to get pregnant. Then I would get my period, which would make me upset to the point of binge drinking to numb myself from the extreme sadness I felt about yet another “failure.” I knew that this was probably a not-so-healthy way to go about things, but I felt insane continuing this roller coaster of hope-excitement-despair every month. I couldn’t stand not getting pregnant when it seemed like everyone else around me could. I felt awful and responsible and blamed myself for not being able to make this happen.

Finally, it got to the point where Derek and I had to go to a fertility specialist. The almost two-hour intake appointment in February 2019 consisted of discussing our medical history with the doctor. To make matters even worse, Derek and I had gotten into a fight the night before and it wasn’t entirely resolved, so I went into that appointment feeling awkward and upset. But business was business, so we sat side by side in front of the doctor to talk about how to make a child happen. The prescreening checklist was overwhelming—but doable as someone who thrives on to-do lists. Derek and I had to get a series of tests completed before making our next appointment with the doctor.

Just a “sampling” of all the paperwork.

The tests were a whole other beast. I had to make sure my GYN exam was up-to-date, which was the easy part. I then had to do bloodwork, which doesn’t bother me because I had gotten a lot done over the years. But this shit was a whole new level. When it was time to sit down in the raised comfy chair in LabCorp, I watched the technician draw SEVEN vials of blood out of me. SEVEN. I felt like I was floating above myself as homeboy literally threw vials of my blood onto the lab’s table. It was fucking surreal.

Next was the HSG, which was essentially having a radiologist push dye through your fallopian tubes to determine whether they are open or closed. I was extremely nervous the morning of the procedure and asked Derek to come with me. A coworker had gone through a similar procedure and said it was really painful. I had walked into that lab expecting the worst, but the two female technicians were really sweet and in a quick instant, the procedure was done. I cried after it was over due to the overwhelming emotions related to finding out what the fuck was wrong with my body. I’ll soon be told at my follow-up appointment with the doctor.


The day of the follow-up appointment, Derek was running late and I walked into the doctor’s office alone. They wanted to move things along, of course, so I started to take notes without him. The doctor was explaining the results of my (what seemed like a million) tests when Derek called because he couldn’t remember what floor the office was located. I hung up and rolled my eyes at the doctor. Doesn’t he know there’s signage to tell you these things?

The doctor gave me a piece of paper and asked me to create two columns where she spewed out a series of numbers. On the left side, I wrote:

FSH: 10.04
AMH: 1.55
AFC: 9

And on the right side, I wrote:

FSH: < 8-10
AMH: >1
AFC: <10

(Though not quite as legible, as I had forgotten from elementary school math how to denote “greater than” and “less than” signs, smh).

The doctor explained that the left column was my results and the right was what was considered “normal.” She continued that for someone my age it was “surprising” that two of these numbers are borderline. She then stated that it’s likely that I have DOR or Diminished Ovarian Reserve.

In other words, my body doesn’t make quite enough eggs and could explain my variable ovulation periods where one month I have a period for three weeks straight and the next month I have a two day period.

Here are some stats that the doctor threw down at us:

  • On our own, we had a 3-5% chance of conceiving.
  • With IUI we have a 5-10% chance.
  • With IVF it jumps up to 30-40%.

Well then. At least we aren’t completely to blame for our failed efforts the past 16 months.

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NEW JOB, NEW ADVENTURE: STEPPING OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE AND OUT OF ACADEMIA

As you can probably guess from the title of this post, I have some news to share:

I ACCEPTED A JOB OFFER TWO WEEKS AGO. AND IT’S A NON-ACADEMIC JOB.

Now before y’all get all hype and confused and whatnot let me explain.

As many of you know, I left a tenure-track position at VCU to move back to Maryland for mostly personal reasons. My husband Derek got a promotion, and I decided that it would be better for us to be closer to friends and family (see FB note announcement below).

I ACCEPTED A JOB OFFER TWO WEEKS AGO. AND IT’S A NON-ACADEMIC JOB.

Now before y’all get all hype and confused and whatnot let me explain.

As many of you know, I left a tenure-track position at VCU to move back to Maryland for mostly personal reasons. My husband Derek got a promotion, and I decided that it would be better for us to be closer to friends and family (see FB note announcement below).

However, I will admit that I also left VCU last year a little unsure of whether I am meant to stay on an academic career trajectory. The tenure-track path was really tough and stressful, (a lot harder than I expected TBH), and as much as I loved the flexibility of academia and teaching students, there were aspects of the job that (for me) were hard to contend with, such as:

Please note that this clearly isn’t the reality for everyone, but these were some of the issues that came to mind when reflecting on my own lived experience.

And yes, I will be completely and utterly honest: I know that a lot of this is on me. I am a recovering perfectionist and I’ve always gone above and beyond the call of duty when it came to work. I also get really emotionally invested, oftentimes to the point of negatively impacting my health. But lately I began asking myself: At what cost?

AND SO I HAD TO DO SOME SOUL SEARCHING.

This past year I was the Managing Director of the Oral Communication Program in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland, my beloved alma mater. I am so grateful to the Department for allowing me to come back and try my hand at administration in higher ed, something I was interested in pursuing for a while. The added bonus was being able to see my mentors on a more frequent basis, and come back to a campus I’m familiar with and love.

I dove right into work, as I always do, trying my best to set up a calendar, trying hard not to be so upset with myself when I didn’t know how to do something, playing into my strengths and networking with entities all across campus.

But I also struggled, trying to manage expectations among the many constituencies I interacted with (i.e., graduate students, professional track faculty, undergraduate studies, etc.) and equally trying not to take things personally when those expectations could not be met (a hard enough feat when you are prone to social anxiety that includes LOTS of ruminating). I was the go-to person for faculty and student issues, which gave me opportunities to deal with conflict and engage in empathetic listening, but left me emotionally drained. I represented UMD’s basic course on campus, wrote assessment reports, and even taught a section of COMM 107 (something I had not done since 2010), but I realized that I missed my identity as a PR person.

AND SO, AN OPPORTUNITY CAME UP TO BE A PR PERSON AGAIN.

After this opportunity presented itself I did a lot of thinking (along with some discussing with my husband), and ultimately I decided to give the industry end of things a whirl.

After many many years of schooling and four years of teaching PR at the faculty level, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone to go forth and finally practice what I’ve been preaching to my students.

Next week, I start my position as a copywriter for the in-house marketing team at Vectorworks, an engineering tech firm based in Columbia, MD.

Although I’m a bit nervous, I am excited to go into the private sector, write for different kinds of audiences, get into a more structured and consistent schedule, and join a team that I seem to get along with and seems to be equally pumped to have me on board.

Did I expect to be making this career change four years into obtaining my Ph.D.? Nope. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this crazy ride we call life, you never know what twists and turns are going to be thrown at you.

I’ve decided to submit to the turn and see where it takes me next.

SO LET’S DO THIS.