Post #5: Learning (HOW) to Look Back

As usual, this post is long overdue. However, I think if I had posted this any sooner, much of the vision would have been incomplete. And how appropriate to post about vision and looking back NOW … as hindsight is 20-20! (Because it’s 2020; You see what I did there? Oh nevermind.)

The PhD process — and everything leading up to it — has been tough to say the least. And after every major milestone, I thought, “Okay! This is where it gets a bit easier!” After coursework, after comps exams, after fieldwork — after, after, after  And then … Nope! That “arrived” feeling never came. All there was were platefuls of sadness and despair with a side of anxiety and exhaustion. And there are many memes dedicated to the PhD struggle to attest to this fact. Here are a few of my faves:

.       all this work i have not donethis is finepulp fiction disertation meme

laughing and crying

Part of what kept me going is knowing that SOMEDAY I would look back and realize it was all worth it. But here is the problem with that logic: someday always felt a long ways away. It took me a long time to learn that while no one should ponder on the past in a way that prohibits growth, forgiveness, or forward movement, looking back with specific (healthy) intentions to reflect and honor one’s accomplishments — personal or professional — is a must! Otherwise, it becomes easy to stay in grind mode without taking a single moment to celebrate small victories and huge successes.

Furthermore, as an academic, I have also learned how easy it is to live for that NEXT achievement. After having an AMAZING 2019 — where I had received several awards and fellowships — as soon as the moment passed, I was already on to the next major task, the next idea, and the next bit of proof that I was worthy! A worthiness that would destroy the impostor syndrome that is a usual part of the PhD and minority experience. I thought, one day I’ll do enough where I could FINALLY get a seat at the table, with peers, senior scholars, or organizations I respected. Nope!

As a 1st generation, Blackademic female scholar that did not go to an Ivy League — nor the Hidden or “Little” Ivies — I’ve had to fight and claw my way through every barrier. And especially as a junior scholar who tries to reach both academic AND lay / public audiences, I engage in service and privilege teaching in ways that may not always score me the large grants or attract opportunities with prestigious institutions. (Not to say never; it just does not fall in my lap or come as often it does for others.) But as I continuously kept chasing that “day” when it ALL would click and I could stand and say “I’ve made it!” … I lost so many opportunities to sit in the moment and appreciate how far I had come up to THAT particular moment.

For example, when I entered the dissertation portion of my program in 2017, I had a moment of angst and frustration, as things just felt like they would never come together. And I kept questioning, “am I even meant to do this?” But, imagine if I had sat a minute and thought back to 2009, when I was rejected from a PhD program and thought I’d just settle for the MA. (Even though, honestly I had no business pursuing that program, but I’ll leave it at that.) Or, what if I had looked back to amenwhen I was adjuncting and barely making ends meet! Or, if I had taken a moment to reflect on the time I was almost hired for a full-time job, just to be beaten by 1 person because the Dean preferred him over me. Or, I could have even thought back on the time in 2012, when I was in my room, praying to know what my purpose on the earth was and hoping for an open door. If I had stopped for a second along my journey and took a glimpse in the rear-view mirror, I would have said, “Wow … chick! You’ve come a mighty long way!”

And as weird as it sounds, even when I am in a moment of grief, I have to project to a future Tiffany, knowing that THAT version of me WILL look back and be grateful for the moment at hand — even the twists n’ turns, detours, pit stops, and accidents that made me want to park it just setup camp in some dry, desolate dessert. For I knew when I was crying about the ridiculous loads of coursework, the insane stress of comps exams, and the incredibly unstructured chaos of fieldwork, there would come a time when I would look back and not see the bad; I would wish I could go back. Thus, when it was time to isolate and write — thanks to a finishing grant and fellowship that required forgoing work and focusing on the dissertation, I could aim to enjoy it. Even though it was absolutely driving a busy-body like me crazy at first, I knew the future Dr. Jones who will be busy with piles of grading, research, and service work, would look back and say “why didn’t I enjoy that more!”

And, call it rose-colored glasses or romanticizing the past, but today … when I glance in the rear view and take in the story that is my life, it’s quite hard to zero in on of all of the pain I have endured to get here. And in many ways, it has much to do with seeing this chapter coming to an end and seeing another on the horizon. (But that’s another post for another time!) But this just shows me that with enough distance from the scene of the crash, the smoke and wreckage becomes less visible. And what remains is the makings of a better Tiffany.

The aims of reflecting backwards, especially for someone who seeks to be an educator or mentor, should not just be a selfish, ego-boosting endeavor, however. (Well, maybe not just that!) But, it can and should supply information that will aid someone else’s journey. With the right lenses on — i.e., not a critical look that focuses on the shoulda-coulda-wouldas — one can gleam lessons that becomes advice and wisdom you share with others. I have a cousin who is pursuing her advanced degree. And I constantly tell her, “Here! Look at what I did, so you can do it better!” It makes no sense that people behind you should continuously run into the same potholes you did along the way. It takes work, yes. It takes maybe pausing and refocusing your efforts for a second, of course. But, if you create road map or directions with warning signs and landmarks, how much easier will it be for future generations to improve and excel? And it’s even better if you can pop into the passenger seat and offer guidance in the moment!

kermit and fonzie

So, what am I trying to say:

  1. Do not just keep driving for miles and miles without taking in all of the milestones behind you. (You’ll miss out on the opportunity to appreciate and celebrate your journey up to that point!)
  2. Do not stay looking backwards; instead, take a pause and a quick glimpse to reflect. (No one can drive and plan to arrive anywhere safely focused solely on what’s behind them.)
  3. Do reflect backwards in order to propel yourself forwards.  (Take from the past and all that is good or constructive and use it for your benefit or to assist others.)

So … as I sit here trying to motivate myself through this LAST stretch of the PhD program (that beast AKA the dissertation), I think back to the girl who thought her dreams were just that: unattainable fantasies. I can see her, looking at her vision board and thinking all that was in front of her seemed impossible. And, I see her praying and hoping that one day she would be exactly where I stand, in front of the computer and on the precipice of Tiffany Marquise Jones, PhD.  I look back … and I’m grateful.


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