Chip Dodd: scholar, Trekkie and comrade - Modern day Renaissance man beams down knowledge to SCC students
"Meow meow," the instructor calls out from the front of the room as students in that morning's International Political E conomy class chat and laugh together. S tudents who aren't familiar with this instructor are scratching their heads trying to figure out what in the world he's talking about.
Students who have had Chip Dodd as an instructor before know that "meow meow" means it's time to wrap up their discussions and settle into their seats. Class is about to start. Chip Dodd is as unique of a person as you'll likely ever find: one part modern day R enaissance man, one part E agle S cout with a penchant for Star Trek jokes. How "meow meow" fits in there, or how it came to mean "quiet down, class is about to start" is a mystery. But, it's a mystery that suits Dodd well and may serve as a subtle reminder that pigeonholing him is next to impossible. Of course, while categorizing Dodd might be impossible, understanding how he got that way is not.
Dodd grew up as the son of an A ir Force officer just off Highway 50 in E ldorado Hills, Calif. M any of the town's 2000 residents were aerospace workers and military families and there is little doubt that a young Chip Dodd was influenced by that. N ot surprisingly, from an early age he said he wanted to be a pilot and an astronaut. But, as luck would have it, the small town nestled in the foothills of the S ierra N evada M ountains was also home to many ranchers, and their influence was equally felt. The future geography teacher's intense sense of curiosity was well-nurtured growing up on the edge of a subdivision that had thousands of acres of ranch land, undeveloped wilderness and streams to explore. I t was a playground calling for Dodd's childhood to be spent outdoors exploring.
"When we played, it was either A rmy or S tar Trek," Dodd says. "On the longer days it was Star Trek…we'd take off from this cul-de-sac and we'd try and find out where that creek ran to." However, it was just a beginning to Dodd's fascination with seeing where things lead. By the time he graduated high school in 1982 Dodd was ready to explore the world beyond the Sierra N evada's. "My best friend and I decided to go to Europe right after graduating," Dodd says. "We did the Eurail thing for two months, and I kinda realized that there's a whole world out there; that the suburban California thing is just one little niche in this whole world of diversity."
He says the experience focused his energy and made him start taking school more seriously. Considering that he ended up at UC Berkeley after transferring from the community college near his hometown, it was a focus well-aimed. Right away he set his sights on becoming a policy wonk or intelligence analyst and studying politics and R ussian language. His multidisciplinary approach ultimately led him to major in political economy. However, as part of his undergrad studies he took Geography classes.
"Those were my favorite classes," Dodd says. "It was kinda where the rubber meets the road in terms of human interaction with the environment… how that influences life patterns… cultural patterns. Then humans try and modify that for their own purposes, and a lot of times we don't understand the systems that we're trying to manage or control. S o that becomes a freak show." The attraction to understanding that freak show inspired Dodd to go to grad school for Geography. He was most interested in water and energy resource management and worked to combine that with his passion for political economy and the R ussian language by writing his thesis in a way that essentially covered all of his interests.
His research ultimately led to his work being published as the 256-page book, "Industrial Decision-making and High-risk Technology: Siting N uclear Power Facilities in the USSR ." A nd while it's not a title that rolls off the tongue or a subject that most of us would likely understand, it was exactly the type of thing the US Department of S tate was interested in and likely what landed Dodd an internship. A fter all, it was the height of the Cold War and the government had a particularly keen interest in all things nuclear and S oviet. A nd Dodd knew both.
Unfortunately, Dodd quickly found the work discouraging. M orale in the field was low, and for an inquisitive and upbeat mind like his it was a bit distressing. He was none-the-less on track to become a contract researcher in a field most of us associate with Tom Clancy novels. Perfect for the R ussian speaking E agle S cout from E ldorado Hills. As luck would have it though, in between jobs a friend asked him to substitute teach a class at Seattle Central Community College. Dodd had no real interest in teaching, but decided to give it a shot.
"I partially took the job because I never liked being in front of large groups," Dodd says. "I hoped it would help me develop some skills and help me get over some issues I had with public speaking." Little did he know at the time, but his entire career path was about to change. "Within two or three weeks," Dodd says, "I thought, G eez, I have been on the wrong track, man. I really like this. I'd say by the fourth week of doing that I said, 'I am gonna do this!' U p until then I had no intention to teach."
From then on, Dodd was a teacher. Of course, not one to abandon the pursuit of knowledge, he is always waist deep in a pile of independent research. L iterally. I f you've not seen Dodd's office, imagine an episode of Hoarders, but for intellectuals. I t looks like a library exploded. He says his condo isn't much better. "I have fossils all over the place that I 'm waiting to clean."
Collecting fossils – as in the preserved remains of plants and animals from more than 10,000 years ago – are just one of many hobbies that occupy Dodd's time. A nd like most everything he takes an interest in, he's pursued it with zeal. Over the years Dodd has pursued photography to the point where he is now selling some of his work commercially, and astronomy to a level that even led to him teaching an A stronomy class – somewhat controversial considering he has no formal background in the subject. I t was just another interest that he engrossed himself in to a degree that eclipses what the average person would ever consider.
Lately he's been planning a summer road trip to work on his photography. Though really it's just a continuation of the exploring he's been doing since he was a child. Sadly, the creek he once played near is gone. I t's been replaced by a stream of asphalt to serve the community that has grown up around it by more than an order of magnitude - a reality that doesn't sit well with Dodd. "I hate it when I go back home," Dodd says. "All these places, the hills I played in, the creek where we made all these interesting discoveries… they're all gone."
Luckily he can drive now and there's plenty more wilderness out there left to be explored. Only this time he might skip playing A rmy and Star Trek. But then again this Chip Dodd we're talking about. S tar Trek may very well still be on the schedule.
Jim Lovaas - Staff Writer