• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

The ‘Welcome to College’ Speech I Can’t Give

This one is for all the new students out there.

August 18, 2022

Since I’m spending this academic year with the N.J. Council of County Colleges, I’m in the unaccustomed position of hurtling toward September without being on a campus. Kathy Johnson Bowles’ proposed speech in Inside Higher Ed this week got me thinking about “welcome” speeches, which reminded me of this piece from 2014.

Spoiler: We eventually found Sally and had several more wonderful years with her. But when I wrote this, she was still missing. We lived in Massachusetts at the time.

This one goes out to all the new students out there.


Sally, our dog, has been missing for over a week. She broke free when I was trying to drop her off at a kennel before a weekend trip that ended up not happening; she has since been seen mostly in the Southwick, Mass., and Granby, Conn., areas. We’ve been distributing fliers, working Facebook and Twitter, putting up posters, calling animal control offices, setting humane traps, and doing just about everything possible short of actually catching her.

The entire process has been stressful. We get calls about sightings, which are great, but most of them end with “but when I called her name, she ran away.” She’s skittish on a good day, and by now I’m sure she’s scared out of her mind. Worse, the kennel is a good 20-minute drive from our house, and in unfamiliar territory, so she hasn’t been able to find her way home. The pattern of sightings doesn’t suggest she knows where she’s going.

In the last 10 days, I’ve learned quite a bit about dogs and locations. Several websites mentioned that lost dogs typically move in circles. (Sally doesn’t seem to know that, but in her defense, she can’t read.) Apparently, it’s possible now to attach a doohickey to a dog’s collar that sends a GPS signal. That’s high on my list for when Sally comes home. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how helpful most people have been.

If you had asked me two weeks ago what I would do to find a missing dog, I would have shrugged. I had no clue; I really never gave it much thought. She had never bolted before, and I didn’t think she would. I have no detective experience, and I don’t think of myself as particularly gifted at that sort of thing. My sense of direction has been described as “iffy.” I claim no superior insight into canine psychology. Sally and I have been close for years, but it literally never occurred to me that she would bolt. You think you know a dog …

Okay, you’re thinking, your dog is lost. Sorry to hear that. But what does this have to do with us?

It’s about discovering capacities you didn’t know you had.

Over the past 10 days, The Wife and I have developed strategies, recruited volunteers, worked social networks, tracked sightings, tromped through woods, distributed fliers, put up posters, talked to dozens of random strangers and worked through a thicket of local police and animal control departments. We’ve dealt with the kids’ emotional crises and our own and have sucked it up and gone out to set up yet another trap even when we really didn’t feel like it. We’ve become reasonably adept dog-hunters in a relatively short time. We didn’t want to, and we don’t ever want to again, but we did it.

If we had thought that our dog-hunting capacity two weeks ago was all it could ever be, we would have given up after a few hours. But we didn’t. When we had to, we learned quickly what you’re supposed to do when a dog bolts. We stepped up our game, and even involved the kids in carefully considered ways. I’m proud of how well the kids have handled the process to this point. They acknowledge the real fears we all have, but maintain that difficult balance of faith in a good outcome, combined with faith that we can and will handle what happens. For a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old, that’s pretty good.

The ability to find a lost dog isn’t genetic. It isn’t supernatural, and your dog-hunting IQ isn’t fixed. If you choose to, you can get much better at it than you are now. You can put in the effort, do the research, reach out to people who are willing and able to help, and become capable of things that probably haven’t crossed your mind yet. And if you have the motivation, you can do it quickly. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending—Sally is still out there somewhere—but we’re doing things I didn’t know we could. And I can honestly say we’re trying.

College is like that. Intelligence is like that. You don’t have some fixed IQ that can never change any more than I had a fixed ability to look for a lost dog. You can get better at thinking. You can train yourself to get, pardon the term, smarter. You can learn to find X, whether X is a number, an assumption or a lost dog. You can learn the sort of quiet resolve you’ll need in that awful first moment when you face a complicated problem and have no immediate idea what to do about it. You can develop the skills to sort good information from bad, to ask the second question that clarifies the first and to avoid going to pieces when things don’t go according to plan. You’ll even learn to keep going in the face of failure. That’s no small thing.

I’d love to report a happy ending to our dog hunt, but I can’t just yet. For you, endings are a long way off. I’m here to tell you that if you decide to—and it’s really up to you—you could develop abilities you never knew you had. And someday you can catch your own dog, or whatever it is that you’re chasing.

Happy hunting.

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