Spring 2018

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All Roads Point to Northwestern

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Bill Savage's career has not necessarily followed the route he had mapped out, but Sheridan Road has been part of every turn.

by Bill Savage ’88 MA, ’92 PhD, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences college adviser and associate professor of instruction in English

My academic career trajectory has been like Sheridan Road: lots of twists and turns but eventually ending up in Evanston. I did my undergraduate degree at Loyola, on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park. When I came to Northwestern to work on my PhD, I joked that I planned to just continue northbound on Sheridan, aiming to get a job at Lake Forest College next.

Illustration of English professor Bill Savage

Illustration by Bruce Morser.

The metaphoric road of scholarship, I soon discovered, was not so linear. I came to Northwestern to write a dissertation about my favorite Chicago author, Nelson Algren, to argue that his novel The Man with the Golden Arm was unjustly neglected and actually could be considered a Great American Novel. 

That didn’t happen. In my coursework with Carl Smith, Jerry Graff, Ken Warren, Christine Froula, Jules Law and others, I became more interested in the question of how the whole process of canon formation overlapped with the processes of interpreting narrative, and with aspects of material literary culture, like bookstores and book cover design, especially the tawdry paperbacks of the 1950s. Almost accidentally, I had become a cultural theorist rather than a literary critic.

Then the bump in the road came, as I completed my doctorate just about the time that the bottom fell out of the job market in the early ’90s. After several years of part-time teaching and unsuccessful searches, I was pondering a career in the only other work I had any aptitude for or experience in: bartending.

But then Carl Smith got some huge grant on short notice, and Barbara Newman, then chair in English, contacted me to see if I could step in for a year to cover his course load. I may or may not have shouted something to the effect of “Hell, yes!” but, indeed, I could cut back on my bar shifts and do so. Glad to help out. 

That year’s visiting assistant professorship continued until I was unsubtly nudged to apply for a position in the newly created advising office in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. I did so and began my work as a college adviser in the fall of 2002.

One thing that driving on Sheridan Road will teach you: be ready to shift gears. The move into administration was a major career change. I would continue to teach and conduct research, but my primary daily work became advising undergraduates on a wide range of academic, professional and personal matters. This wasn’t precisely what I had gone to grad school to do. But I adapted and happily discovered that the rewards of advising are like those of teaching: contact with smart young people, discussions about things that matter and developing ongoing relationships that evolve over time. 

My career at Northwestern has also been characterized by how professional relationships evolve. My mentor, Carl Smith, became my colleague as we taught together. That first year when I covered his classes, one of the teaching assistants was Liz Fekete Trubey ’96 MA, ’02 PhD. She joined the advising office a year after I did, and now she’s assistant dean for advising, essentially my boss. Roads curve, things change.

But some things do remain the same: I am still interested in Chicago’s literature, history and culture, and the flexibility of the advising position has enabled me to continue that research and writing. My experience in the bar business came to scholarly fruition with my annotated edition of George Ade’s The Old-Time Saloon. My class on baseball literature helped me get a gig writing about the Cubs’ 2016 championship season for ESPN.com (see "No More Lovable Losers"). I am currently working on a book on how quirky details of Chicago’s street grid tell deep historical truths about the city. This book, tentatively titled The City Logical: Or Why Daniel Burnham Is Way Over-Rated (the subtitle may need tweaking), will include a chapter about Sheridan Road as a reminder of class conflict in Chicago history. Despite its bucolic suburban feel, the road was built to allow federal troops from Fort Sheridan to get to Chicago quickly if civil unrest needed quelling.

I now work in an office at 1908 Sheridan Road. Everything about my Northwestern direction, it seems, comes back to this meandering thoroughfare.