It’s a Tuesday evening, and Professor John C. Hudson sits at his desk. To his back is a row of filing cabinets, a broken Dell computer and a globe. The houseturned-office space at 515 Clark, which has been vacated save Hudson’s office and an assortment of junk from past occupants, is quiet. Hudson looks up from his work, past a poster featuring corn varieties grown in North Dakota and through the window, where he watches the day turn to dusk. After a moment, he turns back to grading his students’ assignments on the geography of Chicago. When he’s finished, he’ll pack his things into a brown leather briefcase, slide a canvas jacket over his signature plaid button-down shirt and drive home. Before falling asleep tonight, he will write out every word of tomorrow’s lecture. He knows the content better than anyone, but it is challenging to retain all that knowledge, even after 52 years.
Hudson has been the captain of the geography program since 1987, when the department shut down. Throughout this time, he has led students through geography: the study of the physical features of the earth and how it is affected by, and affects, human populations. Although the 76-year-old professor dreads the day when he must give up the routine of teaching for retirement, his departure is imminent. When he goes, the program he sustained for so long will surely go with him.
After reaching a peak in the early 1970s, the following decade saw a decline in the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in geography. This trend was visible at Northwestern too: faculty began to leave their positions and the number of geography majors dwindled. By 1973, five of the eight geography faculty had departed for other universities or jobs.
In 1986, only two tenured faculty and a handful of assistant professors remained. Under the direction of University President Arnold Weber, the dean of Weinberg shut down the department without consulting the geography team.
Although no surprise to Hudson, the announcement shocked many students and faculty. Even several years after losing its department status, the importance of geography remained hotly contested. In a 1990 letter to the editor, Chemistry Professor Mark Ratner applauded Weber’s decision to axe the geography and dental hygiene departments, as they “are simply inappropriate at a private research university, especially in a time of extremely tight budgeting.”
Hudson retorted with a barb of his own the following week: “It strikes me as inappropriate to have the chairman of one of our leading departments cast aspersions on one of our smallest programs in the course of praising the University’s president.”
After his geography counterpart, Michael Dacey, broke off to begin the Mathematical Methods in Social Sciences program, Hudson became the University’s sole geographer. He was a tenured professor, and thus allowed to continue teaching, bearing the weight of the program on his own.
“I started talking to the dean and said ‘I want a program in geography,’ and he said ‘You can have [it], but it has to depend on just you,” Hudson says. “Thirty-one years later I’m still doing the same thing.”
In hindsight, Hudson says he felt somewhat relieved when the department was downsized. “I can’t tell you how long I tried to keep a sinking ship afloat.”
After the department’s dissolution, the geography program became part of the anthropology department.as an adjunct major. Although technically a professor of anthropology, Hudson’s focus is entirely on geography, and he works independently, without help from teaching assistants or other faculty apart from visiting lecturer Michael Ribant, who teaches Geographic Information Systems.
Unlike some professors who take leaves of absence to focus on research, Hudson works on projects throughout the school year. He has six books to his name and hopes to complete another this year on the geography of Illinois. Despite his long career, he only elected to take time off when he recieved a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988.
Through all of it, Hudson has managed to teach five lecture courses per year, on topics from economic geography to principles of cartography. One of his courses on North American geography has been offered by Northwestern every spring for the past 47 years.
“The fact that this has existed in a very stable situation for over 30 years – I wouldn’t have predicted that,” he says.
Though he updates his facts and figures, Hudson’s teaching is traditional. “Geography is really not sexy,” he says. He studies maps and data. He teaches his students global trends in the production of industrial roundwood. And yet, he scoffs at the idea of trying to appeal to students with flashy course titles.
“Teach geography, call it geography, and students will be interested and take it,” he says.
It seems, however, that the students who most enjoy his classes are drawn by his persona.
“He always has a smile on his face... He’s never really in a bad mood,” says Sagaar Jagetia, who double majors in geography and economics. “The reason I chose geography is because of him and how interesting he makes it.”
This year, Hudson is teaching around 250 students and eight geography majors. Most study economics, environmental science and policy, anthropology and journalism. When leafing through old photos or membership lists for Gamma Theta Upsilon, the geography honors fraternity, he chuckles as he recalls past students. He speaks fondly of those in his classes, remarking, “he’s a good guy” or “she’s an excellent student.”
In the nearly half century that Hudson has taught at Northwestern, he has witnessed sweeping changes in campus culture and society. And yet the trajectory of the geography program and his own approach to teaching has changed remarkably little. He still crafts maps using a 1994 Dell computer running Windows 2000 and doesn’t publish his courses to Canvas.
It is his passion for the subject and for the routine of teaching that compels him to return, year after year, to the blackboard.
“Why do I do all this?” he muses. “Mostly because it’s fun.”
As he looks forward to his 77th birthday, Hudson’s retirement looms large. When he finally takes his leave, the last remnant of what was once a fundamental discipline and thriving department will also depart.
“As long as I’m here, geography is here,” Hudson says. “When I go, who knows?”
The floorboards creak beneath him as he switches his desk lamp off and walks toward the door, past world maps and shelves of geography dissertations from the 1950s.
For now, though, he doesn’t seem bothered about the future. The professor has another lecture to prepare.