McGowan put off faculty’s highest honor one more semester — until the eve of his retirement from the University — because in the fall, when it is usually awarded, he was busy leading the Honors Semester in London as the fall 2019 faculty director.
John McGowan has a way of deflecting praise that makes it hard to give him the accolades he deserves.
Ask him about his eight years as the director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities and he’ll talk about its founder, Ruel Tyson. Ask him about leading the Royster Society of Fellows in the Graduate School as its first faculty director, and he’ll tell you how wonderful Caroline Royster and the late Thomas Royster were.
Ask him about being the John W. and Anna H. Hanes Distinguished Professor in the English and comparative literature department in the College of Arts & Sciences, and he’ll tell you how his students once went on without him when he had a hospital appointment and said it was the best class ever.
McGowan even put off faculty’s highest honor one more semester — until the eve of his retirement from the University — because in the fall, when it is usually awarded, he was busy leading the Honors Semester in London as the fall 2019 faculty director.
But at the Feb. 14 Faculty Council meeting, the praise from his faculty colleagues finally caught up to him when Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz presented McGowan with the Thomas Jefferson Award.
“This is more embarrassing than I thought it would be,” he admitted upon receiving the award given each year since 1961 to the member of the academic community who “has best exemplified the ideals and objectives of Thomas Jefferson.”
“It’s easy to work hard at UNC when inspired daily by the wonderful faculty colleagues, our marvelous, endlessly awe-inspiring students and our dedicated staff,” he said.
Then, after thanking his wife, English professor Jane M. Danielewicz, and his mentors (including Faculty Council Chair Lloyd Kramer) “who showed me how to love this place and throw myself into the life of this university,” he characteristically turned the attention focused on him elsewhere, particularly to the University’s history on inclusion, noting that “we have serious, painful and difficult work ahead of us.”
Big picture thinking
Politics is a big part of McGowan’s interdisciplinary scholarship, which he describes as “at the intersection of philosophy, political theory and literary studies.”
This “renaissance man quality” struck nominator Jennifer Ho as an important way that McGowan resembles Jefferson. “Both men did not simply dabble in multiple arenas but immersed themselves in learning different skills and philosophies,” wrote Ho, a former English professor at Carolina who is now director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
McGowan credits his wide-ranging interests in part to a Jesuit education that focused on integrating heart, mind and soul. He grew up on Long Island, New York, with Irish Catholic parents who sent him to the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. After earning his undergraduate degree in English there, he went on to graduate school at the University of Buffalo in New York, where he received his doctorate in English.
In his early teaching career, he led wide-ranging courses in humanities in the “Great Books” tradition, first to engineering students at the University of Michigan then to artists at the Eastman School of Music.
“I’ve always been a generalist. I have great admiration of scholars, but it’s just not my temperament,” he said, to focus solely on one person, like Prussian Enlightenment-era philosopher Immanuel Kant or early 20th-century educational reformer John Dewey.
“I think of myself more as an intellectual. I’m approaching it saying, ‘OK, what do Kant and Dewey have to offer us now in relation to the current problems in our society?’” he explained.
This approach to philosophy and politics resulted in six single-authored books, four co-edited volumes, dozens of essays and lectures and his personal blog Public Intelligence. He had just published his second book, “Post Modernism and Its Critics,” when he was courted by Carolina for a position that was “exactly in my sweet spot,” he said.
One formative event early in his career at Carolina was when a fellow professor picked up on a comment McGowan made about German-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt in an interdisciplinary reading group.
“We should teach a class on Hannah Arendt,” said Craig Calhoun, who went on to become president of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The chance remark led not only to a class but also a conference and two books about Arendt.
“That was four or five years of my life just because I had to say something in a meeting and Craig picked up on it,” McGowan said. “The direction my intellectual work took was often based on those kind of accidents and interactions with people.”
Because of his broader interest in the humanities, he worked closely with Tyson and Kramer in establishing the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Carolina, serving as its director from 2006 to 2014.
McGowan used the institute as a model when he helped establish the Royster Society of Fellows as a program focused on interdisciplinary collaborations, serving as its first faculty director from 1997 to 2001.
Because of his work with these institutions, McGowan has also been an active fundraiser for the University. “I think they should do it more often,” he said of involving faculty in fundraising. “That was our model at the IAH. We always took faculty on the road with us when we took our development trips.”
And while he treasures his relationships with faculty, donors and alumni, McGowan said, “the central joy of teaching at Carolina is the mentoring of students.”
He has particularly enjoyed the two semesters he and his wife have led the Honors Semester in London.
“You get to know the students even more,” he said, living in Winston House and taking the students on excursions in addition to teaching classes and setting up internships. “There are 30 to 40 students that we’re in constant contact with. It’s like having children: you never lose them.”
That’s more than can be said for the English and comparative literature department now facing McGowan’s retirement.
“We’re sorry to lose him,” said Mary Floyd-Wilson, department chair and Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor, when presenting the Jefferson Award to McGowan. “You’ve been been such an integral part of our department, we wish you wouldn’t go.”
By Susan Hudson, The Well