If you go into Brian McGowan’s office in Hurst Hall, you’ll see a heavily marked board on the wall. He uses three columns to chart his progress on various projects. A note might be written under “Research Ideas” as a new piece of scholarship germinates. Then, as he’s further along on a project—perhaps the paper is written, or a study is completed—it might be moved under the “Research” column. He also tracks administrative efforts for each idea, such as where to submit an article for publication.
Bottom line? McGowan likes to be productive, and he’s committed to making progress. Not just on his research, but about how it affects the real world. Specifically, he’s hoping to tangibly improve the environment on college campuses.
“I have a heart for this work,” says McGowan.
Reflecting that work ethic, McGowan started this semester at American University with a dual appointment: He’s an associate professor in the School of Education, and an associate director at the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning.
Researching and Understanding Black Students
McGowan’s work is focused on the experiences of black men in college. He approaches that from a research perspective, and as someone who’s worked in higher ed, has thought deeply about racial equity, and wants to help students succeed.
“We collectively as faculty can do more for students. We’re trained to teach our disciplinary content, but we can do more than just that. And I’m hoping to model what that could look like,” says McGowan.
Before coming to AU, McGowan was a professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Indiana State University. When he earned his PhD in higher education administration from Indiana University, he won the dissertation of the year award from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
McGowan examined black male interpersonal relationships, and the role that identity played in how they formed friendships on college campuses.
“I interviewed these men around sensitive topics. ‘What about your childhood?’ ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ ‘Tell me about moments where you struggle being a man.’ ‘Tell me about spaces and places on campus where you feel affirmed,’” he remembers. “So I asked them questions that many of them probably had never been asked in their life.”
He did follow-up interviews with the same students, and it included photo submissions to illustrate their friendships. Sometimes these young black students would say they had a “diverse” group of friends, but the pictures showed all their friends were white. Or the pictures showed all their friends were black.
“I was able to tease out how they make sense of race, particularly in friendship patterns,” he notes. “Sometimes they say one thing, because they want me to hear that as a researcher. But by seeing the pictures, I was able to triangulate and cross-check that information.” He’s published multiple scholarly articles from that dissertation, and he’s planning to do a larger research project across various institutions. McGowan has co-edited two books, Men and Masculinities: Theoretical Foundations and Promising Practices for Supporting College Men’s Development and Black Men in the Academy: Narratives of Resiliency, Achievement, and Success.
Working in Higher Ed
McGowan also draws from his time working in higher ed. He was an RA as an undergrad at Old Dominion University, and he became a hall director while earning his master’s at The Ohio State University. He then moved to New Jersey to work at Rutgers University. He was an area coordinator—supervising hall directors, overseeing some 1,500 students, and assisting with crises.
“It was a big job, but there was a point of dissonance professionally. I wanted to be a vice president of student affairs or campus life, but I recognized that I didn’t enjoy the crisis work, getting those phone calls late at night. And I said, OK, if I want to move up, that’s going to be normal,” he recalls. “So I pivoted and went back to school full time, preparing to be a professor.”
Yet that campus work still informs his research, he says. “You’re beginning to see more institutions wanting people with higher education expertise. AU saw a need for it, which is why they brought me here,” he says.
Through his research and teaching, he’s hoping to illuminate the realities and needs of underrepresented populations on campus. He’d also like to devise some solutions, so minorities can enjoy college and thrive.
“I want to cheer for them as they walk across that [graduation] stage, and make sure they have that next opportunity to be a productive member of our society.”
Catching Dinner and Helping the Next Generation
McGowan grew up in Newport News, Virginia. Proximity to the water contributed to his lifelong love of seafood.
His family sometimes struggled to make ends meet, as his mom worked a low-wage job to support three kids. If food was hard to come by, sometimes they’d ride bikes—with the youngest, Brian, on handlebars—to the Atlantic Ocean to catch that night’s dinner.
“This was a pivotal bonding moment for our family,” he says now. “We would go out there at like nine, ten in the morning, and leave at five or six at night. We’d come back with buckets of fish and crabs and we’d cook them.”
McGowan became a first-generation college student, majoring in music education. He’s a classically trained singer—he can sing in French, German, Italian, and Spanish—and he performed at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.
While crediting the mentoring he received, he is currently writing a piece about his high school chorus teacher for a book series about influential educators.
“I’ve been thinking about what I know now versus then. I’m getting glimpses of her decision making,” he says. “I learned some of my pedagogical techniques from her.”
If he sounds passionate about teaching, and passionate about life, he says it comes from his upbringing.
“I’m grateful for these opportunities I’ve had,” he says. “So I see it as my responsibility to serve as a possibility model for anyone who has experienced adversity.”