English Professor Emeritus Remembered By Colleagues

John R. McNair, professor emeritus in the Department of English at UNC Charlotte, died on November 3, 2020, in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a result of unexpected complications following a medical procedure.  He is survived by his sons, John McNair, Jr. and Michael McNair, and his daughter-in-law, Andrea McNair.

McNair was born on July 2, 1935, and grew up in Colorado.  As a boy, he loved spending time outdoors and reading literature, and these interests carried through his entire life.  He initially pursued a career as a wildlife biologist.  He earned a bachelor’s degree in fisheries management from Colorado State University and worked as a field biologist on Kodiak Island, Alaska.  He wrote about these experiences in his recently published memoir, Kodiak Bears and Sockeye Salmon:  A Wildlife Biologist Comes of Age, 1957 – 1961 (America Through Time, 2020).  He went on to study English Renaissance literature at the University of Colorado, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in English.  McNair joined UNC Charlotte in 1978 as an assistant professor of English.  He was promoted to associate professor in 1985, and he retired in 2004.

During his career at UNC Charlotte, McNair played an instrumental role in founding the English Department’s offerings in technical communication.  In 1979, he developed and taught with great success the department’s very first course in technical writing.   Greg Wickliff, who currently teaches technical communication courses in the English Department, recently wrote that McNair’s “success created the opportunity to recruit the faculty and build the Technical/Professional Writing programs we have today.” 

Meg Morgan, a professor emerita in the English Department, is one of the faculty members who followed in McNair’s footsteps.  She recently wrote, “John McNair had great vision – he could see that a growing interest in technology would create a growing interest in writing about and for technology. So he started a course in the English Department: Introduction to Technical Writing. This course later evolved into several courses, some at the graduate level and thanks to John’s early vision and the hard work of his colleagues we have a successful undergraduate minor in technical writing, a graduate certificate program.”

In addition to teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses on Shakespeare, McNair served as one of the core faculty members who taught the Shakespeare in Performance Summer Institute in Stratford upon Avon.  In teaching this course, he worked closely with Ann Carver, a professor emerita in the English Department.  Carver reflected on McNair’s contributions to this course:

“In 1983 Roland Reed (UNC Charlotte Theatre Department, later The Catholic University of America Theatre Department) and I created and co-directed the UNC Charlotte Shakespeare in Performance Summer Institute in Stratford upon Avon.  John soon joined the Institute and thus began a three-way collaboration, teaching learning adventure, and friendship that enriched our lives and, I believe, the lives of our students.  It was through this annual Institute in England, where John, Roland, and I taught and learned together, played together, and lived together with our students in a B&B, that I had the good fortune to experience close up the qualities that made John a very special teacher, friend, and human being.

John’s teaching was, of course, based on a sound knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and their historical and cultural context. It was John’s dedication to making the plays accessible to the students that I most remember. He constantly sought different strategies to open the plays’ treasures and enjoyment for his students.  In his UNC Charlotte classes, he often used films of the plays as a starting point. In the Institute, he devised creative assignments and participated in the performance exercises, and helped coach the students’ major group assignment, which was to prepare, rehearse, and perform before an audience a short scene from one of the plays we were studying. Each year we studied the plays the Royal Shakespeare Company was performing in Stratford while we were there. Every time I looked at John working with the students, he was laser focused on their words, questions, faces, needs. He cared deeply about each student’s mastery of the subject and how to help them succeed. He also cared about the overall well-being of each student.”

In honor of McNair’s lasting contributions to the English Department, the department established theJohn McNair Undergraduate Award in Technical/Professional Writing Award in 2014.  This award, supported by the Technical/Professional Writing faculty in the Department of English, is given to an outstanding undergraduate student in the Department of English pursuing a minor in Technical/Professional Writing.  

Words: Mark West, Bonnie E. Cone Professor in Civic Engagement,
Professor of English | Image of John McNair with his beloved dog Roscoe: Courtesy of the McNair family