Sean Meehan

Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing

“I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Professor Meehan takes his passion for pedagogy and nonfiction writing into his role as Director of Writing, working with faculty and students on teaching and learning writing across the curriculum, and mentoring students in editing and publishing the new digital Washington College Review, which publishes exemplary student writing that emerges from the core requirements of Washington College’s writing program.

He teaches an English 101 course subtitled “The Gutenberg Progenies,” an exploration of the intersections of writing and technology from Frankenstein to Google. You can browse the course web site and blog (Comp\Post)to see what he and his students have been reading and writing. Other courses include American Environmental WritingIntroduction to Nonfiction, and Transcendentalism. In Spring 2018 he began teaching The Art of Rhetoric, a new course that focuses on classical rhetoric and documentary film. Professor Meehan has also been involved in the Chesapeake Semester,serving as the coordinator of its Humanities course, and is an affiliated faculty member in Environmental Studies.

On campus, Professor Meehan has served on the Curriculum Committee, the Assessment Committee, and Tenure and Promotion, as well as chair of the Humanities division, chair of the Faculty Council, chair of the President’s Task Force on Safety, Social Media, and Campus Culture, and is a past president of Washington College’s chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. 

His current scholarship focuses on the legacy and lessons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s first public intellectual and arguably its greatest essayist. Emerson, he contends, remains an important voice for articulating the values of liberal education, particularly of the sort thriving in small liberal arts colleges such as Washington College. He has just completed a book about this titled A Liberal Education in Late Emerson: Readings in the Rhetoric of Mind (2019) and has begun two new projects: one expands the focus on Emerson’s rhetorical legacy to Frederick Douglass and antislavery oratory; the second uses Emerson’s late work on “Quotation and Originality” to reconsider the creative significance of unoriginality across the arts and sciences.

Professor Meehan’s children, Maisie and Hugh, are students at Queen Anne’s County High School. His wife, Mary, teaches English at Centreville Middle School. His dog, a retriever named Annie Dillard, is most likely at home on the couch.

  • Ph.D. English, University of Iowa, 2002.
  • M.A. English, SUNY Buffalo, 1996.
  • A.B. English, Princeton University, 1991.
Research Spotlight

Professor Meehan's book published in 2019A Liberal Education in Late Emerson

Published Work


A Liberal Education in Late Emerson: Readings in the Rhetoric of Mind. Camden House/Boydell & Brewer, 2019.

Recent scholarship has inspired growing interest in the later work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a recognition that the conventional view of an aging and distant Emerson needs rethinking. Sean Meehan’s book reclaims three important but critically neglected aspects of the late Emerson’s “mind”: his engagement with rhetoric, conceived as the organizing power of mind; his public engagement with the ideals of liberal education and higher education reform; and his intellectual relation to Walt Whitman, William James, Charles W. Eliot, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited with Mark Long). Modern Language Association of America, 2018.

Represents the first volume of essays to offer pedagogical approaches to Ralph Waldo Emerson, collecting a variety of strategies for teaching a broad range of Emerson’s works (essays, poetry, sermons, lectures) and topics (environmentalism, gender, philosophy, race, social reform). Leading Emerson scholars and teachers include Branka Arsić, Dan Beachy-Quick, Ronald A. Bosco, Michael P. Branch, Jean Ferguson Carr, Leslie Eckel, Christoph Irmscher, Saundra Morris, and Wes Mott.

Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman. University of Missouri Press, 2008.

Both photography and autobiography involve a tension between disclosing and concealing their means of production: a chemical process for one, the writing process for the other. Professor Meehan examines how four major authors—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman—were well aware of this tension and explored it in their work. By examining the implications of early photography in their writings, he shows how each engaged the new visual medium, how photography mediated their conceptions of self-representation, and how their appropriation of photographic thinking created a new kind of autobiography.

Selected Essays

  • “The Environment of Liberal Education: Emerson, Berry, and the Rhetoric of Commonplaces.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (forthcoming).

  • “Everything Has Two Handles: Late Emerson and the Rhetoric of Metonymy.” ESQ (2017).

  • “Essaying with Emerson.” Emerson Society Papers (Spring 2017).

  • “Metonymies of Mind: Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and the Rhetoric of Liberal   Education.” Philosophy and Rhetoric (Fall 2016).

  • “Ecology and Imagination: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Nature of   Metonymy.” Criticism (Spring 2013).

  • “Education after an Earthquake: Emerson’s Lessons in Panic and   Pedagogy.” Pedagogy (Spring 2011). 

  • “‘Nature’s Stomach’: Emerson, Whitman, and the Poetics of Digestion.” Walt Whitman   Quarterly Review (Winter 2011).

  • “‘You Are the Book’s Book’: Robert Richardson’s Emersonian Workshop.” Pedagogy (Winter   2010).

  • “Photography.” The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism. Oxford University Press, 2010.

  • “Text Minding.” Digital Humanities Quarterly (Spring 2009).

  • “Pencil of Nature: Thoreau’s Photographic Register.” Criticism. (Winter 2006).

  • “Living Learning: Lessons from Emerson’s School.” Emerson Society Papers (Fall 2006)

  • “Emerson’s Photographic Thinking.” Arizona Quarterly (Summer 2006).

  • “Specimen Daze: Whitman’s Photobiography.” Biography (Fall 1999).


Work in Progress

Frederick Douglass and Ralph Waldo Emerson: Orators in Action


Scholarly And Teaching Interests

  • Creative Nonfiction and the Essay
  • Environmental Writing
  • Literature and other Arts/Media
  • Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture
  • Rhetoric

Honors And Affiliations

  • American Literature Association
  • Emerson Society, Advisory Board
  • Modern Language Association
  • Phi Beta Kappa: Member and Past President of Washington College’s Theta chapter
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association Fellow, Houghton Library, Harvard University (2005-2006)
  • Presidential Fellow, University of Iowa 
  • Magna Cum Laude, Princeton University