Sean Meehan

  • Professor of English; Director of Writing; Co-Director of the Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning

Sean Meehan

“One must be an inventor to read well.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”


As Director of Writing, Professor Meehan works with faculty and students on teaching and learning writing across the curriculum, and mentoring students in editing and publishing the Washington College Review, which publishes exemplary student writing that emerges from the core requirements of Washington College’s writing program. As a teacher of writing and literature and a co-director of the Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning, Professor Meehan cultivates the art of inventive reading and thinking that Emerson locates in the rhetorical foundations of liberal education. In Spring 2023, the CTL organized the series "Learning about Machine Learning" to inquire into the uses and limtis of AI tools for teaching and learning. Further engaging this topic in public conversations, Professor Meehan published this Op-Ed in Inside Higher Ed, "When AI is Writing, Who is the Author?," and incorporated reading and assignments on AI in his composition classes.

Every semester 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, Transcendentalism, and The Art of Rhetoric, a new course that focuses on classical rhetoric and documentary film. 

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 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 recently published two books on Emerson: Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (2018) and A Liberal Education in Late Emerson: Readings in the Rhetoric of Mind (2019). His work in progress, Against Originality, takes as its point of departure Emerson’s late essay “Quotation and Originality” to reclaim the creative significance of unorginality across the arts and sciences. 


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

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

  • “‘What is it, then, between us?’ Whitman’s Elemental Media.” Co-authored with John Durham Peters. Oxford Handbook of Walt Whitman. Ed. Kenneth M. Price and Stefan Schöberlein (forthcoming).

  • “Emerson’s Late Styles.” The New Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Michael Jonik (forthcoming).

  • "When AI is Writing, Who is the Author?" Inside Higher Ed (opinion). January 30, 2023.  

  • “The Mediacy of ‘Works and Days’: From McLuhan to Emerson.” Emerson Society Papers (Spring 2020).
  • “The Environment of Liberal Education: Emerson, Berry, and the Rhetoric of Commonplaces.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2019).

  • “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

  • Against Originality: A Rhetoric for Renovation in the Arts and Sciences

Scholarly And Teaching Interests

  • Creative Nonfiction and the Essay
  • Environmental Writing
  • Literature and Media; Documentary
  • Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture
  • Rhetoric and Liberal Education

Honors And Affiliations

  • Emerson Society
  • 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