Professor Spotlight: Dr. Sean Patrick O’Rourke

Daphne Nwobike

Staff Writer

Upon entering Dr. O’Rourke’s office, it is impossible to ignore the book-laden shelves lining every inch of the walls. Every nook and cranny of his office is adorned with books, with some arranged in towering piles or stored neatly in a special bookcase. Dr. O’Rourke’s passion for books and reading is one of many layers of his complex identity that make him such an impressive professor. Serving as Professor of Rhetoric and American Studies and the Director of the Center for Speaking and Listening, Dr. O’Rourke, or Doc, as his students fondly call him, is a force to be reckoned with.

His dedication to highlighting the complexities and untold stories of the Civil Rights Movement, which is the focus of much of his work and teaching, was influenced by his formative childhood experiences of living in Above Rock, Jamaica, and witnessing the residential segregation prevalent in his hometown of Twinsburg, Ohio. “I think some of those formative experiences are a way that I would say I got interested in the things I now study and teach,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of books on the civil rights sit-ins, and then Dr. Lehn and I did a book on the Charleston shootings. The issues of race and American identity have always been kind of with me.” 

O’Rourke began exploring the world of public speaking in college, where he took Argumentation and Debate and began giving extemporaneous speeches in intercollegiate forensics, during which he achieved success in national competitions. 

These experiences fascinated Dr. O’Rourke with the impact of speech and debate in our civic lives and how we can use it to manage and negotiate very conflicting positions. After obtaining both his J.D. and Ph.D. in rhetoric from the University of Oregon and working at a selection of institutions ranging from Furman University to Vanderbilt University, to name a few, Dr. O’Rourke finally made his way to Sewanee in 2015 to help the University fulfill its Quality Enhancement Plan of focusing on rhetoric and improving students’ public speaking skills. As is a distinctive Sewanee trait, O’Rourke now wears many hats on campus, including not only teaching rhetoric and American studies but also serving as the chair of both departments. 

Above all of Dr. O’Rourke’s many accolades, his presence in the classroom and impact on his students’ lives shine the brightest. Sophia Burr (C ’24), who has taken several classes with Dr. O’Rourke and worked closely with him on research regarding the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly during her time at Sewanee, raves about his teaching and his work. “Professor O’Rourke was one of my first professors during my freshman year, and he became my mentor and favorite professor throughout my time at Sewanee,” she said. “Over the years, through our classes, assisting him with research, and countless conversations, as well as the borrowing of books, Doc has played a significant role in deepening my passion for learning and helping me see how the art of rhetoric intersects with various aspects of life. But what sets Doc apart is his dedication to nurturing not only his students’ academic minds but also our personal development, fostering a sense of self and purpose within each of us. His mentorship has left an indelible mark on my Sewanee experience, and I am profoundly grateful for the guidance and encouragement he has provided throughout my journey here.”

Ally McCasland (C ’26) is grateful for the growth she has experienced under Dr. O’Rourke’s guidance and tutelage. “He really, really cares about his students and pushes them way beyond the intellectual boundaries they’ve set up themselves—he wrecks them,” McClasland said. “He said, ‘No, let’s go further,’ and teaches you how to think.” The biggest lesson that McCasland has taken from her time with O’Rourke is that “there’s no point in having ideas if you can’t convey them. No point whatsoever. And that’s what our world is missing. All in all, your utilization of rhetoric is how you bring about change.” 

Dr. Melody Lehn, a former student of O’Rourke at Furman University and his co-director at the Center for Speaking and Listening, is a rhetoric professor who has had the opportunity to interact with Dr. O’Rourke both inside and outside the classroom. Lehn said she has learned and grown under Dr. O’Rourke’s guidance. O’Rourke’s support of “free speech initiatives,” “faculty governance,” and “lifelong learning” are evident in his life. Lehn said, “His classroom was very much a safe space to ask difficult questions, and what he does is he presents you with readings and viewings and assignments that challenge your ability to think hard for yourself and to cultivate your own voice. He’s not interested in rote memorization. He very much comes from a tradition in rhetoric that has to do with close reading.”

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