Lec­turer of English Mathhew Mehan teaches at the Kirby Center. Matthew Mehan | Courtesy

While teaching “Hamlet” to college stu­dents in the Wash­ington-Hillsdale Internship Program, Lec­turer of English Matthew Mehan is writing the book he wishes Hamlet had read as a kid.

Titled “Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals” (or “M5” for short), the book fea­tures 26 col­or­fully-illus­trated mon­sters with their own poems, one for each letter of the alphabet. Layered with meaning rich in clas­sical and Christian tra­dition, the book should teach children about the liberal arts and offer them a way to cope with dif­fi­culties in life better than Hamlet did, Mehan said. Adults will have plenty to wrangle with, too.

“Lit­er­ature lets you pull back and see things as a whole,” Mehan said, noting that it cul­ti­vates imag­i­na­tions that determine how people deal with life.

Mehan’s phi­losophy is con­sistent with his vision for teaching English in the middle of pol­itics-frenzied Wash­ington, D.C. He said the political sphere is an important place to be, but it’s easy to “get lost in the weeds” if one loses sight of the big picture.

“Lit­er­ature and beauty are a part of becoming wise,” he said. “That’s some­thing Hillsdale wants to offer here in Wash­ington.”

As the Worsham Teaching Fellow at the Allan P. Kirby Center, Mehan has been teaching an English class for Hillsdale College since the spring of 2015. He used to teach an American lit­er­ature class, and now he teaches the con­ti­nental lit­er­ature class that ful­fills a core requirement for stu­dents, many of whom intern for policy think tanks or the gov­ernment during their semesters of WHIP.

“A lot of people on WHIP aren’t English majors,” noted Bert Hasler ’15, WHIP director and a former student of Mehan’s. “But it’s important to read the classics and great books, and Mehan inspires that in a lot of stu­dents.”

On the first day of class this semester, Mehan told stu­dents, “In order to have a healthy pol­itics, you have to have a healthy poetics.”

He calls that his motto.

For Mehan, cul­ti­vating a “healthy poetics” for people in pol­itics extends beyond lec­tures in the basement of the Kirby Center. On several occa­sions, Mehan has led a Sat­urday seminar at the Kirby Center for young pro­fes­sionals to come discuss lit­er­ature, as he did recently on “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” And some­times, he leads one of the regular “Coffee with the Classics” reading groups that Kirby orga­nizes in the US Capitol.

It’s an oppor­tunity to help young pro­fes­sionals “see their culture, their tra­dition” and “refine their ‘good mother wit,’ as Chaucer put it,” Mehan said.

Although he has his Master of English and his Ph.D. in lit­er­ature, Mehan studied pol­itics as an under­graduate. His ability to bridge pol­itics and English is part of the reason the college hired him, said Matthew Spalding, the college’s asso­ciate vice pres­ident and dean of edu­cation pro­grams at the Kirby Center.

“His approach is very con­sistent with the Hillsdale view of things,” Spalding said. “The way he looks at lit­er­ature and its rela­tionship to pol­itics is very con­sistent with how we approach the question. He’s inter­ested in the great writings that have to do with states­manship.”

Mehan met Spalding through D.C. con­nec­tions and knew several Hillsdale pro­fessors before joining Hillsdale’s faculty; he took classes at the Uni­versity of Dallas under Hillsdale’s pol­itics pro­fessors Thomas West and Ronald Pestritto and Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Classics Grace West. There, Mehan also became close friends with Pro­fessor of English Steve Smith, who was a graduate student at UD while Mehan was in undergrad.

Looking for someone to teach an English class that would help stu­dents fulfill core require­ments, Spalding said he knew Mehan would be a good fit.

“I wanted to have a local person who could teach lit­er­ature and, more broadly, human­ities, because that’s an important com­ponent of learning about pol­itics and states­manship,” Spalding said.

Senior Macy Mount, a pol­itics major who took Mehan’s class while doing WHIP last spring, attested to Mehan’s ability to connect English and pol­itics. For example, Mehan had the class read Machi­avelli and Cicero while studying “Hamlet,” showing them the political ele­ments in Shake­speare.

“He never tried to force the political element out of Shake­speare, but because we were reading the other works alongside, we sort of nat­u­rally had to see it,” Mount said.

Hasler remem­bered Mehan’s ability to make abstract con­cepts palatable.

“I thought he was the smartest pro­fessor I’d ever had,” Hasler said, adding that the class inspired him (a finance major) to read more lit­er­ature. “His way of con­necting things was so intel­ligent; he had a unique ability to take a high concept and bring it down to our level.”

Mount agreed, noting that Mehan saw the inte­gration of the liberal arts into every aspect of life.

“The class kind of changed the way I view every­thing,” she said.” He has an incredible way of applying the liberal arts and the good, the true, and the beau­tiful to every single thing we talked about. Every time we ‘got off topic,’ we were never really off topic.”

Mehan is in tune with pop culture, Mount said. One time, she remem­bered, the class talked about Eminem as a poet; another time, a classmate brought up Kendrick Lamar’s new album, and Mehan lis­tened to it so he could discuss it with them in class.

College stu­dents find him cool, but Mehan still “com­mands respect,” Hasler said, noting that Mehan could trust stu­dents to do take-home exams because they honored his rules. He’s also relatable: He even hosted a pizza party for the class with his whole family at the end of the semester, Hasler recounted.

Mount likewise remem­bered the class going out to dinner with Mehan and his wife, and she said she would email Mehan for extracur­ricular advice. She admired Mehan’s ability to inte­grate idea not only between dif­ferent areas of study — like pol­itics and lit­er­ature — but between aca­d­emics and the real world, she said.

“He could really take a lot of the ideals we talk about at Hillsdale and apply them to real life.”