Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies Holds Arts & Letters Salon

Celebrating Doctor of Letters students who have defended their dissertations

April 2024 – Drew University’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies held its spring Arts & Letters Salon, an annual event celebrating select Doctor of Letters (DLitt) students who have successfully defended their dissertations in the current academic year.

The theme, Bearing Witness and Paying Tribute, was a complex uncovering of the dissertation topics featuring DLitt student panelists Andrew Forrest, Stefanie Shapiro, Georgeanna Spagnolo, Suzanne Vrancken, and Kate Zimmerbaum.

The evening was moderated by affiliate professors Liana Piehler and Laura Winters.

Arts & Letters is an interdisciplinary graduate liberal studies program offering courses in seven concentrations that build on Drew’s strengths in the humanities, the creative/performing arts, religious studies, and teacher education. Through small seminar-style classes that meet in person, online, and in hybrid formats, the program enables students to customize each course of study to meet their individual goals. 

”I’ve had such a great experience at Drew; the program is very unique in its interdisciplinary approach,” said Forrest. “It really helped me as a student be able to write a life’s work.”

His dissertation, entitled “Meanwhile the World Goes On: Provincetown’s Place in an Age of Trauma,” delves into the natural world, trauma theory, and environmental criticism. “I allowed my life to speak a little bit and see what arose from that.”

As a single parent trying to reclaim her identity, Shapiro enrolled in the DLitt program to explore her love of writing. Her creative dissertation, “Finding Home: A Personal Quest for Self, Belonging and Body Acceptance,” is a multi-genre approach outlining her identities as a woman and mother and her childhood experiences through short stories, poetry, and memoir. “The experience was very cathartic, healing, and magical.”

My experience at Drew has been phenomenal—inspiring, captivating, fun, interesting,” said Shapiro. “It’s bittersweet to graduate, I have learned so much.”

“Reclaiming graduate education is healing,” responded Winters. “This is what our program is about in so many ways. Everyone finds their own path.”

Zimmerbaum completed her undergraduate work in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. While at Drew, a History of Northern Ireland course brought added insight to the period and helped reveal her dissertation topic, “An Extremist and Aesthetics of Excess.” 

“It was both a revelatory and disturbing experience as it gave context to the experience the friends I had made went through during this time,” said Zimmerbaum. “It compelled me to learn more. I loved my topic from beginning to end. Find something you care about in your dissertation, it’s so rewarding.”

Vrancken wrote historical fiction for her creative dissertation to pay homage to her mother, who was raised in a coal mining camp in West Virginia. “Taking diverse courses really helped me round out my ideas and research. I was exposed to many schools of thought.”

“Finding your dissertation topic comes from a whole spectrum of ways,” said Peihler.

“The deeper I got into the research, the more inspired I was,” said Spagnolo, whose dissertation commenced as a literary study and evolved into also embracing and evaluating art.

“Reading is vital to the dissertation process,” acknowledged Piehler. “The dissertation does not end at graduation. It’s an evolving story if you want it to be.”

“It’s wonderful to hear about the diversity of dissertation topics, approaches, and experiences, as well as the different types of dissertations that can come out of the program,” said Leslie Sprout, program director and professor of music. “The core of this program is the way the different disciplines cross pollinate with one another, and the ways in which the students and faculty work together towards common goals.”

Student presentations were followed by a Q&A session and open discussion on the dissertation process with the audience of faculty, students, alums, and prospective students.

The Arts & Letters program, celebrating its 50th anniversary, has grown and undergone a series of innovations, currently offering the Master of Letters (MLitt) and DLitt degrees. “We explore what we would argue is the most important subject of all, the human experience, together as colleagues in an atmosphere of wonder, civility, humor, and seriousness of purpose, all to truly better ourselves as human beings and citizens of the world,” said Bill Rogers, adjunct professor and retired associate dean of the Caspersen School.

The event was made possible by the generous support of Werner Kofler T’03, G’05. The Werner Kofler Arts & Letters Endowment was endowed in 2011 to provide a Doctor of Letters discussion group for the Arts & Letters program in the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies.

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