The Graduate School's "Best Dissertation in the Arts & Humanities" winner
Last spring, the Graduate School announced the four winners of the annual Best Dissertation Award. The winner of the arts and humanities division was Department of English alumna Elizabeth Weixel (PhD 2009) for her dissertation "The Forest and Social Change in Early Modern English Literature, 1580-1700," with Distinguished McKnight University Professor John Watkins as her adviser.
"It was quite a surprise and an honor," says Weixel, interviewed during summer leave from Western Kentucky University, where she is now Assistant Professor of English.
Professor Watkins was not at all surprised. "Beth is fantastic," he declares emphatically. "She wrote a dissertation centered in the Early Modern period, but it had important resonances for people working on the Middle Ages, people working on the 18th century. She has a lot of stuff there about Medieval romance, but it looks forward to people like Pope. The dissertation was profoundly historical in the way she worked with the forest and the social life of the forest--the forest as a social construction. There was remarkable excellence."
Weixel returns the regard. "It's a privilege to work with John. He knew when to tell me things, when to direct me, and when to just let me figure things out on my own. I really appreciate that he had faith in me."
Weixel was on campus continuing her research, which began as a general interest in forests and trees and took shape through study of A Midsummer Night's Dream. She had learned that the term "forest" in Shakespeare's time didn't necessarily mean a space with trees; it was hunting land set aside for royalty. "I realized I needed to think of it as something that had legal boundaries and provisions for whether you could access it and what you could do in it." That knowledge changed how she thought about the play. "I'm interested in the ways that the power of the aristocracy was waning, albeit over a long period," she says, "and how the forest seemed to reflect that as different characters from different social ranks struggle within the forest."
She has since spent hours reading through period forest manuals, grounding her analysis of Dream, As You Like It, Milton's Paradise Regained, poems about country houses, and the sixth book of Spenser's Faerie Queene, a portion of which is published in the current Spenser Studies (Vol. 25), her first publication.