Elizabeth Hill is a second-year PhD student in philosophy, hailing from the United States. She holds a BA in music from Midwestern State University and an MA in philosophy from Gonzaga University. Elizabeth came to Newfoundland in 2017 to join the PhD program. Her primary area of research is in ancient philosophy, specifically Plato and the Platonic tradition, and she also considers philosophy of sex and gender as an area of competency. She is a member of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, and has presented her research at conferences in Canada, the U.S., Belgium, and Germany. When she is not studying, she loves cooking and hiking.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
Prior to applying, I had already heard that Memorial University had a good program for continental philosophy. However, my research is primarily in ancient philosophy, so I wasn’t sure if I would apply. But, when I met my (now) advisor, Dr. Seamus O’Neill, at a conference in Seattle, I knew that Memorial was going to go on my application list. From discussing the program with him, I felt it would be a good fit and that he would be a great advisor. So much of one’s success in a PhD program has to do with finding the right person with whom to work. Also, the location was a huge draw. Who can pass up four years of experiencing Newfoundland! It sounded like a great adventure.
What drew you to explore philosophy originally?
My journey is a bit odd. My bachelor’s degree is actually in music. I was a pianist. Part of my program required that I take classes in music history and music literature, and it was really through these classes that I became more exposed to the history of ideas. I found that I was a lot more passionate about tracing the history of thinking about music, its relationships with politics and religion, and its impact on society than I was about spending time in the practice room. So, I enrolled in my first philosophy class. It was basically love at first sight, and I added a philosophy minor to my degree. After graduating, I applied to master’s programs in philosophy. I ended up attending Gonzaga University, and that is where I really became passionate about ancient philosophy. Looking back, and knowing myself better now, I think it was the only thing that made sense for me to do.
Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?
My research has been primarily focused on Plato. More specifically, I’ve been really invested in understanding and working with Plato’s “erotic” dialogues and philosophy. As scandalous as that sounds, it really just means that I work with Plato’s philosophy of desire. Eros in Greek essentially means desire. It was typically used to denote sexual and romantic desire, but in Platonic philosophy, the meaning is broadened to encompass the human’s desire for knowledge of ultimate truth and reality, which is initiated through her relationships with other persons. My advisor primarily works on Neoplatonism (the tradition of Platonic philosophy in late antiquity), and so I’ve begun to work more with some Neoplatonic thinkers as well, Proclus in particular. My current project focuses on desire in Platonic and Neoplatonic theories of evil. I’m currently interested in the function of desire in the metaphysics and theodicy (theory of evil) of Proclus and how it was influenced by Plato and Aristotle. I’ll be presenting a paper on this at a conference in Ottawa this month.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor bring to their role as your advisor and mentor?
So much! I feel that I’ve been incredibly blessed with a fantastic advisor. Dr. O’Neill is dedicated to the success of all of his students, and he is always available to look over my writing, talk about new ideas, help me refine a paper topic, and keep me on schedule in my program. He’s committed to finding practical ways to navigate the grad student lifestyle and professional environment, so he’s always ready to offer helpful tips for how to get work done and stay sane. He is passionate about cultivating students’ ability to write well, and he always reads (and re-reads) my big projects and gives me lots of detailed comments. He’s also passionate about the philosophy that we do and helps me work through the complexities of the texts that we’re dealing with. I’m also lucky to have Dr. Suma Rajiva from philosophy and Dr. Brad Levett from Classics on my dissertation team. They’re all incredible, supportive mentors and brilliant scholars.
How does studying in the humanities and social sciences affect your worldview?
Tremendously! Something that I have been thinking a lot about lately is that, after studying in the humanities, one realizes that things are always more complicated than they appear. We are all always approaching the world from a viewpoint that we have spent our whole lives cultivating, often without intentionally doing so, and, accordingly, we see the answers to various issues as obvious without realizing that they may not be obvious or even reasonable to someone else with a different perspective. A seemingly simple answer may not be so simple for someone from a different culture, gender, class, or country. It may be simple for us because of privilege, or merely because we don’t actually understand all of the complex layers of belief that inform our own navigation of the world. I think the humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, can be really valuable for their ability to make us stop and think about other ways to view the world. That’s not to say that everyone is right, or that no one is right, but it’s more to say that there is incredible value in being able to hold your own world with an open hand and be willing to change with new information. This requires one to see the viewpoints of other people as already filled with new information that we can all share if we aren’t so afraid of being wrong. I think it’s really important to keep this in mind in our world today, where everything is so polarized.
What, in your opinion, is one thing Newfoundland and Labrador could do to make the province more attractive for young people and/or immigrants/mainland Canadians?
As a come-from-away, I feel that I am often trying to appreciate Newfoundland on its own terms, so I can’t say I’ve spent much time thinking about this question. I can say that the things I’ve found most difficult to deal with are (1) the length and changeability of winter weather. Finding ways to help people get out more would be great. For example, while there are a lot of fun things going on downtown in the winter, you often have to be “in the know” to find them. (2) The cost of living, mostly groceries. Compared to other places I have lived, a simple trip to the grocery store is quite expensive. Many of the local stores have student discounts on certain days of the week, and I think making that information more available would be really helpful for students and families who are trying to make ends meet. (3) Public transportation. This isn’t an issue for me, as my partner and I share a car, but I hear many of my peers comment on the unreliability of public transportation, which I think can make it even harder to get out and stay mentally well during the long winter.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement (and how it might relate to your studies)?
My off-campus activities still essentially revolve around philosophy. I take part in a weekly event called “Jockey Club,” which has been a staple of the philosophy department’s off-campus life for decades. It is basically a reading group that meets at the Peter Easton pub once a week. It’s a great way to get in some readings that might push me out of my comfort zone, as literally anything in philosophy could be proposed for the group to read. This past semester, I also organized a similar off-campus group that meets a couple of times a month for women in philosophy at MUN. The group consists of women from the department at all levels (undergrad, grad, majors, minors, and those attending any philosophy classes at all). We get together and discuss the situation of women in philosophy, who currently comprise about 20-30 percent of philosophy students, grad students, and faculty. Our goal is to improve gender parity and diversity in the philosophy department at MUN, and to just have a space where we can come together, read philosophy, and support one another. In fact, if anyone reading this is interested, shoot me an email and I would be happy to send you more information! The group is inclusive of all cis, trans, and non-binary women and femmes in philosophy.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
I like a lot of things, but I would say the number one thing I love is the support system I have from not only my advisor and my dissertation committee, but also from my fellow PhD students. I know that if I am really stressing out about a project, I always have a friend that would look it over for me and talk me through it, as I would do for them. If I am having a bad day, I can talk to someone about it, and if I need a study break, there is always someone to make a coffee run with me. I think grad school can be really stressful and isolating. It’s easy to get bogged down with work and not talk to anyone. It’s something we all do. But I really love the fact that we also have people we can turn to when we need support, and I feel like I have that as a grad student at MUN. Also, I love the Munnels. If making a coffee run from the office to the library coffee shop involved going outside when it’s blowing snow with gale force winds, I would be routinely undercaffeinated.
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
My hope is to get a university job teaching philosophy. I would love to stay in Canada to do that, but really, I will be happy anywhere that lets me teach and research philosophy for a living. University life is where I feel most at home.