The Theory of Intellectual Virtues, from "Ethics, Politics and Economics" by Aristotle. 15th century. Author unknown.

Meet the new Head of School, Professor Margaret Cameron

In the midst of her relocation from Canada to commence her appointment as the new Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies (SHAPS), Professor Margaret Cameron took some time out to chat to SHAPS Forum’s Carley Tonoli about her love of philosophy, her academic career, and her excitement about heading up the SHAPS team.

What sparked your love of philosophy?

Weirdly, Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy. I was living on a ‘gap year’ – after a few gap years – in Tuscany, and found the book – the only English-language book in a used bookshop. I read it cover-to-cover, took so many notes, and returned home to complete a degree in the subject.

Who is your favourite philosopher, and, why?

Aristotle, for the depth and breadth of his philosophical work, and for all that it has inspired throughout history and today. This doesn’t mean that I take him to be right about everything, of course!

What inspired you to join the team at SHAPS?

Good question! I wasn’t looking to find a new job opportunity, and life on Vancouver Island could not have been more ideal. But this opportunity came along and, upon reflection, I realised this was the right thing to do at just the right time.

Becoming part of a school that is, without exaggeration, at the heart of the humanities today is very thrilling but also challenging. The challenge comes, mainly, from the politically and socially driven message that university education needs to be, first and foremost, an instrument to getting an immediate, ideally high-paying career. Ideally all education leads to a career, of course, but this one-sided conversation has resulted in an over-commodification of learning and a weakening of awareness about the value of humanities education for our lives. I once had an exchange with a marketing staff member – not here – who, when we tried to put the word ‘human’ on some marketing materials, asked me, “What does ‘human’ have to do with Humanities?” True story. SHAPS is the place to answer that question.

What are you most looking forward to about life at the University of Melbourne?

Getting to know all the talented students and staff, seeing through and supporting their successes.

What are your primary areas of philosophical work?

I work in a variety of areas. A recent research grant has allowed me to move into the area of contemporary metaphysics, but my primary research area, given my training, is medieval philosophy and the history of philosophy.

Really, I’ve been lucky in the places I’ve worked, where interdisciplinarity has been encouraged. This has led to interesting opportunities that I may not otherwise have had, such as a recent joint project on early modern aesthetics. I’ve also worked a lot on the history of the philosophy of language, trying to promote further interest in pre-twentieth-century philosophy of language and mind.

Can you tell me a bit about your career up until now?

I have been very fortunate for the fact that I have been continuously employed as a full-time faculty member in a Philosophy department since 2006, when I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto. I started in New York City at Hunter College at the City University of New York, spent some time at Cambridge University on a research fellowship, then got a position as Canada Research Chair in the Aristotelian tradition at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Each place was entirely different in terms of the student body and faculty expectations! Moving between different institutions has taught me that no process, no system, is fixed and immobile: change – of ideas, of focus, of teaching style, and so on – is always possible.

What has it been like building a career as a woman in philosophy?

Philosophy, as an institution and a discipline, should not be gendered, but it is. Obviously, if you look at the long history of philosophy, it’s made up mainly of males. But there are historical and sociological reasons for this, which can be explained, contextualised, and addressed. There are incredibly inspiring women in philosophy doing their own work, and doing the work for women that came before them – for example the work on early modern philosophers by Lisa Shapiro, Karen Detlefsen, and others.

Like many other women, I’ve experienced gender-based ‘events’, shall we call them, in my career. But it’s becoming a bit more common to talk about them, and to bring bad behaviour out into the light and call it out. It’s not easy. Philosophy is not immune to the rest of the world, many parts of which remain stubbornly sexist (and racist and ableist, etc.).

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Finding a work-life balance. My partner is also a philosopher, and so we have had to adjust the extent to which our professional lives as philosophers and educators bleeds into our ‘out-of-office’ life. Yes, it is true that a philosophical debate about how best to load the new dishwasher can take several hours if not carefully controlled!

What about your greatest achievement?

Finding a work-life balance! Or, perhaps I should say, continuing to work towards finding one. Philosophy, like many other academic disciplines and professions, is difficult to ‘turn off’. With philosophical training, our brains become wired to see the world and every part of it as a philosopher. Is it possible to think otherwise? I don’t think so. But that can make living a philosophical life sometimes exhausting (but also exhilarating). Sometimes a good show on Netflix is just a good show on Netflix, dammit!

What is your fondest memory from your own days as a university student?

Sitting for hours and hours at a pub called ‘Einstein’s’ on College Street in downtown Toronto with my friends in the Philosophy programme, drinking loads of beer and debating about everything. I had – and still have – the reputation for being the one to get people out and then keep them there long after their sensible selves have told them to go home!

What advice would you give aspiring young philosophers?

Read widely. Read everything. The history of philosophy is crucial. Listen to and engage in debates with your professors and peers. Like many other aspects of life, engaging in philosophy is a skill that needs to be practiced with care.

What is the last book you read?

I’ve just finished Seven Fallen Feathers by Canadian investigative journalist Tanya Talaga. It is a sad but very moving account of Indigenous children in northern Canada who cannot access education and so must move ‘south’ to live with other families just to be educated. Sadly, some of them died, and Talaga’s book is about the national and local systems that failed them. Even though the context is Canada, Australians should read this book, which is astonishing and heartbreaking.

What is your strangest personality quirk?

I do not think it is possible for me to talk without using my hands. This has led to countless broken dishes and wine glasses … and my partner telling me to sit on my hands when we are at dinner or there are breakables nearby. But then how I am supposed to eat?!

What do you believe is the key to a successful career in academia?

Well, in truth, I don’t think there is a key, or even a set of keys! But there are things that you can do that can help you prepare for the hurdles and the challenges. First and foremost, be good to people – staff, colleagues, and students. You need to figure out what this means to you and how you can achieve goodness with others, but it is crucial. Academics in many fields are trained to be selfish, in a sense, so that we can keep our heads down, get our papers and books written, and seek out success on a CV. It doesn’t matter how many lines you have on your CV if no one wants to engage with you! So, I’ll leave it at that: be good to people.

Feature image: The Theory of Intellectual Virtues, from a fifteenth-century edition of Aristotle’s Ethics, Politics and Economics. Artist unknown.