Remote learning stories: Classics student makes her case about a term from Plato at virtual North American academic conference

Meghan ONeill
Meghan ONeill
Image credit - Courtesy photo

One single classical Greek term has continually perplexed and intrigued Meghan ONeill, so much so that she decided she had to dissect its meaning.

In fact, ONeill, a classics major, has for two years mulled the rarely used term regarding gender and sexuality, "hetairistriai," which she said was first seen in "The Symposium" by Plato.

She wrote a paper on her interpretation that went through a blind peer-review process before it was accepted for presentation at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South conference that was scheduled for March in Alabama.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. First, the conference for the organization that covers 32 states and parts of Canada was moved to a virtual event in May. And with time on her hands after the semester ended, ONeill continued to ponder the meaning of this term that had fascinated her for so long — and decided to rewrite most of her paper.

ONeill received positive feedback for the presentation over Zoom that lasted about 15 minutes. The title of her paper, which was read to students, faculty members and prominent scholars, was "Women Turned Toward Women: Linguistic Reflections of Gender, Sex, and Agency in Plato's Symposium 191d-e."

ONeill said her goal was to give a fuller picture of what the term might mean after seeing attempts to do so that left her wanting more.

The intellectual rigor of so deeply contemplating one term is clear, but ONeill said the exercise helps demonstrates the beauty of the discipline. Pulling even one word apart provides insight into history, linguistics, humanities and more.

ONeill arrived at Grand Valley as a music major but said once she took an honors classics course, she was hooked.

"Basically from the first day of that class I just totally fell in love with it," ONeill said. "It's hard to articulate why but I think it's probably the interdisciplinary nature and the breadth of things you get to look at and the scope of it. It's just almost magical."

ONeill is particularly passionate about providing a contemporary feminist lens to her studies.

"Contemporary resonance" is an important part of classics studies and how the discipline continually stays compelling, said Melissa Morison, department chair.

"That's the great thing about this discipline. It's not just studying things that are dead," Morison said. "It's taking these fresh young minds and giving them the chance to find the new thing." 

Morison said classics faculty members work closely with students to find opportunities such as conferences to help them expand their academic training, one aspect of delivering the personalized, high-impact learning that Grand Valley values.

"Meghan is exactly the kind of student we're trying to celebrate in the Classics Department," Morison said. "We try to create a context in which we have this kind of intellectual versatility that can really thrive. And with our individual attention, they can take a deep dive into a single word with a cosmic meaning and take it as far as they want."

For more about Grand Valley's Classics Department, visit




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