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Hofstra University Honors College

In Focus

Nikki Melina Constantine Bell
Newington, Connecticut

Why did you choose to come to Hofstra University for your undergraduate degree?  

Hofstra recruited at my high school, and told me there was a likelihood I would receive financial aid.  My mother did not attend college and my father went to a nearby teacher’s college, so I was in some respects like a first generation college student. 

Before my second semester at Hofstra, I received a fee bill for spring.  I was floored, because I thought the fall tuition payment constituted payment for the entire year.  I thought I needed to withdraw and attend a college in Connecticut where I could receive in-state tuition.  I was enrolled in a political science course that was team taught by Dr. Bernard Firestone and Dr. Mark Landis, which I enjoyed very much and made me decide to major in Political Science.  Professors Firestone and Landis attempted to recruit me as a major, and at that time I informed them about my tuition struggle, but thanks to them, I did not leave Hofstra.  They arranged a meeting where my mom and I met with officials and demonstrated our need for additional financial aid and Hofstra granted me.  Between the extra aid and graduating a semester early, I was able to finish at Hofstra without too crushing a debt burden.

Tell us about how you became interested in philosophy.

I had a philosophy and literature course in high school that got me interested in philosophy, so I signed up for a course during my first semester at Hofstra.  It was Introduction to Philosophy with Senior Associate Dean Terry Godlove.  I remember reading Descartes, Immanuel Kant and David Hume, and that it focused on epistemology rather than taking the historical survey approach I expected.  I always looked forward to going to class, and was disappointed when class ended.  I still consider Terry Godlove my teaching role model.  I felt he really listened to what students were saying and could make sense of our less-than-articulate attempts at explaining our intuitions.  Because he took us seriously, we developed confidence in our ability to think.  We might actually know and understand things, however inchoately.  The idea that I had the ability actually to get somewhere made me want to work harder to understand what we were studying.  I felt like I was doing some of the work of figuring it out, rather than simply ingesting, processing, and recording information.  And now one of my main goals as a teacher is to make my students feel confident, competent and encourage them to do the work themselves.  Most students respond well to this approach and learn a lot.

Tell us a little bit about your role in the philosophy club at Hofstra and how that continued to keep your interest in that field.

I began attending Philosophy Club right away, because I liked my Introduction to Philosophy class so much.  I took immediately to the majors who ran and attended the club, and it became the center of my friend group at Hofstra.  They are all really wonderful people, who like me, were at university to learn, think and develop their intellectual capacities, but were not one-dimensional “nerds.”  They are social and fun as well as smart and thoughtful.

I was first elected treasurer in my sophomore year, and then president junior and senior year.  We met on Thursday evenings to discuss a topic, and then usually went to Pendleton’s for some appetizers and drinks and to have a less topic-directed, but usually still philosophical, conversation.  Often we came up with the next week’s topic at these social gatherings.  It was a lot of fun coming up with topics and seeing what sorts of directions they would take us in once all the different participants’ points of view were in play.  I also remember liking to play devil’s advocate and argue for outrageous positions that I didn’t believe, just to see if their refutation could be justified.  Sometimes I frightened myself when I realized the flimsy justifications I had for some of my beliefs!  However, even that was a good learning experience.

In your long list of higher education degrees, how did these experiences and credentials shape your life?

Since I was a child, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.  I never felt like there was enough money, and that seemed to me like a profession that was highly paid enough that I would never have to worry about money again, and it seemed a good way to use my native talents.  I really enjoyed law school because I found the development of common law fascinating.  I learned the legitimate and sensible reasons for all of those things non-lawyers think are absolutely crazy (like the evidence rules in detective and police shows, or the fact that a landowner can, having done nothing wrong, lose a lawsuit for a lot of money to a trespasser, or that people can get punitive damages in huge amounts in a tort suit).  There was a lot of philosophy involved in the evolution of the different legal rules.  I became interested in distributive justice in property and tort classes, but it was my health care law class with Professor Fran Miller that made me passionate about the fair distribution of health care resources.  I came to realize just how haphazardly and arbitrarily we arrived at our rules governing who gets what medical care, how many counterproductive incentives are built into the medical system, and how perverse it is that “health care” and “medical care” are often thought of as synonyms in our consumer-oriented culture.  At the time, the Clintons were developing their health care reform plan, and we were assessing its strengths and weaknesses, and seeing that it was probably doomed to fail, trying to figure out what sort of system might actually have a chance.  I decided I wanted to specialize in health care law, which was a particular field, and I entered Boston University’s dual J.D./M.P.H. program.

After earning both degrees, I worked in a large law firm in Boston, in their health care practice group.  Most of the work involved representing clients (mostly doctors and hospitals) in contract negotiations (provider service contracts, sales of physician practices and nursing homes, and so forth) and assisting clients in ensuring compliance with government regulations (federal reimbursement rules and fraud and abuse rules, state regulations regarding licensure, reimbursement by private insurers, etc.).  I did not feel that there was much opportunity for creativity, and there was certainly no opportunity to develop policy.  Much of what I did was perfunctory.  The task that required the most judgment was to predict how courts would interpret particular rules, to advise clients how to behave to conform with the legal requirements.  Although I did a lot of this research, it was mostly the senior partners who made this assessment.  Even though I saw the possibility that this work would become more creative and interesting as I became more senior, it did not hold my interest enough that I was willing to put in the outrageously long hours.  I also missed spending time with my spouse and being able to plan annual vacations or take a weekend off to visit family without feeling as though I was jeopardizing my career.

While pursuing your joint degree at Boston University in Public Health and Law, did you ever think you’d get back to philosophy?

No.  It was when I decided I wanted to leave law that I began considering my options.  I read a few career guidance books.  What I discovered based on these profiles is that an academic career brought together most of what I liked in a job, and omitted most of what I disliked.  I found myself interested in the philosophical questions, even in law, so I started trying to determine what would be involved in going to graduate school in philosophy.  To my amazement, I learned that there are graduate stipends, and that unlike law or medical school, one does not need to incur significant debt in a good graduate program.  Tuition is typically paid by the program, and there is a modest stipend for living expenses, often with some teaching obligations.  So when I found out I would not incur additional debt, I began applying to graduate schools.

The first time around, I did not get into any graduate programs I really liked, but I did get into Tufts’s masters program, which is an excellent program.  The financial aid package required me to serve as a teaching assistant.  It was in that capacity that I learned I really enjoyed working with students and that I was good at explaining material in a way students could understand.  This impression was reinforced in my Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania, where I had an opportunity to develop my own syllabus and teach my own introductory philosophy course as a graduate instructor.  Because it was my own course, I could use the Socratic model of asking students questions and guiding them as they came up with the ideas and thought through the problems themselves.  I liked this much better than being a teaching assistant for a professor who used a lecture model of teaching.

When I applied for jobs, I was hoping to find a small liberal arts college.  Washington and Lee University, where I am now, was one of my top choices because it is a small liberal arts university with a great reputation.  I was a bit worried about moving to rural Virginia, since I had always lived in the northeast and always in urban areas, but I have had a good experience here.  The professors and students come from all over the country, so it has a more cosmopolitan feel than I was expecting.  It provides good professional support not only for teaching but also for scholarship.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve applied for and received a summer grant for research each summer.  I received a special grant to develop a course, and grants are available for resources that enhance courses.  Also, faculty may attend up to two professional conferences each year at the university’s expense, and there is a junior leave program that gave me an entire fall term break from teaching to work on my scholarship without any reduction in pay.

How did you get involved in competitive bodybuilding?

I began weight training in 1996, when my spouse and I moved across the street from a YMCA.  My father is a physical education teacher, and every year since I was a small child our family, and my father’s friends and their families, gathered for what we call the Summer Games.  Participants earn points for each event: speed of a mile run and a 100 yard swim, the number of pushups one can do in a minute, situps in two minutes, bench presses with a given weight (full body weight for men, 75% weight for women), chin-ups, and the amount of time for which one can juggle three objects.  I always had a hard time with the bench press, and was tired of my sister, who is seven years younger, always beating me by significant margins at the Games.  I began strength training so I wouldn’t embarrass myself at the annual Summer Games.

I discovered that I really liked weight training.  I also began to run in hope of becoming lighter, so I would have to move less weight.  I began weight training with a whole-body circuit on machines, one set of each exercise for 8-12 repetitions, three times a week, and I ran three other days.  I really liked the “pump”—the feeling of muscles that are full of blood, and I liked watching my strength increase.  I also noticed changes in my body shape that I really liked; for the first time I grew to like the shape of my legs, and my abs became defined quite easily.  I also had an easier time maintaining a healthy weight.  So I continued to weight train.

When I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, during the very first year of my Ph.D. program, I was training in the gym when a huge, muscular man named David Sylvester approached me and asked if I was going to compete in the upcoming bodybuilding contest, Mr./Ms. Penn, an annual fundraiser for the women’s track team.  I answered him that I was no bodybuilder, a word I associated with really big men like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He convinced me to attend the informational meeting, which I decided to do mostly because I wanted to meet someone I could train with at the gym.  I did meet someone, Jamie Scarlett, who is a very close friend to this day, and we did train together.  We also entered our first Mr./Ms. Penn together, after David offered to train me for free and he and the track coach, the charismatic and inspiring Tony Tenisci, talked me into competing.  My main objective was not to embarrass myself.

But I won.  After my second win the following year, I began helping coach the other competitors and I entered regional contests in the northeast.  The first year I coached Mr./Ms. Penn I was also taking my first Women’s Studies course, which was cross-listed with philosophy and taught by a philosophy professor, Milton Meyer, at the University of Pennsylvania.   I was just developing an awareness of how gender pervades, and in many ways reduces the quality of, all of our lives.  A reporter from a local news channel was backstage to interview the competitors, and while I was in the women’s dressing area helping the women to prepare to go onstage, she came to interview some of them.  They had been training and dieting very hard, and were very excited about competing and about being interviewed by a television reporter.  Her first question:  “Do you realize that you are setting feminism back decades by dancing around in a bikini onstage?”  Outraged, I demanded to know whether she had asked the men that question.  I had been thinking that these women were doing something that really transgressed gender norms and empowered them when they built strength and visible muscle, and she was unfairly, I thought, undermining their sense of achievement.

But it got me thinking:  does women’s bodybuilding really empower women, as I thought, or does it sexually objectify them, as she thought?  And I started doing the research as part of an independent study project on how the human female body has been characterized, experienced and conceptualized by both women and men.  What most surprised me is that there is quite a bit of academic research on bodybuilding, and a significant number of female professors who participate in bodybuilding and strength sports. The independent study project, after years of further work, was published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport under the title "Strength in Muscle and Beauty in Integrity: Building a Body for Her."  I also have an essay in the forthcoming book Strength and Philosophy (Edgar Mellon Press) titled "Is Women's Bodybuilding Unfeminine?"

I kept placing second in bodybuilding competitions for the five consecutive years I competed, 1999-2004.  This (2009) was the year I finally broke through, winning a first place in my first contest sponsored by a natural, drug-tested organization, the International Natural Bodybuilding Federation (INBF).  This win qualified me as a World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) pro.  I will appear in one of the next two issues (August or November) of Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness Magazine.

Nikki Melina Constantine Bell

University of Pennsylvania
Ph.D. Philosophy May 2005
Tufts University
M.A. Philosophy May 1999
Boston University School of Public Health
M.P.H. (Master of Public Health) January 1995
Boston University School of Law
J.D. cum laude May 1994
Hofstra University
B.A. Philosophy, magna cum laude December 1990