From Greek armor to ox skulls
How Loyola University Maryland’s Honors Program inspires students to take an interdisciplinary journey
February 22, 2017
Last summer while Calix O’Hara was studying in Rome, he visited the Ara Pacis, an ancient monumental altar. Inside the Loyola University Maryland student saw the Boucrania relief sculptures, which portray how after the Romans sacrificed oxen, they displayed the ox skulls with gilded horns and draped in wreaths of flowers.
The image stayed in O’Hara’s mind as he began his senior year at Loyola. O’Hara is majoring in history and classical civilization with a minor in medieval studies, but as a student in Loyola’s Honors Program, O’Hara is required to take seminar courses outside his major. So he enrolled in a biology seminar and found himself delving into the history of the development of forensic technology.
In that class, taught by David Rivers, Ph.D., professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland, O’Hara learned about sarcophagus beetles, which eat the flesh off of dead animals.
“That sparked an idea,” said O’Hara, who started thinking about the slaughterhouse his family owns in Oregon. “That day I texted my uncle and asked if he could send us some beef heads. And he said he could, but the cows that they get are usually without horns for the safety of the people working with them.”
So O’Hara put that idea on hold. After all, he had plenty to focus on during his senior year, especially as he planned out his graduate studies after graduation. And senior year has offered its own challenges, particularly with the dynamic courses the Honors Program offers.
When O’Hara came to Loyola from Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Calif., he thought he might major in engineering. He knew, however, that he wanted to benefit from a Jesuit education, and he wanted a program that allowed him to explore multiple disciplines.
O’Hara was accepted into the Honors Program, which is designed to accommodate the requirements of all majors, but offers a distinctive curriculum and activities to students with superior academic records.
“The core for Loyola Honors students is no larger than the regular core, really,” said Joseph Walsh, Ph.D., professor of classics. “But it is a different path, one with particular emphasis on discussion and intense engagement with important and powerful texts.”
Walsh co-directs the Loyola Honors Program with Gayla McGlamery, Ph.D., professor of English.
Embracing the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis, focusing on the whole person, the Honors Program helps and challenges students as they work to refine and deepen the ability to think critically, to discern the true and the good, to respond to the beautiful, and to explore the intersection of faith and reason.
“The Program aims to help our students raise their game, intellectually and personally, and so to have the tools to be a force for reason and decency in their later lives,” said Walsh, adding, “A good deal of fun is had on the way.”
Around 5 percent of Loyola University Maryland’s 4,000 undergraduate students are enrolled in the Honors Program, benefiting from an enriched extracurricular student experience. They participate in an extensive program of cultural events, discussions, social occasions, and excursions within and beyond the Baltimore-Washington area.
But it’s the intellectual engagement that sets the Honors Program apart and makes it so appealing to incoming first-year students. Participating in small classes which emphasize effective speaking and writing, Honors students engage in a dialogue with great thinkers, writers, and artists—from ancient to modern—in order to understand how ideas have shaped, and continue to shape, the world in which we live.
“Students get a sense of the development of our civilization, but also what that development can tell us about who we are today,” said Walsh. “The goal is to make sense of both the past and the present, and how they interconnect.”
Through their classes, Honors students gain a strong foundation in the liberal arts and discern their individual vocations as they learn across disciplines.
“I’ve always had very diverse interests. The sciences have interested me and continue to interest me,” said O’Hara, whose trip to Rome was sponsored by Loyola’s Center for the Humanities and who also earned one of Loyola’s prestigious Hauber Summer Research Fellowships. He worked alongside an engineering major in Loyola’s Donnelly Science Center conducting research on the efficacy of Greek linen armor. “I’ve always sort of worked between the two. I came to Loyola knowing I’d probably at least minor in history, and I found that my home was in the humanities.”
As O’Hara continued his studies this semester, his uncle on the West Coast was doing some research. Somehow he managed to find two bull’s heads with their horns still attached. On the last Friday in January, O’Hara received a notification saying he had a package waiting for him in the campus mailroom. In fact, he had two packages—each about 3 feet wide, 3 feet tall, and 3 feet deep. Each held an ox head.
“The people behind the counter asked me, ‘What exactly did you order?’ and I looked at them said, ‘Cow heads.’”
O’Hara carried the packages one at a time to the classics department, where he opened them and found two large freezer bags. He took them across campus to the biology department where Rivers helped him set them up with the sarcophagus beetles.
“He’s completely on board,” O’Hara said of the entomologist.
The beetles will work on the skulls for at least a month.
“Apparently the bugs don’t like fat very much cause there’s no protein in it, there’s no nutrition for them. The fat will be largely untouched,” O’Hara explained.
“We’ll wash [each skull] in some diluted ascetic acid to scatter the remains off. And then we’ll place it outside in the sun for a couple weeks. This will let it bleach a little bit, and that will also air it out so the bones won’t start rotting. Once it’s aired out, we’ll apply a shellac, and we’ll gild the horns with some gold foil.”
Then the skulls will hang in the classics department lounge, which a group of classics students recently repainted with murals that evoke antiquity but also the contemporary life of the department.
That will be a proud day for O’Hara. And his family back in San Jose? They will be proud, too.
“They’re kind of used to my antics. I really like recreating things from the past,” said O’Hara, whose twin sister attends Gonzaga University.
Back at home he’s a hobbyist blacksmith who has dabbled in carpentry and leatherwork—and has treated goat skin to make a sheet of paper.
“You can learn so much about the objects of the past by recreating them.”