Students from CUI, Pepperdine University and Fresno Pacific University (FPU) presented original research based on core texts and great books to faculty and peers in an online conference in February. The conference was organized by Dr. C.J. Armstrong, a professor in the History department and Christ College, and director of the CUI Honors Program, and faculty members from Pepperdine and FPU. All three universities are members of the Association of Core Texts and Courses (ACTC), which promotes the use of core texts and great books in college curricula. CUI provost Scott Ashmon serves on the ACTC board.
“It was a very successful conference with wonderful papers,” says Armstrong. “To see students listen to each other, challenge each other and encourage each other was iron sharpening iron. They were encouraged to see people at other universities reading and engaging with the same texts.”
Tuan Hoang, associate professor in the great books program at Pepperdine, says his students gained much by writing and speaking about their analysis of a core text at the online conference.
“They especially valued the exchange of ideas during Q-and-A sessions which followed every presentation, and the chance to learn how to respond on-the-spot to questions about their own presentations,” Hoang says.
For many of the students, this was their first taste of scholarship outside the classroom. Each worked with a faculty mentor, which Armstrong calls “one of most invaluable experiences of all, and the heart and soul of liberal arts research.” Students selected topics involving the writings of Aristotle, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf, to name a few.
Kaylee de la Motte, a rising senior at CUI, presented research connecting toxic stress levels in the brain with the breakdown of the family structure in the U.S. in the last half-century.
“The text I started with was by C. Wright Mills called the Sociological Imagination [published in 1959],” she says. “He invites readers to acknowledge how their personal struggles reflect a shared social and historical context. He gives examples why personal struggles are actually social problems.”
De la Motte examined how lower overall levels of maternal care have produced higher society-wide toxic stress levels in children. Her presentation looked at studies of rat pups’ brains in the presence or absence of maternal care. Lack of maternal care caused brains to devote more resources to dealing with toxic stress responses, she says.
Her point: children feeling higher levels of toxic stress due to insufficient maternal care are experiencing “a biological response due to a sociological problem,” she says. “Toxic stress feels very personal. It can feel like you’re the only one feeling this, but applying a sociological pattern, we can see it’s happening across the U.S.”
She was greatly encouraged to present research for the first time in such a forum, and enjoyed the day-long online conference so much that “I forgot that Zoom fatigue was a thing,” she says.
“Having this experience has given me confidence to say, I can do real research and be just as successful as people from any other schools,” she says.
Armstrong says that students rose to the challenges of public presentation and making academic research and ancient texts relevant to today.
“That’s part of the scholar’s task, to make scholarship accessible,” he says. “It’s not just about reading these great works but applying them, finding answers and preparing for the virtuous life. This is what scholars do, and it’s something our students can do. There’s an honor to that. It’s an achievement.”