Everything and Nothing: Kelsi Morrison-Atkins on The Powerful Possibilities of a Humanities Education

This year’s English Department Outstanding Senior Kelsi Morrison-Atkins recently graduated from Ball State with two degrees and a near-perfect GPA. Below, Kelsi offers an account of her experience at Ball State as well as her thoughts on earning two degrees and pursuing yet another in “everything and nothing.” Continue reading to see how Kelsi’s English and Religious Studies degrees have already offered her several notable opportunities including admittance into Harvard University’s Divinity School.

*Photo provided by Kelsi Morrison-Atkins

We all know the dreaded question. Most of us who major in the humanities and willfully choose to forsake untold riches (or, in truth, even the certainty of financial security) to pursue a passion for the written word live in mortal fear of the well-meaning aunt or prying stranger who will certainly inquire upon learning one’s major “And what are you going to do with that?” As a double major in English Literature and Religious Studies, my go-to response to this most dreaded of interrogations has been an admittedly snarky “everything and nothing.” Now, as I prepare to attend Harvard Divinity School in the fall to work toward a Master’s in New Testament and Women, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion, I see that my curt reply really encapsulates my understanding of the rebellious and powerful possibilities of humanities education.

My route to English Literature and Religious Studies (and, ultimately, my beloved amalgam “Biblical Studies”) has been nothing if not circuitous and kind of weird. In high school, I loved to read and talk about books but never considered that to be something you could get rich doing. And that’s the point of college right? So, I dutifully took up a major in Accounting and realized the error of my ways before even attending a single class. From there it was the slightly less practical English Education, but I soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to keep my other major, Religious Studies, and graduate on time. As I began to consider changing my major yet again, my humanities professor said something in passing that struck me—that a degree in the humanities prepares you for everything and nothing at the same time. I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but being doubly prepared for everything didn’t seem half bad to me. So, I went to the advising office and made it official.  Little did I know the impact that my fellow students and my professors would have on helping me see possibilities for an exciting future I certainly never thought possible.

Although they seem to be two quite different subjects, combining Literature and Religious Studies has proven to be a fascinating and productive way to look at what it means to be human. In my work in Religious Studies, I have been made aware of the variety of ways that people engage in behaviors such as ritual, belief, worship, and the reading of sacred texts in order to orient themselves to themselves, their culture, and their universe. As a Literature major, I have been provided with the close reading skills necessary to apply this awareness of the influence of religion on culture to texts that highlight the presence of the sacred within the mundane.

As I apply religious concepts to literature and literary concepts to religions, I am consistently amazed at the oft-unacknowledged overlap in the ways that people express themselves religiously and how these themes get recoded into literature.  I’m certain that if you polled the Literature faculty, they would express exasperation at the number of times I’ve turned in papers about religion as subversion in 19th century lit, religious doubt in poetry, and ineffective reworking of parables in the 20th century. Although religion and literature so permeate our culture that the two together may seem like “nothing,” when we examine the vestiges of religion, particularly Christianity in the United States, that inhere unnoticed within our everyday experiences, we see how the combination of the two have a real shot at influencing everything.

As I’ve said, my initial decision to combine these two majors arose from a mutual fascination with both subjects and an acute disdain for any major that was immediately “useful.” However, it wasn’t until I was encouraged by faculty in both majors to pursue my interest in Biblical Studies that I was able to find a way to mold my interests into something that could someday resemble a career in education and scholarship. I’ve always had an uncommon obsession with the Bible. As a child, I used to collect them in the hope that, if I just found the right one, all of the stories, parables, and legal codes that had so confused me might somehow make a cohesive kind of sense.

As an adult equipped with the close reading skills so indicative of an excellent literary education, I realized that I could not only examine these conundrums for myself, but in so doing, perhaps, I could help other people recognize the critical importance of the Bible in a country whose political, legal, and cultural system is so heavily influenced by these 66 books. In short, I had found my niche and certainly would have not done so were it not for those, like Dr. Habich , Dr. Peterson, and Dr. Marchal in Religious Studies, who continually provide much-needed encouragement and the occasional push as I continue to work toward engaging in new, and possibly dangerous and unsettling, ways with the texts that define my identity as a Christian and a scholar.

This faculty support and the open and challenging academic community offered at Ball State is, I think, quite unique to the state school experience.  Were it not for the accumulation of both small and large acts of kindness and genuine interest on the part of the faculty in both departments, I certainly would never dreamed of preparing to enter into one of the best Biblical Studies programs in the world. All of the quickly answered emails, the draft reviews, the opportunities for work outside of the classroom, and even the occasional attempt to get me out of a shift at work, which may seem like “nothing” to faculty who are so used to doing these things as part of their job, has really changed everything in my life. There are approximately 943 miles between where I’m going and where I thought I’d be, and each of those miles was covered not just by my passion for the subject, but also by the efforts of the faculty in the departments of English and Philosophy and Religious Studies at Ball State University.

In July, my husband and I are packing up everything and moving to Cambridge, MA as I pursue yet another degree in “everything and nothing.” Upon completing my undergraduate degrees in English Literature and Religious Studies, I now offer this answer snark-free to all who ask what I plan to do in the next two years. If my experience in both worlds has taught me anything at all (and indeed, reader, it has) it is that humanities is the most subversive of all scholastic endeavors. Even when it seems to be preparing you for nothing that will get you on the cover of Forbes magazine, it is helping you change everything.

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