It gets submitted in the next couple of days.
Over the past four years since I graduated from Ohio State with a Bachelor's degree in history, I've been working for Ohio State. This offered me an unexpected benefit: the chance to take classes for free.
Initially, this didn't seem like a major bonus, and I actually ignored this benefit for nearly a year. I thought I was done with school, that there was no reason to head back and soak in the academic atmosphere that I had so recently left. I felt as if I'd left that part of my life behind me.
One day, though, I saw a flier for a class called "Magic, Murder and Mayhem" taught by Professor Anna Grotans, and I realized that I very much wanted to take that class. I'd enjoyed her class on Scandinavian mythology just before I graduated, and I felt drawn to this new class. I felt it would be a chance to take some of the ideas I had learned and apply them in new and creative ways, and that it would give me a chance to work on something interesting and fun. I was right.
I had a riot in the class, applying things I'd learned before, and it ignited a passion I didn't know I had. It led me to take an independent study with Professor Grotans the next quarter where I learned how to read (on a very rudimentary level) Old Norse in an effort to decipher some runic inscriptions. I found a new appreciation for learning and applying the new knowledge to see what I could find. Though I took that class three years ago, I still find the time to dust off my dictionary and translate things to keep it fresh in my mind, and so that I can better understand the people who wrote these myths I love so much.
I began to take more classes after that, working mainly in undergraduate-level religious studies courses. These had always been of interest, but I had gotten my fill of theory as an English major and never really wanted to look at it again. When I looked at the theories of Marx, Jung, Eliade, and Huizinga with this new passion, though, I realized that I had been missing whole levels of interpretation, and these eventually began to affect my own spiritual development as I passed through class after class.
As I progressed through various religious studies classes, I also delved into the Classics department for some interesting-sounding courses. There, I found that the passing interest in classical sources that had been killed off by three quarters of Latin had not given up on me, but had begun to fuel another fire within me. I became interested particularly in the reinterpretation of classical sources by historical religious movements, and that flowed naturally into a minor obsession with New Age Movements and their connection to older myths, magics, and mysteries, particularly paying attention to the reinterpretation (or invention) of these things so that they molded beautifully into a wholly new religious movement: Neo-Paganism.
Through interactions with students and faculty, I have learned that I enjoy helping others learn. In 2003, when I began taking these Classics courses, I also started holding study sessions at a pizza shop north of campus. In these sessions, I was basically re-teaching the lectures for that week in preparation for the quiz at the end of the week. I found that these sessions would often produce interesting questions, and I tried to contact my professors with the same inquiries. Professor Johnston in the Classics department was often the recipient of these emails, helping me to locate information on the off-topic tangents I would look for. These study sessions eventually convinced me that I not only enjoyed teaching, but I was learning more than I ever thought possible from it. A draw toward teaching would later be solidified by a vote taken in one of my classes for the person who the other students "learned the most from", and my name was near the top. I hope that many of my classmates see me in that light, because I know I see them that way.
I decided late in 2003 that I wanted to attend Graduate School in Comparative Studies, with a focus on religious studies and particular attention to Neo-Paganism. Circumstances in my personal life prevented me from finishing the application process for admission in Autumn of 2004, though, as did my undergraduate GPA, which was just under a 3.0. Early on, I had watched my GPA drop consistently as I was more and more disillusioned with the English program at Ohio State, but when I found something I enjoyed (military history), my GPA began to rise steadily, coming just below a 3.0 in the end. Looking at my transcript, you can see that once I found something I really loved (religious studies, Germanic studies, and classics), my GPA excelled. The only class where I received less than an "A" since graduation was an English class. I'm now quite proud of my GPA.
Also, I felt the need to test my ability in some graduate-level classes before I applied, so I signed up for two religious studies classes as a graduate non-degree student. I received A's in both classes, and can honestly say that I learned not only about theory and religion, but also about myself. I took Professor Jones' class on myth and ritual, which showed me how, even without knowing it, I play out part of a mythic drama every day, and this has made me very conscious about how I act and what I do. In Professor Urban's class on New Religious Movements, I learned that there are important aspects of play in everything we do. These two realizations have greatly affected me.
In the case of the first, you'll find a very personal account of the realization in my writing sample. Most often, my academic writing is not this personal, but I felt that the writing sample shows the way that my studies have affected my thought process while still remaining analytical and also trying to find new ways to solve a problem. Most interestingly, it shows that we can apply the theories of religion to ourselves as observers, and use our own minds as guinea pigs to work out complexities we may never have thought of before.
This led me to thinking about the idea of self-creation, where one group finds itself with a ready-made theory of religion (such as Eliade's theories of sacred, profane, and eternal return; Marx's theory of advantageous exploitation; or Jung's theories about archetypes and the collective unconsciousness) that they can build upon in order to create their own religion from scratch. One particular case study, a Neo-Pagan organization called Ár nDraíocht Féin, this is extremely evident. They have taken the theories of Eliade, Jung, Campbell, and several others and started from the theory, working backwards to access the religion. It's a fascinating process that they're going through, and ignoring it would be a terrible disservice to our understanding of religion.
When I undertook my final essay in Professor Urban's class, I was looking for ways to understand Neo-Pagans groups that involve humour and play in myth, ritual, social interaction, and magic. I've studied these groups extensively from the inside as a participant and from the outside as an observer, and the idea of play as something sacred and humour as something vital has always produced stumbling blocks to the understanding of these groups.
When Professor Urban recommended that I read Huizinga's work, Homo Ludens, I was skeptical. No one else had managed to put together a cohesive statement about the use of play in ritual, and I expected this to be no different. A quick skim of the text, however, made me wonder why I had never read this in the past. Not only could I see Neo-Paganism finally fitting into something resembling an explanation, but I could find excellent explanations of certain sub-groups that I have never been able to explain. Huizinga's theories are not the end, though: my understanding of this facet has led me to looking for more ways to understand these religions, and it seems that the next step is to look into postmodernism, something I have tried in the past but always failed to understand. Part of my desire for future work in religious studies is to finally understand and apply postmodernism to Neo-Pagan religions, if that is even possible.
As I write this essay, I am amazed at just how excited I feel as I type it. It is very much a joy to write, and I already find myself thinking about the issues raised above and re-reading my writing sample to pick it apart. In the end, the culture and discussion of academia is where I think I belong. My experiences with this department, as well as with the Departments of Germanic Languages and Literatures and Greek and Latin, have shown me that there is an exciting group of faculty to work with, as well as a wealth of information and resources available in the form of student interaction. Over the past four years, I've possibly learned as much from the students in the classes I've taken as I have from the instructors. The focus on comparing approaches and ideas is also extremely attractive to me, as it shows that the department is open to new ideas, fresh thoughts, and open discussion. Experience has shown that there is much benefit in exploring the ideas of other departments and courses, and I think that I will learn best in such an environment.
What I want most from this experience is to better my understanding of not only my fellow humans, but also of myself. It's a tall order, but I'm personally a deeply religious person, and as I study these things I find that I learn more about who I am, and this gives me a remarkable amount of confidence and peace. I work hard to make my religion a strength in my studies, not a hurdle or roadblock, and I think that I do well keeping it that way. I very much hope that my abilities will be an asset to the Comparative Studies department, as I know that the faculty, courses, and approach that the department offers will be an asset to me.