By Bridget Ruffing ’22
In order to flourish within the competitive and demanding world of academia, one must be willing to embrace the inevitable paradoxes of life: to recognize the hidden beauty in the mundane, to seek to grow through challenges, and to learn from the most unlikely of teachers. Thomas More College alumna Esther Jermann ’20 finds herself at home with the paradoxical. Indeed, she embraces it and rejoices in it. As a result, she has maintained an energetic love for her studies that has served her well throughout her academic career.
As she prepares to graduate this May with a Master of Arts in Medieval and Byzantine Studies before continuing on to pursue a doctorate in Church History, she looks back on her experiences and notes that she has found solace and encouragement in the most unlikely of texts, joy in the most inexplicable of circumstances. Through it all, she has grown and prospered.
Esther has been gracious enough to provide some insight regarding her time at Thomas More College and what she has been up to since graduating.
You are in the midst of earning your PhD at the Catholic University of America. What are some of the prominent texts you have read and will read as you work toward this degree? What initially attracted you to this area of study?
I was originally accepted into the PhD program for Medieval and Byzantine Studies at the Catholic University of America, but I decided within this last year to switch to a PhD program in Church History. So I’ll actually be graduating with a Master of Arts in Medieval and Byzantine Studies this May, and then I will be working toward my PhD in Church History starting this summer. I will have about three more years of coursework, and then, God willing, I will pass doctoral comprehensive exams and begin work on a dissertation.
Medieval and Byzantine Studies is an interdisciplinary program that requires graduate students to take a wide variety of classes covering the history, philosophy, literature, and culture of either Western Europe or Byzantium from 500–1500 AD. I specialized in the Western Europe area of the program. The core texts of this specialization ranged from the treatises of Avicenna and Anselm’s Proslogion, to the rose windows of Chartres, to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde. Because I am interested in educational theory—i.e., how are we steering the great ship of academia? To what end and by what means?—I particularly enjoyed revisiting Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon and Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God, both texts that I read at Thomas More College under the esteemed Dr. Patrick Powers.
During my time at Thomas More, it was Dr. Sara Kitzinger’s Humanities VI and VII and Dr. Amy Fahey’s Writing Tutorial III and Northern Literature that prompted my interest in the Medieval and Byzantine Studies program. Dr. Kitzinger’s classes are legendary at Thomas More College for prompting what was to me an alarming awakening to the intellectual underpinnings of the modern world, and Dr. Fahey’s love for Old English poetry and medieval Norse literature inspired a similar love in myself. In addition to their particular specialties which led to my interest in the Middle Ages, their excellence as both academics and mothers convinced me that a synthesis of the two vocations was not only possible, but beautiful.
Were there any courses you took or texts you read at Thomas More College that helped lay a foundation for your graduate studies? Which ones, and how were they helpful?
It’s not the things that were specifically related to the Middle Ages that have been most helpful in my graduate career, but the things that weren’t related at all: Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Dean Thompson’s Scripture classes, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Shakespeare’s plays. A grounding in and love for texts outside my specialty has saved me from the myopia that accompanies much of graduate education, and consequently from much of the anxiety that usually accompanies that myopia.
Johnson’s Rasselas, which I read under Dr. Kitzinger in Humanities VI, serves as the best example. In the novel, the titular character, a prince of Abisinnia, escapes from a paradise-like Happy Valley with his sister and a friend to search for happiness. Along the way, the three sojourners meet a distressed astronomer, who is convinced that he himself controls the machinations of the sky every day when he looks through his telescope. Should he die, the heavens would cease their motions and catastrophe would ensue. Graduate students and professional academics, I have found, run the risk of the astronomer: in pursuing one thing rigorously, it is all too easy to imagine your discipline as an Atlas that carries the whole world on his shoulders. Rasselas and other texts read at Thomas More are foundational in that they give the student an iconography by which to make sense of their lives beyond the bounds of campus. What a young student lacks in true experience is given to him by familiarity with the Western Canon.
The culture of Thomas More College complements the breadth and depth of its academics. The most memorable advice I received when I entered graduate school was from a friend and fellow TMC alum, Jonathan Wanner ’14, who is pursuing a PhD in English here at CUA. He told me to always remember to go on picnics and read Richard Wilbur in spring—in sum, to never lose what he called “the Thomas More bohemian spirit.” This sensory engagement with beauty and reality, so common to life at TMC, is also something Rasselas’s astronomer—and most of graduate academia—lacks.
You also work as an Assistant Editor at Angelus Press. Can you describe the work you do at Angelus? What are some of your favorite aspects of your job?
My position at Angelus Press allows me to work as a de facto acquisitions editor and also as acting editor of Angelus Magazine. In the former capacity, I read and accept (or decline) manuscript acquisitions in consultation with the rest of the team. A manuscript that I accepted and am editing now is a book tentatively titled His Own Received Him Not, which tells the story of those who resisted the liturgical reforms of the English Reformation. The author, Judit Wittbrodt, grew up on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall; she’s an excellent researcher and writer, and a pleasure to work with. I am also spearheading a new initiative to have untranslated Latin works brought into English. We’ve just issued a contract, for example, for a translation by Dr. David Foley of the original biography of St. Thomas Aquinas by William of Tocco, written in the early fourteenth century. While turning down manuscripts can be difficult, working with the authors and translators is a great joy.
The other part of my job involves soliciting and editing articles for Angelus Magazine, a bi-monthly themed publication on culture and faith for traditionally-minded Catholics. The Angelus is currently going through a bit of a renaissance, with a new design and a rejuvenated author base. Many of our new contributors are TMC alumni or friends: among them, Helena Davis ’18, Jonathan Wanner ’14, Paul Guenzel ’14, Mr. David Clayton, and Dr. William Fahey. My general hope is to bring the Great Books to our audience in magazine form.
What interested you in attending TMC? What are some of the aspects of your undergraduate studies here that you value the most?
I became aware of TMC through the Newman Guide to Catholic Colleges, and its small size, excellent professors, and idyllic campus won me over. I’ve already spoken to the value of the classes and the culture at Thomas More, for which I am incredibly grateful. The friendships I made among my own tight-knit class, with members of other classes, and with the professors themselves are priceless; even the relationships that haven’t continued beyond the college experience were helpful and formative, and I am grateful for them. Living on a small campus with a hundred other people and learning to appreciate their talents is an education itself in human nature and adult courtesy. But being a devoted part of a like-minded community—all reading the same texts, singing the same folk music, and going on the same hikes—is an intense and beautiful experience unlikely to be repeated.
What are a couple of your favorite memories from your time at Thomas More?
My favorite memories revolve around Rome—I’ll bet everyone says that. My class happened to be in Rome in 2018 on the morning that it snowed for the first time in something like seven years. In fact, four other girls and I had woken up at three in the morning to try to make it to Florence by bus and then train. We—all American Easterners or Midwesterners—weren’t cognizant of the fact that Romans have no idea how to deal with snow, something we realized later at a bus stop as we watched a man in a tiny backhoe scrape ten square feet of pavement for over an hour. We made it to the train station after three hours—a bus commute that would usually take about twenty minutes—soaked to the bone, and called the Rome Program Director in disgrace at 6:00 AM for a ride back to the villa. His car couldn’t even make it up the hill, so we walked the rest of the way as the sun came up and the snow covered the olive trees. It sounds like a horrible morning, but honestly, it was the most fun I think I had all semester. Afterward, one of my friends donned a giant trash bag and went sledding in the villa orchard.
Toward the end of our semester abroad, a group of thirteen of us decided to walk overnight from the villa—which was then on the outskirts of Rome—to the Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore in commemoration of St. Joseph’s Day. We left at one in the morning, walked across half of Rome’s least attractive suburbs, down the starlit Via Appia for about three hours, and then along a highway for about another two as Italian traffic whipped past us. We reached the shrine in time for the 7:00 AM Mass, and then, by a series of buses and trains, returned to the villa around noon. In characteristic fashion, none of us had seriously thought about bringing any food, and the male members of the party had not slept the previous night. The beauty of the moonlit ruins and fields along the Appian Way contrasted with hilarious acuteness against my friend Tony’s irrational and vocal outbursts every time a car passed us or we saw an empty Peroni carton. My friend Sophie and I befriended a cat near a farmhouse at 4:00 AM while my classmate Rick droned at us from a book of devotions to St. Joseph. Rick subsequently fell asleep with his mouth open sitting on a crowded bus in a torrential downpour on the way home. It was fitting. When I was little, I was always afraid that I would have experiences as an adult that would result in stories like this—stories that everyone else thinks must have been hellish to experience. Really, they were the best of all.