It’s taken me years to learn this, but with fencing I’m at my best, at my most pure when my focus is the Art–the sources, the body of technique, history, movement, theory, and, in sharing all that with other people. I started out as most people do. The masters with whom I studied took a traditional approach—I worked one on one with them, sometimes with their assistants, then drilled with more advanced students and my peers. I was encouraged always to seek out better fencers and bout with them. To most, this approach seems very top-down, that is, information comes from master to student, from senior fencer to junior, and that’s not wrong, but… it is also, by its nature, collaborative. The instructor works with a student, not just at them. In working with senior students, with better fencers, one is also collaborating. So, for me, fencing is not a one way exchange, but a dialogue. This seems obvious to me, and maybe it is to you too, but that said it isn’t to everyone.
When something’s near and dear to us, when it’s a part of us, we often fail to see how it’s not obvious to others. We go about our way, acting on the assumption others are in line with us when they’re not. Sometimes this can be taken for a lack of concern, or worse, as something threatening. To others we may simply seem naïve. For my part, I try to act in a way that makes my position clear, but intentions and results don’t always match up, and when it comes to collaborative approaches to an historically individual endeavor like fencing instruction what I’ve learned is that actions on their own aren’t enough. One must be explicit, verbal, and reassuring. One must expect the raised eyebrow from some, the head shake of disbelief from another, and even the sly smile of the ambitious who think they sense a sucker. This said, I still think it’s worthwhile to try to find ways to work together.
Regardless of what sort of fencing one teaches—Olympic, Classical, or Historical—more often than not one does so solo. A master may have a provost or two or some other assistant, but a master working with another master, any instructor working with another, is less common. There are some good reasons for this. As I mentioned in my last entry, the individual, one-on-one lesson is the norm. An instructor teaches a student. Historically, even in the days when one had more reason to learn to fence, instructors vied for students; they were in competition with one another. Today, when fencing is normally a pastime, students fewer in number compared to football/soccer or similar sports, competition can be fierce. Fewer resources and a low profit margin can make anything pretty cut-throat, and fencing is no exception.
It may run counter to established practice, tradition, even reason, but off the piste I do not care for competition. I understand it, but I don’t like it. In part I think some of this is a carry-over from teaching college classes. In the trenches adjuncts like me occupied working together could mean job security. At my last teaching job, for example, I was—by default—the “pre-modern” professor, so I was teaching not only things I spent years studying in order to teach, but courses in different if congruent areas of history. There are a lot of ways to do this, but my way, being scared to do it poorly, was to contact the people in those fields I know and get help. They’d send me their syllabi, textbook recommendations, articles, thematic breakdowns, everything I needed to produce a decent (not perfect) survey course in classes outside my area. All I had to do was read, interpret, and admit when I didn’t know something. Then, I would either work with students to figure it out, or, tell them that I’d look into it and get back to them. In short, I looked to my peers, and in turn, they looked to me for help teaching courses where I could help them. I’ve taken this same approach to fencing history and instruction—there are people out there, many of them, smarter, more experienced, and knowledgeable than I am, so why not politely ask for their help? I’ve made some good friends out of this too, an added bonus.
In step with the “habit” of working with others, I also realize that with something as vast as the Art, the art of defense, especially within an historical fencing context, there is simply too much to know. This is part of its appeal, and, something we have to keep in mind because we are, each of us, limited by its totality. This is humbling in the best sense—faced with such a mountain of information we have the privilege of being eternal students, forced to engage the material again and again, and with hard work hopefully grow. By extension, knowing that others have more information, or different information or perspectives, it makes sense to work with them. I learn, true, but so too do my students, and as an instructor that is my purpose—teaching. No one ever said we had to do that 100% on our own. Maybe we often do, but even then… someone, normally several someones taught us, and so really we are all the products of shared learning, of a collaborative system, whether we like to think so or not.
From a business perspective it’s easy to see flaws with this. If I send people to a colleague; if I promote another instructor’s seminar; if I do anything to advance them am I not hurting myself? Am I not potentially sending students that might be mine to them? Yes. I am potentially doing that, but it’s a question of values, of goals, and, a recognition that I’m not the only student of the Art, not the only instructor. If I truly believe—and I do—that most students benefit from learning with multiple teachers, in having problems to work out presented in different ways, then I put it to you how can I not involve my colleagues? Do I not do my students a disservice by trying to hoard their time and energy? That’s self-serving in the worst sense, and can undermine the very goals I purport to have. If my goal is sharing the Art, in igniting a fire to study it in all its variety, depth, and beauty, then other concerns are secondary–not unimportant (I have to pay rent)–but secondary.
It’s not naiveté, a lack of business sense, or even a secret plot to undermine colleagues that I promote their classes, seminars, ideas, or anything else. I do so intentionally, and yes, in full awareness that it could (and often does) affect the number of people attending my classes, and even more so individual lessons. I also recognize, in truth with some sadness, that not all will return the favor. I persist though, I continue to do so because the Art comes before all else; it comes before me, before profit. To the degree that I have any business teaching, then I must do so in accordance with what I value, in what I think the Art has to teach us, and for all the mayhem and murder one learns in the study of arms, one learns far, far more than that—one can learn civility, generosity, largesse, respect, and humility. The best friends I’ve made I’ve made fencing; much of what I learned in competition or in lessons or the assault has had parallels in my life outside the sala; some of the most severe crises in my life have occurred either within this context or were partially mitigated via fencing; I even met my wife fencing. The Art has given me so much, introduced me to so much, and continues to do so whether my own classes are a success or not. Moreover, the Art doesn’t belong to me, but to us all, and it is best shared.
I believe that working together is better. I believe fair play, honest exchange, and mutual promotion ultimately helps us all and furthers the Art. You don’t have to agree, of course, but I’ll say this—if I promote your class, your seminar, anything you’re doing, then it means I recognize in you a fellow student, a fellow disciple of the Art; you’re someone I like, respect, and want the best for; you are someone I know I can learn with and from; you’re the sort of people I like to know and talk to; I recognize you as one of my tribe. I don’t care what ethnicity you are, what sex or gender you are, if you’re young or old, if you’ve got two legs or one, if you’re gay or straight, what religion you follow or don’t follow—only that we share a love of the Art (this said, note well: I do discriminate against bigots, fascists, and others who seek to harm others in thought, word, or deed. If such lowlifes read this and say “but I’m a student of the Art too,” my reply is no you’re not—if you were you wouldn’t be as ignorant as you are).
In some respects it comes down to how we define success, in what our goals are. Sure, like anyone I want my school to thrive, to stay open to introduce people to this wonderful Art, but it’s not the only way to teach. Even if all I do is act as one stepping-stone on a much longer path, that stepping-stone is important too, and the path is long and winding. So, whatever happens business-wise, or with the other irons I have in the fire; however crippled I may become; however busy; I will, so long as I can, continue to study, train, and learn about the Art we love, in all its colorful expressions, and, I will continue to support you as you do so too.
–Seminar on Maghreb Sabre with Da’Mon Stith, July 2018 at Northwest Armizare [Da’Mon Stith is one of the finest martial artists and teachers I’ve ever had the honor meet]
–Mike Cherba’s Introduction to Lashkroba class, Swordsquatch 2016 [I was Mike’s pell/cut dummy 😉 ]
–Introduction to Italian Sabre, class presented at Grit City HEMA, Tacoma, WA, August 2016 [Will Richmond and I taught this class together]