Archive for hierarchy

A Question of Respect

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , on September 27, 2010 by serpentstaff

I’ve decided to post a question, because I’ve been too busy to write a good post in quite some time, and this trend might continue. It’s on one of my favorite subjects: Respect- what it is, what it means. Here’s the question:

Who shows greater respect for a superior–
1) a person who keeps quiet when he disagrees with important statements or decisions; or,
2) one who speaks up for what he believes is right?

[Note: I originally said “speaks up to defend an opposing view” — see comments.]

By ‘important,’ I mean to suggest issues or matters of principle that most people would consider worth speaking up about under ordinary circumstances. But in an authoritarian, hierarchical organization like a dojo or martial arts association, circumstances aren’t always ordinary.

Context matters, of course. I’m not talking about disagreeing with a superior when they are teaching class, because I think it’s clear in that context: Respect always requires keeping quiet unless called upon, and approaching the disagreement, if it’s really necessary, by asking polite questions, perhaps after class.

Let’s limit it to things like policy decisions or personnel matters, at the dojo or larger organizational level. If the boss makes an official statement or decides to implement a policy you believe is badly mistaken, is it respectful to speak up or to keep quiet? What if the boss has made it clear they don’t really care for advice?

I look forward to your thoughts.


Training Ahead of Rank

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by serpentstaff

Traditional martial arts typically follow a curriculum within which students are expected to pass a test on one set of forms and techniques before beginning to learn the next. Instructors can be quite strict about this, with students getting in trouble (whatever that might mean in a particular school) for trying to study ahead of rank, or for teaching techniques to their juniors ahead of rank.

Let’s all admit that a graduated curriculum makes a lot of sense. It’s as obvious as “crawl before you walk; walk before you run.” In some cases, it just comes down to the fact that you can’t learn everything at once, so some things need to wait. Your instructors, or their instructors before them, have made decisions about what to practice and when, based on reasonable principles. Different instructors might apply different principles, but when you sign on with one, you should expect to go along with their decisions.

Still, questions come up. Westerners want to learn cool stuff, and they want to do it now. They often feel they’re capable of taking on more, or at least trying to do more, than they’re offered in a traditional class. They see others practicing interesting things; they feel they can just copy them, or try to join in. They tire of repeating what they feel they’ve already mastered. This can be magnified by the fact that traditional schools often have time-in-rank requirements. A student may feel they’ve got something down by the end of the first month, but they’re looking at two more months minimum of repetitive practice before they’ll start on a new set of techniques.

There are many ways to look at this problem; I’ll mention three. Number Three is the one that interests me right now, so let me get One and Two out of the way:

First (and most obviously to a traditional instructor), students are not the best judges of what they have and haven’t mastered. Whether they feel it or not, they truly need all that repetition before moving up. And good students need to accept outside guidance on their readiness to approach new material. If they cannot respect their instructor’s judgment on that basic decision, they should either look for a new instructor—which they’re always free to do—or engage in some self-examination on their need to rebel.

Secondly, traditional training is not primarily about collecting cool techniques. And it’s not about superficial competence. It’s about physical practice as a path toward true mastery—deep mastery—which happens to require endless patience and humility to achieve. Beginners understandably use a superficial yardstick to measure themselves; they don’t know any better. Traditional training asks them to take a deeper approach, meet higher standards. That is what will enable students, ultimately, to master all those cool techniques—if they choose to stick it out. So the enforced waiting, the required patience, the endless repetition of basics—these are not incidental to training, they’re central to it. In fact they’re the heart of the program.

Now let’s try a third way of looking at it. Often, students really can take on more than the strict curriculum offers. True, they haven’t yet mastered their basics—but they won’t master anything for years! Meanwhile, their enthusiasm compels them to watch advanced class, then go off trying things with each other behind the gym. As bad as this may be for safety and good technique, it keeps up spirits and shows dedication. Most of all, it’s human nature—unavoidable. The real enthusiasts will be out there no matter what, and they are the future of our schools and styles. As instructors, we must warn sternly against it, pound home our lessons about patience and humility, and then perhaps turn a blind eye. After all, as I’ve said before, we all did it; we’ve all been there. And haven’t we turned out just fine?

Keep in mind I’m not talking about children, but capable adults. Nor am I suggesting we should turn a blind eye if people are doing things that are unsafe or causing injury. But a bit of “training ahead of rank” can be a very healthy thing among good students who are keeping up their traditional basics in class.

I suspect most styles nowadays build some of this in—for example, through camps and seminars where advanced topics are open to all. My style does this. And now we come to what prompted me to write this piece. Not long ago I had occasion to watch two different students practicing kata they learned ahead of rank. Both cases made me wonder whether this is such a good idea. One student was struggling to remember the sequence, but he couldn’t even perform the basic movements adequately (an advanced weapons kata). The other remembered the complex sequence admirably well—but performed the movements very, very awkwardly (in this case, empty hand). Each of them asked for my help, and I just wanted to say “Go back and work on the kata for your rank.”

I have taught some of these special seminars. Should I have barred such students from the class? I did impose a minimum limit on rank, but rank was not the best predictor of how a person did. The best predictor, interestingly enough, was how dedicated the student was to mastering the building blocks, as opposed to memorizing the whole kata. The best students set about drilling the basic movements, and put a low value on trying to learn the whole sequence by seminar’s end. The worst students set their sights on memorizing the sequence, figuring (I suppose) to get better at the movements by practicing the kata over time. They did badly, and, ironically, the others were more likely to get the sequence down by the end—all the while vowing to drill the component basics and not the kata for the upcoming year, before trying to learn it again.

There we have it: Humility and patience, and dedication to drilling the basics— The virtues we teach when we bar students from training ahead of rank are what make students better at training ahead of rank. More evidence in favor of the traditional approach to training, and a free lesson in making all-ranks seminars more effective.

How does your school handle training ahead of rank?

Should instructors be friends or socialize with students?

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , on May 31, 2009 by serpentstaff

It’s funny how a train of thought can take off down an unexpected track. When I sat down to write my previous post, I had been thinking about one thing, but ended up writing about something else. And I didn’t even realize what was happening till I was well on the way. So now I’m going to take another stab at the subject of “friends.”

I had been thinking about the question of whether students in a traditional dojo can properly be friends with their instructors. This area can be a real minefield, oddly enough.

Some friends of mine in another city study a traditional Japanese art, under a Japanese instructor. Their dojo is very strict and formal. Judging by the stories I hear, this instructor is often confounded by the appalling manners of his American students. Their lapses in behavior, it seems, often consist (in his view) of their behaving toward him as though he is their “friend” instead of their superior.

Yet to an American sensibility, the behavior in question will seem ordinary and benign—even polite. Examples: Attempting to make conversation when crossing paths outside class. Inviting the instructor to a post-workout social gathering. Expressing enthusiasm for how he taught class (a subject we’ve dealt with here). Sending email to explain one’s absence from class (this form of communication deemed too casual or off-hand, or perhaps too intrusive, since it might seem to demand a response—and how dare one demand anything from Sensei?).

Clearly he wishes to maintain a strict professional distance. Culturally, I think he may sometimes be confusing “friendly” behavior (Western style) for “friend” behavior. Still, he has his concept of distance. We Americans are not strangers to the notion of professional distance; we’re just less strict and more inconsistent about it—so it can become an area of confusion and disagreement.

The egalitarian part of our nature says, We’re educated, accomplished adults who are equal in the world to this instructor; therefore, we need not treat him as special outside of class. Besides, we share an interest in martial arts. Maybe we share other interests as well! We’d like to hear more about what he thinks about this or that. We’d like to share what we’re thinking, too.

Some people feel even more strongly. They accept the strict hierarchy and etiquette of the dojo as a cultural phenomenon, and as a practical way to make difficult training go smoothly. But any effort to extend it outside class is seen as downright objectionable. They don’t expect to be treated as underlings outside of class, and any instructor who expects “dojo deference” out in the world where we’re equals is seen as being patronizing, or arrogant, or perhaps having delusions of grandeur. It might even be taken as a sign of cultishness.

Many of us American/traditional instructors are sympathetic to these views, because we grew up with them ourselves. We know our students are our equals outside class—maybe even our betters. We don’t wish to be patronizing, nor do most of us want to lead a cult.

But some of us have learned further lessons. For one, we’ve learned the instructor-student relationship can be intense and difficult. Our subject matter is violence, and for many of our students, training is about personal growth. At times, we have to be able to push students in ways we might not push our friends. At times, they must trust us as superiors, not question us as equals. Professional distance is absolutely vital.

We’ve also learned that many people can’t draw a clear line between how they act inside and outside the dojo. When I started out many years ago teaching adults, I was strictly a “don’t call me Sensei outside the dojo” kind of instructor. Later, when I began accepting younger students, I quickly learned they couldn’t handle the distinction. Youngsters who were casual with me in the grocery store acted casual in class, and discipline became a problem. Then I noticed that, although it was more subtle, the same problem was occurring with a fair number of adults. Nowadays, if a parent or child asks me whether I am “sensei” outside of class, I’ll just say, “When you’re not sure what to do, it never hurts to err on the side of being respectful.” With adults, I long since stopped offering the distinction; some make it and some don’t. But everyone seems to do better in training when distance is maintained.

There’s one more lesson that everyone learned in grade school: Friendship leads to jealously and conflict. Friendship within a hierarchical system can be especially problematic in that way. Even an instructor who is good at keeping friendship separate from training has to realize, their students will be aware of what goes on outside class. Teachers are held in special regard, and human beings can and will feel jealousy toward other people’s relationships with the teacher. There are even students who will seek friendship with their teacher exactly because of its perceived special value.

So, what do you think… Can students in a traditional dojo be friends with their instructors? Should instructors be friends with their students?