Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mark Twain and Swordplay

Over four weeks during the months of July and August, my wife and I spent time taking a fencing class.  It wasn't quite what we expected.  It turned out to be -- according to our instructor -- a survey of weaponry and fighting strategies from roughly the 12th century to the 17th.  We started with broad swords -- four-foot long, two handed things (actually, we started with five foot-long wooden dowels that we used to practice both attack and defensive moves).  This week we ended with 17th century rapiers.  Afterwards we had ice cream.  It was our date night.

Oddly (perhaps), Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) devotes several chapters in his travel book A Tramp Abroad to the dueling culture of France and Germany (chapters 5-8).  He pays particular attention to the Germans, and he goes on at length both about the mindset of the culture and the results -- both physical and social -- of duels.  Clemens, of course, got into trouble during his time in Virginia City Nevada and ended up running out of town soon after his own experience with a duel (not with swords but with revolvers).  In Germany a decade or so later, he had the chance to watch young German men do battle with swords (foils actually).  Clemens was at times impressed, though I think it's safe to say he was, in the end, pretty much appalled by the spectacle.  He thought that while the young men demonstrated a form of fearlessness, their families would pay the price when injuries or (at times) deaths were the result (I think of Clemens' late version of collateral damage in "The War Prayer").

But the point I want to make is that stepping into this class was helpful to me as a teacher.  Really.  Some years ago when I was more active in high performance driving at Watkins Glen (I wrote an essay that linked that learning experience with my approach to Mark Twain scholarship -- it was published by the Mark Twain Annual), I found it valuable to step away from my comfort zone and try to learn an entirely new skill.  That same thing happened (perhaps on a smaller scale) when I went to fencing class.  I was trying to learn an entirely new skill.  At times I was really bad at it.  And I felt conspicuous and uneasy.  I have been teaching for at least 25 years in one form or another (from graduate assistantships through to my present position as a full professor), and moving out of that comfort zone is invaluable.  Especially when it's a difficult skill.  And, for me, especially when it is a blend of physical and intellectual.  Performance driving was like that.  And so, to my surprise, was sword fighting.

From time to time now, my wife and I will practice with our dowels in our back yard.  I am waiting for the neighbors to panic and report a strange spectacle of domestic conflict.


  1. I was having dinner with a former student last fall and out of the blue he recommended that I should enroll in a class. He thought I needed to "not be in charge" for awhile. I wasn't sure how to take that... But maybe he was referring to your experience of trying to learn a new skill, being and feeling awkward, etc. It's probably good advice to do something new and challenging as this might give us empathy for our students who are learning things that are old hat to us, but spanking new to them. But then again, he might have read that doing something new guards against dementia - was he worried about me? Ha!

  2. It's not only about realizing that the content we teach can be intimidating or foreign to students, it's also about coming to terms with learning on its most basic terms. If I am going to teach a new book, I read that book, and I have a collection of approaches that I can take to understand the text. But what about learning something entirely out of my prior experience -- I can still become uncomfortable because I am no longer operating within my (even expanded) zone. And that totally new experience is what reinforces some sense of humility in those of us who feel confident in our other abilities.