What can you learn from a seminar?
We arrange them, we attend them. Sometimes we see the same people over and over again, even if we never see them at any other time. Everyone has a good time, or not, but let’s do it again sometime soon! And we do. But does anyone stop to consider – are we learning anything at a seminar, and if so, what?
I first considered this many years ago, when I taught a daily, month-long workshop at a small, private college. Called “Ways of Asian Movement,” the class included classical dance techniques, taiji movement, and wooden sword partner exercises. On Fridays, I gave a lecture tying all of the things together that we had done all week. The class was well-attended, the students were bright and enthusiastic. But afterward, I was nagged by the weird feeling that I had introduced 20 or so people to a set of disciplines that took years to teach and learn properly. Outside of class credit, what did they actually learn?
I had my own “workshop moment” to bolster the idea that perhaps they had learned something: early in my interest in Asian performance, I took a workshop on kyogen, the Japanese classic comedy genre, conducted by Andrew Tsubaki. Up to that point, I had understood the concept of johakyu (a concept that describes a rising arc of action or tension) to be a literary one, used in dramatic writing. In two hours, I came to understand from Dr. Tsubaki that the concept was not just literary, but movement-oriented, and that it existed in layers or waves, building on each other through each movement of a performance to construct the johakyu of the whole. I admit not learning much about kyogen, but that revelation changed the path of my research and influenced my subsequent work to this day. Honestly, I doubt that Dr. Tsubaki ever noticed what I had learned from him, even though we had a substantial discussion together that evening. When I met him again a few years later, he seemed not to remember me at all. I was a little disappointed, but in the end, I realized it did not matter.
So maybe we can learn about theatre, but what about martial arts seminars? I can only speak for the many I have taken part in, all of which involved weapons of some sort, whether staffs, bows, halberds, swords, or their sporting-equivalents. I have taken many introductory seminars, and I have found them very useful tangentially; that is, I learned essentially nothing about the style itself that I could retain for any length of time, but found them useful in satisfying my curiosity. Meeting teachers of other styles is also generally interesting, from those whom I enjoyed meeting and talking with to those whose methods or personalities I preferred to stay well clear of in the future. Very often there is an informal get-together involved that is enjoyable for everyone as well. Perhaps useful connections are made (“Where did you get that? No kidding! I’ll check it out”). In my world, these events are usually reasonably priced and overall positive experiences.
Things change, however, when the seminar or workshop is in one’s area of specialization, for example, when a visiting teacher from Japan comes to teach specialized classes to students affiliated with his dojo. These events can consist of a combination of open and closed practices, parties, outings or other informal gatherings. Testing for rank may be included as well. For a teacher, a master seminar presents an opportunity to introduce her students to her teacher and to have their practice reviewed and evaluated, whether formally or informally.
But after that, what then? Recently, my students and I attended just such a seminar. In fact, we took our turn sponsoring the teacher’s visit this year. Attendance was better than expected, with over 20 people on the weekend. That there were fewer attendees on the weeknights was not a problem either, as the attendees enjoyed a more intimate experience with the teacher. We had several dinners with opportunities for students to interact with the teacher on an informal level (something some organizers overlook, but I was determined to include). Most importantly, I was able to cover the expenses incurred, which for a small group like ours was very important. For an iaido seminar, such a turnout was surprisingly good, and everyone had a good time, to the extent that I could tell. Still, some of my students were frustrated. What happened?
The frustration was not due to the quality of the instruction. Though the instruction at this seminar, which was open to all students regardless of rank, was more centered on basics than advanced techniques, the teacher introduced concepts that could easily engage the interest of more advanced participants; and in any case, who can’t use more basics? Moreover, this style, inaugurated only in 2006, is still somewhat in flux, and subtle changes to the basic techniques are expected and welcomed, since it is in everyone’s interest to keep up with the current thinking on the basic kata. So, no disappointment there. What then?
The source of frustration was that the teacher was making the same corrections to many of the students’ technique that he made at last year’s seminar. It was as though their techniques had not changed at all in the intervening time. Moreover, new students were repeating the same errors their fellow students were making. Those students’ teachers had not bothered to absorb or include the previous year’s lessons to the people present for this year’s seminar. Additionally, during one of the practices, a senior instructor performed the wrong basic kata, not the one everyone had been asked to perform. When the visiting master pointed out his error, his students laughed, as if such mistakes were normal. To top things off, at the ranking test, some of these students made mistakes so elementary that it mystified my students – had they not been making just those same corrections over the previous three days?
To at least one of our members, the idea that no one had learned the corrections the year before was not only tiresome, it was insulting to the teacher who had covered this ground before. To his mind, the seminar was less valuable than it could have been. I sympathized, but I also pointed out that having the teacher see our students’ techniques, along with the chance to informally socialize with him, made up for some of the aggravation he was feeling. The truth is that people get what they are motivated to take away from this type of event, and just because one set of people takes away less does not mean that someone else can’t take away more. And, just like my experience in that long-ago kyogen workshop, what someone learns can vary widely, and can include things that the instructor has not thought about or never seriously considered important. Yet it can transform that person’s practice.
But I realized that, in fact, this is the real lesson from this year’s seminar. It is not enough to just come and have a good time, and get your photo taken with the master teacher. As instructors ourselves, we should do more than that. We need to take those corrections and concepts that were painstakingly given by someone who has traveled thousands of miles, take them back to our own dojo and follow through helping our students to incorporate them into their practice. It is not enough to just video-record every moment either; video does nothing if there is no real-world follow up on what actually happened. As teachers, it is our responsibility to make sure next year’s get together is more than just a repeat of an endless feedback loop.