HMA: Training Maxims

Recent holidays have prompted a reflective mood.

I began teaching formal HMA rapier classes in April of last year (mostly at the urging of a more senior HMA guy. When I protested that I didn’t know enough to teach, he assured me that knowing more than anyone else was good enough). I’d spent much of the prior year teaching at SCA practices, and exploring the works of other researchers and instructors. The majority of my curriculum, pedagogy, conceptual underpinnings, and conditioning programs was more-or-less copied from other sources. There were small modifications, but for the most part, I figured everyone else was a better teacher than I, so I was better off doing what they were doing.

Almost everything has changed since then. I was ruthless about self-improvement, and as my teaching skill developed and my knowledge of kinesiology improved, I discovered better information, better methods to communicate it, and better ways to organize class around it. Naturally, everything will continue to evolve. But in this time, I’ve nonetheless found success in recruitment and retention, research, and, to a lesser degree, developing my own prowess.

One of the few things to remain unchanged is also one of the few things I developed myself. As I was considering didactic approaches, I found myself wanting to boil our culture and training philosophy down to a handful of maxims – short phrases encapsulating productive ways to approach the art – and so teach students to avoid many of the pitfalls I’ve seen and encountered myself. Eventually I got it down to four, and made a habit of ending class by solemnly reciting each. They’ve done an admirable job in setting the tenor of our activities, and encouraging a positive mindset.

I cannot take credit for any of these ideas themselves – only in observing them as consistent patterns among high-level HMA and SCA practitioners. But I am inclined to attribute the bulk of my success to following these maxims (as, having defined good behavior, I was obligated to constantly model it for my students … this has certainly ensured that my own practice is a little better than it might have been otherwise). Since these have helped me, perhaps readers will also find them useful.

Maxim 1: We Don’t Know Anything.

This maxim describes our approach to research (broadly defined, as the act of gaining knowledge). It encapsulates several ideas:

  • Corollary: There is no dogma. Everything is a hypothesis or theory. Every theory turns only on the weight of evidence.
  • Corollary: There are no experts. Every person and idea is to be evaluated on its own merits.
  • Corollary: Be humble. Be respectful.
  • Corollary: Aggressively seek out differing opinions (travel). Learn from them. Be ready to cast aside ideas that no longer work.
  • Corollary: Everyone is a researcher. Everyone can contribute. Try new things. Be bold.
  • Corollary: We are never done.

Maxim 2: Fencing is Hard.

This maxim negotiates our expectations and our training. Swordfighting is “essentially geeky”, as Packer said, and there can be a tendency to treat it with a little triviality. We should remember that historical fencing must approached as a bona fide martial art. Thus:

  • Corollary: You will not master this in a year. Or two years. Be in it for the long haul.
  • Corollary: Knowing what to do is not the same as being able to do it.
  • Corollary: Expect frustration before success. Know that success will come. Be patient. Be dedicated.
  • Corollary: You will need to build strength, endurance, and proprioception to succeed. You will sweat. You will bruise. You will be sore.
  • Corollary: We will revisit and refine the basics constantly. Nothing is ever done being improved.
  • Corollary: You may need to re-learn a technique you’ve drilled into muscle memory over years and years, if later research shows a better way. Expect this. Embrace it.

Maxim 3: Martial Excellence is the Goal.

This maxim defines what we work towards. We’ll never know exactly what period Italian rapier looked like, so we can’t really hold that as our goal. We CAN, however, measure martial excellence as expressed through successful athletes and martial artists in other disciplines. Since what we do is martial, we should strive to replicate their achievements:

  • Corollary: Success in competitive sparring is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: Fluid, direct, powerful, effortless, and decisive movement – sprezzatura – is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: Total control of one’s body, one’s weapon, and one’s opponent is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: Developing the ability to adapt to new situations is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: Following the tactics set forth by the Masters and “looking like the plates” is part of our goal.
  • Corollary: A mindset of discipline and continual improvement is part of our goal.

Maxim 4: Swords are Cool.

This is about attitude. Sword arts themselves are impractical, but in the pursuit, much can be gained:

  • Corollary: Recognize what we do: figuring out puzzles, gaining knowledge, becoming stronger, connecting with people (both long-dead and still living), moving with grace and elegance, finding inspiration, working hard, achieving things we never thought possible, learning to love the journey.
  • Corollary: All that we do should seed a profound sense of fulfillment and joy, from which springs the sincere desire to share it with others.

23 comments to HMA: Training Maxims

  • Dante di Pietro

    I find some degree of humor that the first item is a maxim of no dogma. 😀

    While I understand the intent, which I believe is a general healthy skepticism and respect for the scientific method, the maxim as worded feels worrisome and inaccurate. There are degrees of certainty about different claims, and that certainty is also dependent on the particulars of the claim.

    “This is an effective way to parry that attack.”
    “This is the best way to parry that attack.”
    “This is how Fabris says to parry that attack.”
    “This is how I think Fabris says to parry that attack.”

    Of course, people will often say the third option meaning the fourth, and everyone should hear the fourth option when the third is said. Claim 2 and claim 1 get some similar treatment, although claim 2 might be intended as is.

    In any event, there are degrees of certainty here, and they can be combined: “This is how Fabris says to parry that attack, and my interpretation is effective and better than all others.” If that statement is demonstrably true or can be said with a considerable degree of certainty (i.e., it works well), then maybe we do know something.

    We also know anatomy, geometry, and physics, which lets us know what’s efficient and effective. If we grant the assumption that the historical masters optimized their methods along these lines, then the options for interpretation narrow considerably. I think we’re at the point where there’s so much work being done and so much communication thereof that 90% of the new ideas will be on 10% of what’s available. Pick your own arbitrary proportion.

    Now, we certainly don’t have many, if any, world class performers in the same way that wrestling produced Aleksandr Karelin. We’re probably more like MMA a while ago: a sport in its infancy. That doesn’t detract from Rich Franklin’s career any more than Anderson Silva’s eventual dismantling at the hands of Chris Weidman did. The world record for the 100m in 1908 was a full second slower than the current record, but both of those guys are Olympic gold medalists. Vince Lombardi wasn’t an especially good football *player*.

    There’s such a risk for “evaluate all ideas” to mutate into “all ideas deserve equal attention” that I am very leery of adopting “we don’t know anything” when “the certainty we have in our knowledge has degrees and comes with caveats” is more honest. We know a lot, and having to explicitly state “or we think we do” after everything is tiresome. It can be said once, and then implied forever after.

    • Dante di Pietro

      The rest, I like. I wouldn’t ever say to *expect* frustration, as it’s not a universal experience for people, but that it’s OK to be frustrated.

    • Ruairc

      There’s such a risk for “evaluate all ideas” to mutate into “all ideas deserve equal attention” that I am very leery of adopting “we don’t know anything” when “the certainty we have in our knowledge has degrees and comes with caveats” is more honest. We know a lot, and having to explicitly state “or we think we do” after everything is tiresome. It can be said once, and then implied forever after.

      “The certainty of our knowledge has degrees” is something just about everyone will admit and just about nobody will follow. It’s hard to follow. Everything in fencing is interrelated. Idea X relies on Ideas A, B, and C, and any less-than-perfect interpretation or performance of those concepts could introduce compensations invisible to the practitioner.

      It’s almost trivially easy to come up with an idea, observe that it works (mostly, good enough, in this small pond, in this particular context, whatever), and let confirmation bias and ego do the rest, until our certitude is way ahead of where it should be. (Sparring and competition are not necessarily remedies to this problem; they have their own limitations.) And if everything else we build serves to buttress our leaning tower, we may begin to think its foundations stable enough.

      I do not share your confidence regarding the current state of the art. We are not Olympians, in 1908 or otherwise. We’re hobbyists. Our best and most dedicated compare to high school athletes or collegiate intramural teams in experience and training frequency. Our coaches are all dead, and speak a different language to boot. We have much yet to learn.

      (I’m eight months into my undergraduate-level study of anatomy and kinesiology, and I probably know more than 95% of HEMAists. You want to use anatomical expertise as a parameter for confidence? Are you sure you know how? The idiocy of the half-educated, vested with authority, is exactly how rumors propagate – like “lunging with the knee going past the heel is bad for you”. It’s also how people get hurt, but that’s another matter.)

      The idea could perhaps be better worded. But saying once “I do not speak for the master; assume as much forever” is not good enough. We don’t need to repeat it endlessly, but a succinct reminder once per class does not seem inappropriate. And encouraging students to voice their own ideas and remain open to others’, rather than ascribing absolute authority to an instructor, is necessary not only to our culture, but to our progression. As instructors, recognizing the limits of our own knowledge is equally important. It’s too easy to read a book, think we know something, and get smug.

      “The certainty in our knowledge has degrees” is great if you have the tools and expertise necessary to accurately assess those degrees. Few, if any, of us do, and I’m extremely wary of encouraging students (new or experienced) to believe that they might. “Be humble and try everything” may slow down our progression, but at least we’ll be ready to consider new ideas. If my towers can’t always be vertical, I’d at least like to have a bubble level.

      • Dante di Pietro

        At the core of it, if you achieve “martial excellence” as you describe, can you then claim to have some sure knowledge of the Art?

        I think that to say there are no experts is false. We certainly have no Sugar Ray Robinsons (none I know of, anyway!), but that’s someone who transcends the word “expert.” It sounds as if you use that word to carry greater significance. There are even degrees of expertise; not all black belts are cut from the same cloth. There’s a joke that it takes exactly 10 years to earn a BJJ black belt, plus or minus 3 to 6 years.

        I dislike dismissing performance accomplishments as much as you appear to. Competitions do have their limits, but we also know that sparring and competitions were exactly how the masters and their students demonstrated their skills; match the rules they used and gain greater insight. Success against a resisting opponent is the only real crucible for skill experimentation.

        Perhaps I’m less romantic about it, which I accept.

        In any case, it sounds like your club is developing wonderfully regardless of any philosophical quibbles we might have. 🙂 I would very much like to visit some weekend and check it out if you’ll have me.

        • Ruairc

          If professional HMA existed after the manner of professional football or boxing, none of us – not one – would have the skills necessary to be successful. “Martial excellence” is relative. And subjective. Expertise, in any absolute sense, is questionable at best. We don’t give amateurs in any other discipline such lofty titles. HMA at large has shown anxiety regarding the use of “master” for this reason exactly, and I think it well placed.

          No maxim can contradict human nature. Excellent performance carries weight, even in the amateur leagues. Consistently successful individuals, demonstrating incontrovertible martial excellence and deep knowledge of the sources, will earn respect and attention. This is all well and good; doing one thing right makes you more likely to be doing other things right.

          It is not my job to reinforce that. It’s my job to call attention to the dangers of listening exclusively to established names in a young art – of forgetting dimensions of depth as well as breadth – of allowing the impact of authority to eclipse evidence and understanding – of failing to ask questions – of falling into complacency and self-assurance.

          • Dante di Pietro

            How would you know expertise if you saw it?

          • David Twynham

            surely there’s a scale here?
            I would expect a brand new student to listen to me unquestioningly their first day of class.
            I would expect an intermediate student to ask questions about what I’m teaching and why. If I can’t give satisfactory answers, then I don’t understand the material well enough to teach at this level.
            I would expand a skilled student to be able to do what I ask and also be able to have an intelligent conversation about what we’re doing, and where we might disagree.

          • Dante di Pietro

            To clarify, I didn’t mean that question in a snarky way. I was intending it legitimately: what would expertise look like?

          • Ruairc

            Recognizing expertise could be a post in itself.

            To summarize: first, I’m going to compare what I’m hearing or seeing against what I know that I know – scientific knowledge backed by formal study and practice. (Even if my knowledge in these fields is superficial by academic standards, I am at least better able to accurately assess what I know and what I don’t.) If it does not accord well with my knowledge of linguistics or body mechanics or the actual words of the masters themselves, the would-be expert must have a compelling explanation or achieved a higher level of study to gain my trust.

            Second, I’m going to compare it against what I think that I know – experiential knowledge, intuition, and fields I’ve studied casually, like history, anthropology, martial arts, and education. Regardless of whether it fits in well with my existing knowledge or not, my confidence here will be substantially reduced, because I lack any real-world credentials and rigorous study to back my evaluation. Dunning-Kruger. Mount Stupid.

            Third, I’m going to analyze the would-be expert’s intellectual approach. This is the fuzziest, but bona-fide experts seem to show certain consistent patterns of thinking – a nuanced understanding of the interrelationships of all the relevant parts of their disciplines (knowing why it works down to first principles and being able to explain it well), a hunger to challenge and be challenged, confidence (even eagerness) when admitting ignorance or failure as well as proven success, erring on the side of humility, a desire to continue learning, accurate knowledge of their strengths and limitations, etc. They’re also, you know, good at what they do by any objective standard, often to the point that even a layman can tell.

            The more of these qualities I can see in someone (as informed by my scientific and experiential knowledge), the greater my confidence that their approach and framework is unlikely to lead them astray. On the other hand, if I see someone demanding authority, refusing to admit ignorance, claiming special knowledge, presenting specious answers to questions at the edges of their understanding, focusing on some elements (the ones they best understand) to the exclusion or near-exclusion of others, reacting poorly to tactful challenges, making excuses, disparaging real science and experts, or reluctant to expand beyond familiar environments and small ponds, these are warning signs.

            Real expertise, trustworthy expertise, is going to give me no reason to doubt.

            But let’s set all this aside, and look at something more elemental.

            Anyone with access to YouTube can observe that the martial excellence of HMA, in general, is decidedly low. Whyever would you think that you are being pushed far enough, consistently enough, to really understand the advanced tactics the masters discuss (much less the subtle details they don’t)? If we rarely, or never, need to actually use these things to be successful, how can we claim to know we have that right? And if we’re missing objective evidence that our interpretation of the advanced stuff is solid, can we even claim expertise in the first place? Aren’t we just experts in the basics and superficies?

            How many times have you had occasion to perform the ricavazione in a competitive sparring situation? One? Two? You yourself have said that Fabris’ “proceeding with resolution” (book 2) is beyond your abilities and your study. Doesn’t that seem like a pretty sizable hole?

            I daresay that expertise wouldn’t have such holes.

          • Dante di Pietro

            😀 Well, when called upon to ricavazione, I have.

            As to Fabris book 2… I’m not a Fabris practitioner. There’s no reason to expect I’d be learning those things. I can’t say that a longsword guy isn’t an expert because he does Fiore and not Lichtenauer.

            Expertise doesn’t preclude knowledge gaps or errors. Stephen Hawking has gaps in his understanding of physics! Anderson Silva is weak on the lead, and Shakespeare’s Mandarin was abysmal. The unassailable paragon concept you’ve crafted is incredibly rare, and even then they only seem that way until they lose. You seem to want expertise to mean perfection, and it doesn’t and never has.

          • Ruairc

            An M.D. is an expert. So is a Ph.D. I’ve met several who are far from paragons. I do not expect perfection.

            Regardless, I’ve yet to meet anyone with an equivalent depth of understanding in HMA. This is exactly what I’d anticipate, given that nobody or almost nobody has studied HMA with the same rigor, for the same number of hours, with the same degree of scaffolding; given that HMA demands less skill and dedication to be successful (per the martial excellence demonstrated in tournaments); and given that HMA has no living teachers or traditions much older than 15 years and very few practitioners who can even consistently perform the basics well. (In many cases, we can’t even agree on what the basics are.)

            Our best are equivalent to alchemists, physickers, and fortune-tellers. I can’t call that expertise.

          • Dante di Pietro

            “You will offer many tempi and open lines!”

            Beware the ides of March? 😀

          • Gawin

            “given that nobody or almost nobody has studied HMA with the same rigor, for the same number of hours, with the same degree of scaffolding;”

            … As someone who started learning to fence at the same time as they started their PhD, I’d actually say that I meet these criteria or am pretty close. There’s surprisingly little rigor in PhD training since you’re expected to be able to figure out answers on your own on day 1 and are pretty much left to your own devices until you either start producing results or drop out. Likewise, a lot of time spent completing a PhD is related to the tedium of data acquisition and analysis, not actually thinking about the field particularly deeply. It’s more akin to putting on your fencing gear & de-rusting your sword. I assume by “scaffolding” you mean that there’s a framework, and again, I had far more systematic instruction in fencing than I really had in grad school because again, you’re expected to figure things out on your own.

            Ultimately the process of getting a PhD is about learning *how* to find information, develop ideas, and test hypotheses and then *applying* this knowledge to a specific area of study. Expertise is about being able to identify the relevant possibilities in a given situation and select a good answer confidently based on understanding both the advantages of that particular approach, but also the limitations of the others.

            That being said, from a practical perspective, your first maxim is not only particularly obtuse, but is in fact neurobiologically destructive. The hardest part of what I listed above is figuring out how to “rule out” alternatives, and an approach that allows for all knowledge to be perpetually revisited makes this impossible. If we follow the advice you have listed, we would *never* be able to make a confident decision. This sort of crippling inability to make decisions is a common problem for PhD students on the path to becoming experts, but it isn’t something to encourage.

            On a more personal note, I would argue that this kind of thinking seems to lead you to constantly reinvent the way that you’re fencing and it has probably set you back far more than it has helped.

          • Dante di Pietro

            Gawin, I used to see that sort of problem all the time with my students. Invariably, the ones who were willing to commit and make an error, examine the error, and then attempt anew made much more progress than the ones who wouldn’t make the attempt until they were certain of their correctness. In practice, it turns out that skill development isn’t done by maximizing focus and refining one particular thing– I don’t fear a man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times if it’s at the exclusion of other skills.

            People learn best when faced with continual challenges that are slightly beyond them: when they try, fail, examine the failure, have their failure explained to them, are shown a better option or options, try again, and succeed. Moreover, getting bogged down in the details of something is harmful to improvement: with my students’ writing, I never gave them more than 3 things to work on each time, and usually 2 of those were subsets of a broader topic. Learners need a certain level of comfort to explore, and talking about semicolons or gerunds in addition to thesis statement clarity is bad teaching. More critical skills have to be first, measured alongside simpler skills: critical and simple come first, and less critical complex skills come last. Getting too far into nonessential, complex concepts is damaging to learners.

            To make an analogy to other art, a sketch happens first, and detailed is added evenly over time until a polished drawing is finished. No one would recommend drawing a hand in its entirety before drawing the arm, nor would anyone draw that hand as a polished piece only to erase it and start over when the intent is to draw a full figure.

            A person might sketch 500 hands in different poses, but that’s an exercise in general shape, not detail. Learning, broadly speaking, is a process of continuous refinement that is more or less applied evenly– provided, of course, that we are talking about a skillset needed to do a thing, and not simple knowledge acquisition. You can memorize a list of nouns, but that’s inert.

            At the core of it, it’s necessary to have enough theoretical and practical understanding to even be able to understand what you’re seeing to make judgments based on skill. Good Will Hunting has a great line about how only 1 person in a million can tell the difference between a math genius and a math mega-genius (I’m paraphrasing here), but the genius and the mega-genius can both discern that readily. It’s good to punch up if you’re a comedian, but not in most other situations.

          • Ruairc

            I will certainly defer to your greater experience in Ph.D. programs here. Do you mean to suggest that your neurobiology is as good as your fencing? If so, I might have to confess substantial disappointment with our local university system. If not, why do you suppose this is (assuming you have, indeed, put equal rigor and time into fencing, and had better instruction to boot)?

            If the first maxim is neurobiologically destructive, then neurobiological destruction certainly looks a lot like making some enormous headway in understanding, cultivating an enthusiastic group of students from nothing, and getting them up to competency in the basics of the art far faster than I’ve done before. Or has this indeed set me back more than it’s helped? Could I be a god of fencing destruction now with a thousand expert pupils, were I only a little less quick to admit my ignorance and explore other points of view?

            How silly of me! Clearly my skill deficits have little to do with the fact that it’s been five months since I’ve been to an SCA practice or gotten a chance to work with a fencer of more than a year’s experience – to remedy these problems, I need only abandon my obtuse philosophy of reexamining what I know when presented with a fresh perspective.

            You and Dante seem to be confusing “we are fallible, so be open to new ideas and cognizant of your own shortcomings” with “we are fallible, so never make decisions about anything, ever”.

            Despite my sardonic tone, I’m legitimately interested in hearing your answers to the questions posed in the first paragraph.

          • Dante di Pietro

            My initial and subsequent point remains only that your use of expert is more like a special definition than how people typically mean it or how it is defined in multiple different skill progression models.

            It’s entirely possible that you are BOTH making headway AND dragging your feet. The criticism is only that maybe the people who defeat you 95% of the time might know much, much more than you and might even have some specialized knowledge and skill based on their experience and study. Alchemists, indeed. Pass me some lead.

          • Gawin

            “Do you mean to suggest that your neurobiology is as good as your fencing?”

            “If not, why do you suppose this is (assuming you have, indeed, put equal rigor and time into fencing, and had better instruction to boot)?”

            Expertise and performance are not the same thing. Expertise is related to knowledge. Performance is the result of *both* knowledge *and* practice(performance = a(knowledge) + b(practice) + c). You have repeatedly conflated expertise with “practice” in this thread and it’s a large part of why the definitions you have provided for expertise make zero sense and contradict each other.

            If we are expected to consider that there can be no “experts” in HEMA because the study of historic martial arts is 1) too new and is 2) incomplete; then we must understand that by that logic, Neither Albert Einstein nor Robert Oppenheimer were “experts’ precisely because the rigorous study of Physics was relatively new and they didn’t know about quantum physics. The problem is that you’re attempting to define “expertise” against some imaginary absolute, and that’s simply not how expertise is measured. Expertise is relative to both the state and scope of a given field. Einstein was an expert precisely because he understood physics better than most other people at the time. Likewise, there are a number of people who are experts in HEMA because they understand historic fencing better than most other people who are doing it. It isn’t really relevant that the field is new (this is just Genetic fallacy), and likewise, the fact that there are gaps doesn’t preclude people from being experts in what *is* known (for all practical definitions of knowledge. Yes I’m aware that you’re trying to seem insightful by invoking a particularly abstract epistemological definition of “know” in Maxim 1).

            With that said, the crux of what is learned during the completion of a PhD is as follows: 1) Sufficient background knowledge to be able to identify what can be known 2) Sufficient knowledge to understand what is known and 3) Sufficient knowledge of the skills required to add to what is known. Am I capable of this in HEMA? Yes, so by the standard of a PhD being an expert as you stated, I’m an expert at HEMA.

            How are your students succeeding despite Maxim 1 being destructive? Well, for starters, they’re ignoring it. So are you. If you’re claiming them as your students and they’re treating you as their teacher, then you are both working under the assumption that you are an expert and that you know things. If they were to do otherwise, they’d find the anarchy of your practice as frustrating as attempting to select a video to watch from the hundreds of other equally unknown videos on Netflix.

            “Clearly my skill deficits have little to do with the fact that it’s been five months since I’ve been to an SCA practice or gotten a chance to work with a fencer of more than a year’s experience ” — Why would my frame of reference be only the last 5 months?

          • Ruairc

            It is trivial to say that in any given field, some people know more than others. That’s not my objection. The term “expert” carries weight, and that weight is informed by the degree of efficacy and understanding of “real” experts. I fear that claiming expertise for ourselves gives the wrong impression entirely – especially to the uninitiated, who can’t tell the difference between Fabris, Leoni, you, me, and their buddy Steve who fenced in high school and read a lot of books on medieval warfare and culture.

            There are plenty of people who’ve been doing this longer than me, and plenty who can defeat me handily in a fight. Some consider themselves quite expert – notwithstanding that they do things directly contradicted by primary sources – notwithstanding that they teach technique or conditioning counterindicated by exercise science, and sometimes even do injury to themselves or their students.

            Tell me: is it helpful to grant these people the social capital conferred by “expert”? Does that further any of our goals as HEMAists?

            Experience and prowess and interpretations supported by evidence can stand on their own merits well enough. Why add a title? What are you hoping it will accomplish?

            Here’s something that does further our goals: fostering an environment where students are encouraged to bring their own interpretations, opinions, experiences, knowledge, and questions to the table rather than totally relying on or deferring to me, or some self-appointed, unvetted “expert”. A number of my breakthroughs in understanding or changes to the curriculum, some quite significant, can be traced back to something a student offered. Sometimes they know things I don’t. As their knowledge and practice develop, they will be able to offer even more. They need to be aware of that, and so do I.

            You say that I and my students are ignoring the first maxim, but maybe we’re just interpreting it differently.

            I’ll add a personal note, then bow out, because I think I’ve said all there is to be said. Perhaps I should have started with it.

            I’ve been doing this fencing thing for awhile now. In that time, I came to trust a handful of other people to guide me on my path who seemed, or claimed, to have or to be able to teach things conducive to my improvement. Along the way, I’ve sometimes learned that my trust was misplaced – that these people were not what they seemed or what they claimed. In at least one case, my misplaced trust in another’s expertise resulted in real, physical harm.

            And you know, that’s okay, to an extent. We all make mistakes, we all have gaps in our knowledge, and flaws in our character. But we should at least be aware of them, and admit to them. Our credibility will be too far damaged otherwise.

            If it is inevitable that I will make mistakes in my teaching, I at least want to make as few as possible, and correct them as quickly as I can. I don’t want to overstate my knowledge, especially to myself. I want to be able to say “I don’t know” if I don’t know, and there’s an awful lot that I don’t know.

          • Dante di Pietro

            It sounds to me like you experienced some unfortunate disconnects between expectation and reality, which may or may not have been a matter of misrepresentation or misapprehension.

            I think it’s wise to be aware of your limitations and to be skeptical, but it’s false to say there are no experts. It is VERY noble to be sure that your students are aware of your limitations. I think that would be better paired with an acknowledgement that people exist whose limits are different, and sometimes considerably so. Misrepresentations exist, absolutely, but that does not mean that expertise is a myth. It does mean that it may take extra skills to discern.

            I still very much would like to visit your club if you do anything on weekends. I’ll even grow my hair out and shave my beard to travel incognito. 😉

          • Gawin

            “There are plenty of people who’ve been doing this longer than me, and plenty who can defeat me handily in a fight. Some consider themselves quite expert – notwithstanding that they do things directly contradicted by primary sources – notwithstanding that they teach technique or conditioning counterindicated by exercise science, and sometimes even do injury to themselves or their students.

            Tell me: is it helpful to grant these people the social capital conferred by “expert”? Does that further any of our goals as HEMAists?”

            This is *precisely* why expertise is about knowledge and is *separate* from performance and practice.

  • miguel

    I think that the maxims are solid but adding corollaries is not as helpful. There is some ambiguity to your maxims that I believe could be really useful to students at a variety of levels and one of the goals of a teacher should be share their feelings on them but only after a student has come up with a corollary on their own. For example “martial excellence is the goal” this has different meanings to different people at different stages of fighting. When I first began fencing I thought it mean winning. Then as I progressed, it became out learning specific techniques. Now it is about constantly applying what I know, and going the next step to actually start playing the “game” of fencing. Through out that entire time the mantra was “martial excellence is the goal” but the words changed meanings due to my personal progression and from input from educators.

    As far as defining expertise, I see what Ruaric is saying in that there isn’t a rigorous, unbiased scale of measuring skill level. I don’t think that this “scale” where and individual passes a certain threshold and then bam “Master” is awarded. I think most people know when you watch a skilled practitioner, but at the same time I also think most “masters”(of course there is some douchers that cling to titles and jazz but I think they are exceptions and not the rule) wouldn’t consider themselves masters. Its almost like that quote “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it”. Anyhoo that my 2 cents

    • Ruairc

      These corollaries are actually not made explicit in any of my instructional materials; rather, they are presented here to give readers an idea of how I use these ideas when teaching. “Yes, this is a basic terza guard. Yes, it’ll take time to develop the strength necessary to hold it for long – probably three to six months. Eh. Fencing is hard.” Or “I said to do X three weeks ago. But I didn’t know anything then. Having given it a little more thought, I think Y might be more important to focus on, because Z. Give it a try and tell me what you think.”

      Students have quoted these maxims back at me and used them to access or describe their own ideas, which suggests that, as a tool to shape culture, they’re working, and people like them.

      I have a student who continues to unironically refer to me as “maestro”, even though I’ve told him to stop. Jerk.

      Sitting somewhat on the sidelines of the SCA, I am finding more to like about the Condottieri culture every day.

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