Welcome to the second entry in our series of guest posts titled “Doing Research.” If you missed the first essay by D. S. Farrer (which provides a global overview of the subject) be sure to click here.
Compared to other fields of scholarly inquiry, Martial Arts Studies has a distinctly democratic flavor. Many individuals are introduced to these systems while students at a college or university and are interested in seeing a more intellectually rigorous treatment of their interests. And certain practitioners want to go beyond reading studies produced by other writers and undertake research based on their own time in the training hall. The emphasis on ethnographic description, oral and local history, as well as the methodological focus on community based collaborative research within Martial Arts Studies (itself a radically interdisciplinary area), makes participation in such efforts both relatively accessible and highly valuable.
Or maybe you are a student about to embark on your first ethnographic research project. With the growing popularity of this field of study we are increasingly seeing classes in Martial Arts Studies offered at the undergraduate and graduate level. Some of these courses include a “research component” in which students are encouraged to go out and join a class or school in the local martial arts community and then to reflect on their experience.
What ever their source, a new generation of novice researchers is likely looking at the challenges that lay ahead and asking themselves, what comes next? To help smooth these first forays into the world of ethnography, a number of researchers (most of whom have taught these sorts of classes in the past or have conducted extensive field research) have agreed to contribute to a series of short posts on this topic. Each of these will attempt to pass on a single piece of advice, insight, or research strategy that the author wishes that they might have had when first setting out to begin their fieldwork.
With that in mind, the following essay is designed to help students in the very first stages of their research project. How should one go about choosing a teacher or school for research purposes? And how should you approach the uncomfortable and awkward experiences that arise whenever you begin a new activity? In particular, what are the dangers of maintaining an “intellectual distance” from your subject of study? Prof. Mroz has some great advice for new ethnographers, but in truth much of what he has to say applies equally well to anyone beginning a new martial arts style.
Three Ideas for Fieldwork – Daniel Mroz
Ben asked me what suggestions I might offer to students preparing for fieldwork that requires participation in some kind of studio class, be it martial arts, dance, theatre or music. Having re-read Prof. Farrer’s essay, I’m not sure there’s too much else to say! My proposal is to take what might be described as an existential approach to Ben’s request.
The late Liu Ming (Charles Belyea, 1947-2015), an insightful Daoist and Buddhist initiate about whom my friend Scott Park Phillips has written , offered his meditation students a fruitful description of the qualities of a student-teacher relationship. I propose that Ming’s three ideas might offer helpful parameters for students about to engage in fieldwork that requires the practice of martial arts. While Ming’s propositions are about teaching and learning, rather then about teaching, learning and reporting, reflecting on my own experience I think they cover some essential requirements in a novel and pithy fashion.
For your study, seek out a teacher with whom you feel a fundamental affinity. My experience is that affinity with a teacher is more important than one’s appreciation for a particular martial art or curriculum. Beyond auditing a sample class as an observer it is not usually easy to acquire much experience of the teacher. So auditing a first class is vital to seeing if one detects the potential for affinity.
The detection of this potential is both pragmatic and intuitive. When I went to watch a Siu Lum Hung Sing Choy Li Fut Kung Fu class in Montréal in September of 1993 I noted that the teacher, Sui Meing Wong, was very exacting but also patient and impersonal. To students balanced on one leg executing a low sweep followed by a knee strike then a snap kick he said simply ‘don’t fall over; lean slightly forward.’ He made no comment on their abilities or lack thereof, only on their application. I noticed that while there was hard body-to-body contact, the attack/defense combinations and the Da Sam Sing / Guk Sam Sing forearm and shin conditioning were also being done carefully, incrementally and with close supervision from the teacher. I responded well to this quiet, tacitly supportive but overtly exacting atmosphere. Sui Meing Wong became not only my first principal martial arts teacher but also a kind of older brother. He expected perfect attendance and constant practice from me but was always supportive and available if I needed help. Usually, as I was a starving actor and a graduate student, help meant food; he bought me lunch three to six days a week for 13 years. When I first went into his studio, I had no idea what Choy Li Fut was. My theatre teacher had suggested I study martial arts; a room-mate who was a Tae Kwon Do black belt had told me that Chinese martial arts had the most complex movements; another friend had told me that Monkey Style Kung Fu was cool – David Lee Roth, the singer for Van Halen did Monkey Style! All of that benevolent if sophomoric nonsense went out of my head when I actually saw Sui Meing teaching. ‘I can learn from this person’ I realized and I signed up.
This anecdote likely tells you more about me than it does about how to judge your own affinity with a particular instructor. It will be up to you to determine what your own affinities are. Can you learn and do fieldwork in a situation where you have little or no affinity with the teacher? Of course you can. However, choosing the engagements and commitments you make in terms of affinity, especially early on in your studies will give you an optimal position from which to branch out into more difficult research.
In tandem with affinity, a sense of danger should accompany a fruitful relationship with a teacher. The academic and general culture in which I live and work never uses the term ‘danger’ with any positive connotation. Institutional preoccupation with liability and societal preoccupation with comfort have made ‘danger’ a challenging term to use when discussing teaching and learning.
I’m using it in two ways here: in the abstract one’s relationship with a teacher should be based on the risk that if one follows that teacher one will be changed in unpredictable ways. However, I also mean actual physical danger, the presence of which is often an amazing catalyzer for change!
While what I practice daily is from the vast curriculum of the Chinese martial arts and qigong, I’ve also cross-trained with individuals who interested me and in styles that appealed to me. The best of these experiences were great because of the danger involved.
A few years ago I visited London, England to meet Japanese sword expert John Maki Evans. John is a very quiet, polite and thorough person and I remain compelled by his intelligence, insight and restraint . I also had the oddest of experiences with him. While he was showing me some very rudimentary actions with a Japanese wooden sword or bokken, I was quite convinced, terrified even, that he could use his blunt piece of wood to cut me in half! I’ve fenced with Chinese wooden swords or mu jian for a long time and I’ve worked with other teachers who insist on using ‘sharps’ or actual edged metal weapons during partner practice, all without undue dread. Every time I think back my studies with John I realize that I was definitely in the right place, because of the acute sense of danger I felt and how it led me not only to experience John’s rare fruition in the practice of Japanese sword but also to consider my own trained habits and preferences from a new perspective.
The last idea is perhaps just as unpopular as ‘danger’! In order to get anything out of a relationship with a teacher, one must put their instructions into practice. This sounds innocuous, but the injunction is ‘compliance’ not just ‘practice’. ‘Practice’ may be just too neutral and lacking in the sort of obsessive taking-on that seems to have characterized the behavior of martial artists who have achieved impressive fruitions. In both academic thought and contemporary liberal ideology it is considered positive to relativize different approaches to any given subject, including methods of training. Further we can now watch excellent and diverse examples of martial arts on the Internet and read all kinds of books, articles and blog reports about these practices. I do this myself all the time but much as I love my ‘information-seeking-and-hoarding’ habit, relativizing one’s practice while it is happening can remove one from one’s own direct experience and sabotage one’s ability to learn.
In 2005 I moved from Montréal to Ottawa. I thought it might be interesting to try a completely different martial art from Choy Li Fut and I chose to take Brazilian Jiu Jitsu; Renzo Gracie has a branch school in Ottawa and it was offering the amazing introductory offer of ten private, hour-long lessons for $200.00! Much as I eventually loved learning to wrestle on the ground, my lack of compliance made it a very daunting experience. I thought of myself as a very trained and coordinated person. I had excellent endurance and flexibility. Rather than accepting immediately that this was a new experience for which I was not particularly qualified, I distinctly recall lying crushed beneath my instructor, unable to orient my body to produce force or leverage while actually thinking about how good I was at martial arts when I was standing up! I also considered how while meditating I could slow down to an amazing one breath per minute even though at that moment I was starting to ‘gas’ and pant for air! Of course I was ‘compliant’ in learning the different movements suggested to me by my teacher, but it took longer than I ever imagined to convince myself to ‘play Jiu Jitsu while playing Jiu Jitsu.’
I write all this with a smile but in my experience the easy part of compliance is performing the modestly unpleasant task the instructor may have set. The difficult part is remaining in that experience when it reveals one’s inexperience, incompetence and reactivity.
To conclude, I hope that readers will consider how Affinity, Danger and Compliance can be functional principles in a student-teacher relationship. If cultivated, they can allow the student to become a researcher who will wind up with something of depth and quality to report.
If you enjoyed this most you might also want to read: Will Universities Save the Traditional Asian Martial Arts?