On May 27th just under 20 people gathered in Myers Park over the course of an afternoon to celebrate the arrival of summer with fellow students of martial arts studies and martial arts enthusiasts. Of course it rained, but a good time was had by all.
When I first conceived the notion of hosting a local gathering I had something a bit smaller in mind. Possibly grabbing lunch with local faculty and graduate students, or hanging out in one of Ithaca’s many fine coffee shops. But as the idea was discussed it became evident that there was enough enthusiasm to host something of a more regional character. Guests began to arrive the day before with some coming from as far away as Michigan and Ottawa. I even had a chance to run into a couple of longtime readers of Kung Fu Tea!
All in all, we had a great mix of people. Local martial arts instructors and amateur scholars had a chance to chat with faculty members from a number of institutions and disciplines. Rain early in the afternoon may have suppressed turnout at first (granted, precipitation in Ithaca never comes as a shock), but by 3:00 the sun came out and we enjoyed beautiful views of Cayuga Lake.
I have come to suspect that the development of martial arts studies in North America lags behind what is currently happening in Europe not because we lack the scholars or academic insight. It wasn’t all that hard to sit down and come up with a list of a dozen or so individuals in my own area who are doing interesting things with the martial arts in a scholarly setting. Rather, we have yet to develop the sorts of social networks that promote a deeper level of empirical and theoretical engagement with each others’ work.
In part this is a reflection of the disciplinary nature of the universities that structure and incentivize so much of our behavior. It is odd that it seems more natural to engage with authors on the other side of the world (provided we share common disciplinary commitments), than individuals much closer to home who share our substantive research interests. Good interdisciplinary work enables community building. I don’t mean that in a purely abstract or aspirational way. Rather, when we open ourselves to the possibility of new perspectives and approaches, we inevitably discover that rather than being solitary travelers, quite a few of our neighbors have been on this journey the entire time.
All of this has real world implications for the sorts of work that can be produced. As guests at the BBQ began to mix I saw conversations emerging on topics as diverse as the linguistics of the martial arts to new ideas for video-based studies of practice. Some amazing stuff can happen when you start putting historians, social scientists and visual artists together, and letting them ruminate on their common obsessions. Physically bringing scholars together is vital as new perspectives tend to naturally emerge.
It was also fantastic to have a range of local martial arts instructors and practitioners in attendance. One of the exciting things about our field is that its often impossible to know quite where the one group ends and the other begins. As I listened to conversations between practitioners and scholars a few consistent themes arose. The changing nature of real estate markets, and the increasingly important role of travel as an aspect of martial arts practice, seemed to be a subject on everyone’s mind. Both of these topics could spin out any number of important research questions. Our theorizing is always the most insightful when it arrises from, and seeks to address, issues from the realm of practice.
Yet what sorts of positive outcomes can a gathering such as this generate, other than a good excuse for some grilling and a chance to hear more about Michael Ryan’s experiences among the stick and knife fighters of Venezuela? What sorts of opportunities for expansion and growth do local communities bring to the table that might be missing from larger national, or even international, gatherings? In short, why should you think about organizing a similar event in your city or region?
Almost any gathering of martial arts studies scholars is sure to bring together a variety of disciplinary perspectives and research focuses. And yet a smaller group also lends itself to a degree of focus. This can be used to identify needs and opportunities that may not be possible at much larger gatherings.
For instance, while we had a good mix of people at our event I noticed that both numbers and enthusiasm tended to skew towards the younger scholars. And while martial arts studies as a discipline is more visible and respected than it was in the past, younger scholars often have specific needs.
The big one is support of their writing. At a time in one’s career in which you are expected to write and publish frequently, nothing might be more helpful than the establishment of an enthusiastic writing group. Having a network of three or four informed readers to pass drafts back and forth between is invaluable. While we all tend to be experts in our own narrow field, it is critical to have access to insights from other individuals who might be better informed about topics or methods that we touch on only in passing. At its worst, writing can be an isolating process. Many of us could benefit from the sociality, but also accountability, of knowing that you need to finish a draft of your book chapter for the writing group.
A slightly larger group of individuals may be able to support a martial arts studies journal club. A standard format for something like this might be a once monthly meeting in which a single member, chosen on a rotating basis, presents an important recent publication to the group. In addition to reinforcing a sense of local community, these sorts of more detailed discussions are often a great way to keep up on methodological developments outside of one’s field, as well as the state of the martial arts studies literature more generally. That kind of background is sure to improve the quality of our own writing as well.
An email list of local martial arts studies scholars may also be a great way to not just keep in touch, but to advertise events at local campuses, or training opportunities, that might otherwise escape notice. It recently occurred to me that there are at least two or three events a year at Cornell that are of direct interest to students of martial arts studies. Unfortunately they are rarely advertised as such, nor are they promoted much beyond the Ithaca area. I suspect that the situation is probably the same at Syracuse University, Binghamton, SUNY Cortland or the University of Rochester. Something as simple as a good email list can given a local network the ability to connect and leverage the many resources that are already available, but somewhat invisible.
Those with greater institutional support and resources have some other possibilities that could be pursued. I personally would love to see a martial arts studies paper series emerge someplace. I think that is still a bit in the future, though possibly not as far as one might suppose.
More realistically, the emergence of strong local networks will almost certainly lead to the flowering of reasonably sized, one day, conferences. Smaller events can be staged without having to find huge sources of fundings, and they can be tailored to fit the research interests and publication priorities of local scholars. A certain level of focus almost always leads to higher quality presentations. And while requiring a greater commitment of time and resources to organize, regional meetings would certainly help to raise our field’s profile in the scholarly community. That, in itself, will almost surely attract the interest of other scholars and graduate students who may be addressing many of these same subjects in their disciplinary work.
Again, most of the topics that we discuss within martial arts studies are already being written about in various regions of the academic world. The challenge is to continue to bring these disconnected voices into discussion with one another. And in practical terms nothing motivates a degree of engagement quite as much as a conference invitation and a possible journal article. Martial arts studies as a field will succeed to the extent that it helps young scholars to grow and thrive.
Despite its abundant natural beauty, Ithaca is not actually an easy place to get to. The fact that people were willing to fly, drive or take a bus to attend what was essentially a social and networking event speaks volumes regarding the enthusiasm that our subject inspires. Nor is this situation unique to central NY. In the coming months I will be carefully considering how this nascent community can be encouraged and fostered. Yet it is clear that we already have much of what is needed to encourage the growth of strong, overlapping, martial arts studies networks across North America.
Lastly, a few notes of thanks are in order before signing off. I would like to thank both Prof. T. J. Hinrichs of Cornell and Prof. Daniel Mroz of the University of Ottawa for their support and advice in organizing this event. A huge note of thanks goes to Tara and Charlena who organized a mountain of food and people over multiple days. This event could not have happened without them. Lastly, thanks to everyone who took time out of their holiday weekend to travel to Ithaca. Your enthusiasm is inspiring!
If you enjoyed this report you might also want to read:Writing (and Reading) Better Martial Arts History in Four Easy Steps