How Fencing Is Like Leading a Discussion Class

You have to have a plan, but you cannot expect the plan to go the way you have written it out. You need to know what questions you are going to ask, but you cannot know what order is going to be best in which to ask them. So you read the primary sources and make notes on their structure, but you know that whatever questions you ask, the students will come at you with answers that you do not expect. You need to be able to take their answers (read, actions) and guide them to the answers that you wanted them to give in order to bring out the main points in the argument that you are trying to make. So, feint, ask a question, see how they respond. Oh, they don't see to know this or that fact. Tell them. Ask the question again. Laugh when their answer takes the conversation a whole other way. Nudge the answers back to the question you initially asked, until they are ready to hear what it is that you wanted to say. But don't press it: simply telling them something won't work (read, you need to prepare your attack). You cannot charge in with your great insights and expect them to land (read, make the touch) if you have not set up the problem correctly. You will bore them if you are too predictable; you want to be able to surprise them with new insights. But they will not be able to appreciate those insights if you have not set it up. Feint: see how they answer. Feint again: see how they answer again. Feint maybe even a third or fourth time: they're warming up now, you've seen their responses, you now know how to land the attack. But none of this will work if you do not have a plan. So stop blogging and get back to making your notes for class....

Other similarities that occur to me as I am going over the notes that I made nine years ago the last time that I taught this particular course: the more practice you have in preparing for class, the less you (seem to) need to prepare, but this is somewhat of an illusion. Likewise, those fencers who never seem to practice now but have been fencing since they were kids. Of course they do not need to practice so much (although if they did, they would still most likely be able to improve, even if they are already great fencers); they spent years and years and years working on those skills, just as I have spent years and years and years writing out notes for class. So now maybe it takes me a few hours to get ready for class when ten years ago it would still take me days. Likewise, the more I practice preparing for class, the less I actually have to write down, but this is only because I have spent so much time writing out outlines and discussion plans and notes on the sources. I am more efficient (at least, I hope I am!) because I am more practiced at knowing what kinds of things I am going to need to remember to say. I also appreciate how long it takes to make certain kinds of points. I am thinking here of what they (you know, they, the experts) say about the ways in which experts see situations: a beginner looks at everything because he or she does not know what actually matters; an expert sees more efficiently because he or she is able to distinguish what is relevant from what is noise. Speaking of noise, what is that puppy barking at?


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