Sensei, students and the spoken word: Learning and teaching in a Japanese koryū dōjō

Abstract

Nostalgia for ‘samurai’ pervades Japanese society in advertising, television and film, not least in portrayals of teaching and learning which parody the teacher-student training relationship. Such comedy sketches work because they are based on well-known stereotypes of martial arts master, student and the mysteries of the martial arts; all of which are familiar to a Japanese audience. The extent to which these characterisations reflect current learning and teaching practices remains unclear, particularly in the koryū bujutsu, which continue to play a role in contemporary society, despite being based on pre-modern foundations. Developing an awareness of the social aspects of interaction in the dōjō is key to understanding the impact of martial arts practices. This paper takes conventional representations from mainstream media as a starting point to examine current practices of learning and teaching in a koryū bujutsu, with a particular focus on the role of kuden (lit. ‘oral transmission’). The primary sources of data are participant observation and interviews carried out during fieldwork at a Japanese koryū dōjō. The research provides insights into how actual learning and teaching compares with the esoteric and archaic forms of knowledge transmission frequently portrayed in the Japanese media.

Still

Still from Ken no shugyo comedy sketch. Click on the image for video.

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Here is the abstract for a paper I presented at the Student Education Conference and Digital Festival, “Evidencing Excellence” in at the University of Leeds, 8 January 2016.

“Shut up and write!” Making academic writing social

Abstract
Writing is an area with which many students (and academics!) struggle, particularly as it is inherently a solitary practice. “Shut up and Write!” (“SU&W!”) sessions make academic writing social. The format which has recently become popular with researchers (Mewburn et al, 2014) can also be a powerful tool when shared with taught students. “SU&W!” was a departure for Skills@Library with a stronger experiential emphasis than traditional workshops can allow. This session will address how and why “SU&W!” helps students tackle procrastination and lack of focus. Skills@Library first trialled “SU&W!” for taught students as a one-off experiment. Feedback was extremely positive, so in summer 2015, ten “SU&W!” were offered, targeting primarily Masters students. This session uses personal reflections on the “SU&W!” process and analysis of student comments. “SU&W!” provides structured and focussed time with clear goals, providing students with immediate feedback on their writing process. Peer pressure prevents distraction; peer support helps with motivation and encourages student-to-student exchange of strategies for becoming better writers. Sessions are relatively simple to run and can act as a catalyst for students to set up their own groups.
By the end of this session, participants will have learned how and why “SU&W!” can be a powerful tool for reducing student isolation and developing excellent writing practices; and will have the tools to set-up sessions within their own context.

Link to Evidencing Excellence theme
“Shut up and write!” develops self-awareness in managing academic writing through modelling best practices. The session will also highlight applications and digital resources which can be used to support the writing process, both face-to-face and online.

How do you evidence excellence in use of this initiative and/or technology?
“SU&W!” sessions work with undergraduates, taught postgraduate and research students. They fit well with peer support initiatives; study skills sessions taught within modules as well as central provision. Once students have experienced the format they are encouraged to run groups themselves. Similar sessions could target other study skills, such as “Shut up and Read/Revise!”.
“SU&W!” may also be particularly appropriate for supporting part-time and distance students, using Skype.

Ways in which content or technology could be used in other disciplines / services
The session will include the student voice through examples of feedback on “Shut up and write!” sessions, including how it has informed/improved their writing practices.

Here is the hand out as used in sessions with students: Shut up and write2.

 

 

Here is the abstract for a paper I presented at the BAJS conference in September.

Kuden: The use of oral transmission in a traditional martial art

This paper will explore the role which kuden play in the learning of the classical Japanese martial art (koryū bujutsu) of Takenouchi-ryū Bitchūden (TRB). Kuden refers to the oral transmission of knowledge characteristic of other traditional arts, including tea, garden design, and calligraphy. Kuden are found in Japanese performing arts, such as kyōgen, dance and music; and the term is also used in Buddhism. Although kuden are often mentioned in relation to koryū, these (secret) teachings are reported with little explanation of how the kuden relate to the rest of the curriculum; their purpose; and how they are perceived by teachers and students.

In TRB, the kuden come in different forms, including those traditionally attached to particular kata, whether in the movement itself or the kata names; explicit precepts; or newer forms such as those the current head teacher has derived from a retelling of the TRB foundation myth and recorded in his blog. This paper will explain how the kuden are used as teaching tools and explore how contemporary practitioners relate these teachings to their life outside the koryū. The primary data source is fieldwork based at the head dōjō. The koryū are impenetrable, even for Japanese, however, a longstanding association provided unprecedented access to conduct in-depth interviews with both new and senior group members. Selected data from participant observation—including fieldnotes, photographs, and records of online discussions—will be used to document examples of kuden. The kuden associated with a core kata from the TRB curriculum will be explained in detail to show how practitioners have applied its principles in the business environment and personal relationships. Far from being esoteric and archaic forms of knowledge of only historical interest, the research shows that kuden continue to permeate the daily lives of modern practitioners.

These are the abstract and slides for a session which I gave with my colleague Anika Easy at the University of Leeds Student Education Conference, “The Leeds Graduate – the distinctive journey”  on Friday 9 January. If you are interested in hearing more, please get in touch.

Learning to experiment – workshops and activities for key transition points

Skills@Library provides a core programme of workshops on particular topics. Last year we ran two additional weeks of workshops targeting specific groups of students to provide dedicated help at key transition points: Experimental Week and Postgraduate Week. Sessions included: lunch-time referencing drop-in clinic located in the Library foyer; using Twitter to support academic learning; active writing sessions for postgraduate students during their dissertation-writing stage; drawing for review and learning at exam and project revision stages. This meant that practical support was available and tailored to students at times and places when they needed it, showing understanding of and empathy for the transitions within their University development.

This session will give a brief overview of the activities, highlighting what helped students (and ourselves) reach those ‘A-ha!’moments, and show how the exercises can be replicated within modules or as additional sessions when required.

Transferability: The applications of these initiatives are University-wide.

HUMS Writing Group Poster

I had my panel last week and have a serious amount of writing to do over the next few months. The Shut up and Write! sessions we’ve been holding face to face and online have been extremely motivating, and a couple of people have made it through to submission, so completion is possible! I’m planning sessions on campus on 21st October, 4th and 18th November. Based on previous experience, things work best if:

  • we think beforehand about what we want to work on and do the reading/prep before we come
  • phones and internet are turned off during writing periods
  • there’s a good supply of drinks and snacks!

We’ll be in SALC for the first one and there are coffee making facilities on the first floor (bring your own mug), I will bring milk and possibly snacks. The room is booked for three hours in total, with (nearly) two hours dedicated to focussed writing time. This is the schedule we’ve used:

  • 20 mins social time: intros, writing goals for the day, setting up (and biscuits)
  • 25 mins writing
  • 5 mins silent break, no talking in the room
  • 25 mins writing
  • 20 mins social break, coffee (and biscuits)
  • 25 mins writing
  • 5 mins silent break, no talking in the room
  • 25 mins writing
  • 20 mins social time; follow-up, feedback, discussion (and more biscuits…)

If you are going to be late, the etiquette is that it’s OK to arrive up to 15 minutes into the pre-writing social time. This leaves 5 minutes before writing starts for you to get set up (and you’ll have to be quick!). We discussed at earlier sessions about people who could only commit to half the time (or need to leave early) and decided that was OK, but joining or leaving in the social time/breaks at the beginning, middle or end of the whole session causes least disruption. Of course, this is just the model we’ve used in the past, it’s all open to renegotiation at the start of each session. All welcome!

For more info about how this started: https://lucubrat.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/shut-up-and-write

And how the first session went: http://sucorcoran.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/shut-up-and-write

Being forced to articulate writing goals for the session and having the ‘tap, tip, tap’ of the keyboard or ‘scratch, scritch, scratch’ of a pencil drives the writing forward. We share writing tips and challenges, but best of all, we get to celebrate each others achievements, however small. Progress is progress!

For info on this and future sessions, find HUMS Writing Group on facebook here.

Download a .pdf version of the poster with embedded links here: HUMS Writing Group (best for sharing via email).

The following abstract and slides were from a paper I gave at the International Symposium on Japanese Studies in Bucharest 1-3 March 2014.

 ‘The importance of doing and being myself’: The impact of traditional martial arts practice on the lives of contemporary practitioners.

My research takes an ethnographic approach to examining the classical martial system of Takenouchi-ryū Bitchūden (TRB), exploring it as a form of education and character development.  Students devote years to this intensely mentally demanding and potentially dangerous physical combative art.  What practitioners learn; the impact it has on their lives, identities and conceptions of self; and how koryū bujutsu1relate to life, leisure and education in Japan are the main focus. Fundamentally, the aim is to discover how and why the practice of TRB affects the lives of its members.

Research on martial arts includes translations of samurai literature; studies of the samurai; histories of the martial arts; modern writings on techniques and philosophy; catalogues of extant koryū and their characteristics; and popular manuals. However, studies taking an ethnographic approach are concentrated almost exclusively on modernmartial arts and there are very few in-depth explorations of the koryū. Although they no longer play a central role in the training of the élite, the koryū ethos and values continue to influence both current sports and wider aspects of contemporary culture.

This paper will focus on individuals’ experiences of and attitudes towards this traditional practice and the role it plays in their modern lives. The primary source of data is from fieldwork carried out at the head dōjō. The koryū are impenetrable, even for Japanese, however, a longstanding association provided unprecedented access to carry out in-depth interviews with both new and senior members of the group.

The research shows that far from being ‘just a hobby’, for exercise or a form of historical reenactment; what people learn influences their daily existence, including work and relationships with others. Long-term participants see it as an integral aspect of their lives, an important source of well-being and intrinsic to how they deal with the challenges of life in contemporary Japan.

1 Koryū bujutsu = ‘old’ style pre-Meiji martial traditions

This is a poster I put together for the ‘What does it mean to do a PhD today?‘ interdisciplinary conference at the University of Manchester, held on Monday 2 December, 2013.

The spiral represents how all members of the system experience the same elements of the curriculum repeatedly at different points in their journey. I have also included some of the ideas and opinions on learning taken from recent interviews carried out during fieldwork in Japan. I think there are elements of learning a koryū which have parallels in the PhD process and I want to explore this further. A deeper understanding of what it means to engage in an intense learning process within a small group and how this can be facilitated are possibly going to be the most transferable outcomes of my research.

Poster presentation: What does it mean to do a 'koryū' today?

Having come to the end of AcWriMo, I’m keen to keep up the momentum and also to try out some of the ideas I’ve come across to motivate me to write more. Short notice, I know, but Im planning a ‘Shut up and write!’ / afternoon writing retreat at Manchester. I have booked a room from 1:00-4:00 pm  for Wednesday 4th December (Group Study Room C1.21 School of Arts Languages and Cultures, Graduate School, Ellen Wilkinson).

It only has a capacity of six, so please add a comment below if you are planning on coming. If there are more than six of us, I will try to find an alternative venue.

The room is booked for three hours, but I’m thinking we would perhaps have two blocks: 20 minutes social/intro, one hour writing (in two Pomodoros?) and do this twice, but I’m open to suggestions.

Having read various blogs, it seems these kind of events work best if:

  • you think beforehand about what you want to work on and do the reading/prep before you come
  • phones and internet are turned off during writing periods
  • there’s a good supply of drinks and snacks

There are coffee making facilities on the first floor (bring your own mug), I’ll bring milk and possibly snacks.

It would be great to make some new writing buddies, whatever your subject. This is an experiment and new for me, but anything which can help defeat isolation and procrastination is worth a shot!

I’ve decided to take the plunge and join AcWriMo this year. This post will be brief, as I’m already behind, but plan to catch up today. My goal it to write an average of 1,000 words a day for everyday in November. They can be on anything directly related to writing for the PhD. I have a couple of abstracts and a poster to write, but the main thing I need to do at the moment is write up the interviews which I have just completed here in Kyoto. A few ground rules I’m setting myself:

  • To be included in the word count, they must be written in Scrivener. Thus drafts on paper, Evernote or Word don’t apply. This is to help me make sure that everything ends up in a place where I can find it later, i.e. I’ve decided where it’s going, it has a purpose.
  • First drafts and edits or re-writes are fine, but it’s the total words added which counts, so anything deleted is out.
  • Notes on readings don’t count, but that shouldn’t stop me doing them!
  • Blogs, twitter, facebook don’t count… so I’d better get on with my writing for today.

Oh, and I have to travel back to the UK in this time, hence why I am aiming for an average. I did a couple of days last week to get myself going and may add the words I did then for my travel days… hope that’s not cheating.

I’ll post here occasionally (if I’ve done my word count for the day), but you can also follow me on twitter @lucubrat.

The following abstract and slides relate to a presentation I gave for the Communities of Practice strand on EDUC70500, Social Theories of Learning in Research and Practice. More information on the course (which I can thoroughly recommend) available here.

Shoshinsha to Shihan: The Community of Practice in a Japanese martial art

There is a lack of studies of kobudo, the classical martial traditions of Japan which originated before the Meiji Restoration (1868), and in particular, of those taking ethnographic approach. Furthermore, whilst Communities of Practice theory has been used to discuss aspects of modern martial arts, it has not been used as a theoretical framework to examine the workings of a martial arts’ dojo (training hall) in detail. This paper will explore CoP theory in relation to learning and teaching in the classical martial tradition of Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden Kobudo which has been in existence since 1532.

My thesis is that TRB is a highly evolved community of practice, exhibiting many of the characteristics outlined in Wenger’s Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (1998). As such I aim to explore how participant trajectories through the CoP have an impact on their lives, focussing on the idea of ‘learning as becoming’. I am particularly interested in how and why long term practitioners have succeeded in making the transition from shoshinsha (‘beginner’) to shihan (‘teacher’). A framework from CoP theory will be used as a lens through which to analyse data gained through participant observation carried out at the main dojo in Kyoto.

Concepts from CoP theory provide useful terms for examining what happens within the dojo. Legitimate peripheral participation is built in to the process of becoming a member of the group, (for example, newcomers have the task of recording names and the day’s training in the register); mutual engagement in the shared enterprise of passing on the techniques and traditions of the system is at the heart of daily practice and events in the dojo calendar; the idea of transition from periphery to core is reflected in the naming system to distinguish techniques for beginners from those for advanced practitioners (mae = front, outer; naka= middle; oku = inner); and different members display varying levels of knowledgeability and competence, but all have a role to play in how the community sustains itself.

Furthermore, I believe that opportunities which occur in the dojo’s practice for the implicit form of communication characterised as ishin denshin (literally: ‘what the mind thinks, the heart transmits) or ‘tacit understanding’ suggest this may be a useful concept for exploring those aspects of communities of practice which are often difficult to ascertain.