Fencing and Writing Pedagogy: A Meditation

In the historical Italian rapier fencing lesson I attended tonight, my rapier master David covered something he and a lot of Italian authors call countertempo, or the ability to attack in the tempo that another person is initiating an attacking action. It was a somewhat theoretical lesson: people disagree about what actions might be countertempo as opposed to, say, a defensive response to an attack followed by a renewed attack.

Behind that theory is a lot of power though. We’re practicing how to initiate actions that require us to have a reasonable idea of what our fencing partner is going to do. It requires us to be able to use good form and interpret what our partner is going to do, and it requires us to have the presence of mind to take the initiative, to follow up on opportunities and even create them.

Here’s an example from SERFO (South East Renaissance Fencing Open) 2014. I’m on the right. Notice how we use blade touches and positions to read responses before one person attacks.

I’ve been fencing for over three years now. This didn’t happen overnight. As I drove home, I thought about how I got here. In particular, I thought about discussing fencing with a friend and colleague of mine who does dancing. If I had to say what fencing was about, what would I say at each stage of the pedagogical process?

Overall, I’d say fencing is about hitting the other person successfully without getting hit. So, how do I do that?

Two men fencing, one with good lunge technique and blade closure.
Capoferro, plate 7, from David Coblentz, thecoblog.net. Originally from a book published in 1610, Gran Simulacro dell’Arte e dell’Uso della Scherma [Great Representation of the Art and the Use of Fencing].
First, fencing is about good form. I need to know how to lunge, parry, move, and do basic actions. Once I master these steps, I should be able to lunge and hit another person.

Then I can begin to think about what situations I would want to lunge or attack in. What is a good distance to attack from? When am I vulnerable? At this stage, fencing is about being aware of situations. At this stage, I have an inkling after a fight why I got hit, but I may not always recognize it in the moment.

So I know when to attack. I’m doubling a lot, or hitting the other person as they hit me. I need to take a more active role in responding to situations. Fencing is about responding to a situation as it is presented to me. And, if we want to take it a step further, it’s about recognizing when that situation is likely to come about. If I know that my opponent favors one kind of action, I can use that knowledge to make defensive and offensive actions that are more likely to succeed.

Then what we worked on tonight is about going a step even further than this. Not only do I know how someone might respond to the situation, but now fencing is about making my opponent do the thing that lets me hit them. Simultaneously, I should be aware enough of the things that I’m doing that when they’re trying to do the same thing to me, I’m still anticipating what my opponent will do in response. Maybe I can let on that I have a pattern, only to break it when they respond to my pattern. Fencing is about anticipation, deception, reaction, and reflection. Fencing is competitive communication.

Maybe that’s why they talk so much.

In the car, I took this system and applied it to writing. What is writing about?

Could we say that writing is about form and style, the basic elements of being able to make a sentence or other utterance that makes sense? Yes.

Could we say that writing is about being aware of the situations for composition, or the situations, purposes, audiences, and conventions in which we write? I’m asking myself softball questions here, but yes again.

Could we say that writing is about learning to respond to different situations as they’re presented to me? Yes. I don’t always have a prompt in front of me. I need methods for learning and adapting to new situations, and I need to develop expertise in those situations I find myself in a lot.

Could we say that writing is about making – let’s say the situation instead of the opponent – the situation favorable to what I want to do? It’s hard to make that question work, but instead I’d say that the next step is going meta in some way, that is, recognizing not just the elements of situations but having an awareness of how to break conventions when necessary, responding not just to the situation but developing a full and vital idea of what I want to do and why I’m using this situation to do it.

4 stages - focused instruction, guided instruction, collaborative learning, independent learning
Pedagogy is rife with 4, 5, and 7-tier diagrams, many of which operate as progressions to greater student independence. For instance, this diagram: “A structure for instruction that works.” Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, 2nd Edition. ASCD, 2013.

What’s my objective? What’s my goal? In fencing, it’s to hit my opponent without getting hit. In writing, I could have a number of goals, and I’ve probably trod on rhetoricians’ toes already. Let’s say it’s to communicate the things I want to while engaging with the people I want to engage with.

So in pedagogy, we do these things one by one and build up to the ultimate stage, right?

I so wanted to say yes. Sequences are so attractive, and I’ve been saying yes all the time. But I have to say no for fencing reasons and writing reasons.

In fencing, we definitely learned the basics of form and how to do stuff without being stupid. Extend the arm to lead the lunge. Be aware of closure and different lines. However, even now I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered form. I can do a decent enough lunge that I look like I can hit a person, but I’m still working on form. Before the paint was dry (the first of many, many coats), we already began to practice how to respond to each other’s actions.

Furthermore, we soon started fighting or bouting. I got hit a lot when I started, and oftentimes I only got hits back because I’m tall and can stick out my arm. I had to practice in contexts where someone really would hit me in order to learn in the situation what might happen, what I tend to do, and what my choices are. While for weeks I might be primarily thinking about one part of the fencing formula – recognizing those situations – I was also practicing creating opportunities and taking advantage of them, even if I wasn’t good at it. And this week, even though the lesson was on contratempo, I noticed something about my form I didn’t notice before: sometimes my back leg was cheating me out of power on an advance-lunge because I was standing straighter.

These stages are interrelated.

[I really should make my own diagram and put it here. It’d have four stages. I’d experiment with arranging it in a way that breaks up the linearity somewhat. A circle? A web? I’m writing in the situation of the hypothetical diagram.]

I know the way writing looks. I know the pressure to perfect one’s sentences, and the persistent idea that correct writing or formal writing is always desirable. What do I say in response to that, and what do I do in the classroom? I throw students into situations where they have to do some work figuring out what fits the situation. Perhaps I do this with activities, with projects that have an actual audience, with projects that ask students to define their own goal within a situation, and with projects that ask students to identify their situation.

I find that we’re working on style and word choice along the way. That stuff (I really want to italicize stuff) has to soon be used. And it has to be modulated or adjusted according to context: are we using Standard American English? Am I allowed to use my own dialect? Can I code mesh? Can I speak frankly? Can I thunder? Break pattern for emphasis?

It depends on the situation. I should be learning that early and often through trial and error. As a learner, I might want to dwell at one point for a while and really get my head around it, but I should be practicing – at least a little – all of these elements.

On emblems

Earlier this summer, I helped the Emory Writing Program design a curriculum for digital composition and pedagogy. One of the early brainstorming assignments we modeled was an assignment designed to give familiarity with image composition while also giving an opportunity for close reading and reflection. Writers create a badge for either themselves or an object of study and then reflect on what it illustrates. It is a great way to emphasize focus in interpretation and writing – because only so much can go into an image, we make choices about how we present it, what’s important to note, and what should go together.

As the scholar of early English literature in the group, I pointed out and crafted a lesson around this point: despite seemingly modern moves towards interpretation, the way we describe and think of these images depends on a medieval mode.

To introduce what we were doing, I’ll give my own examples. I ended up pursuing broadly medieval themes for my own badges:


With this one, I combined game pieces themed around medieval knights. The chess piece knight, evocative of a game that rose to great importance to medieval cultures across Europe, North Africa, and Asia, confronts its medievalized cousin, a game piece from the 21st century board game Shadows Over Camelot. Two times, two modes of representation, and two time periods meet on the same board of play.


This one was more abstract or even playful. I split the white knight into colors corresponding to the three pixel colors in displays. There’s a lot of other interpretive play to be done with that, like the notion of three colors of knights in a two-color, binary game, or the emphasis on how we look at knights.

Why is it medieval more generally? For one, the language we use to describe these has medieval analogues apt for comparison. Icons, yes. (Icon – a word referring to shorthand images on computers as well as sacred representations used in worship, hence iconoclast.) Logos, okay. (Logo, a 20th century variant of the previous century’s logogram, logo- [word] and -gram [~written]. All a particular distillation of earlier concerns with Logos¬†[the Word; Christ]and representation.) Badge, uh-huh. (Often worn for official duty or in recognition of achievements today; also a term for aristocratic signifiers of rank, such as those worn by knights.) And, as our title indicates, emblem. Yes. (They are visual representations, in the 16th century often paired with exegetical poetry explaining the emblem. They also refer to coats of arms, which also represent one’s allegiances, past events, and associations.)

In other words, the language for representation today comes from specific religious or aristocratic contexts in medieval and early modern Europe, especially England. Each of these terms implies a specific discussion and debate about representation, sometimes as basic as whether it is right to use icons to represent anything divine, or whether someone can claim the status that a badge grants. Debates about representation are still accessible and recognizable today, as evident in discussions and controversies about racial depictions of Jesus, in our praise of particularly ingenious corporate logos, and in debates about the sensitivity of the emblem for the Washington Redskins. The ethics and aesthetics of composition are very much a part of our culture now.

When we make badges, we are also determining and meeting the expectations of what is acceptable to show to others. We are also tapping into long-held traditions of representation, using what a knight has meant and connecting it to what a knight means to us, or what a knight means here in this position and placement. We enter into and think about systems of representation.

My original intention with this post was to examine images commonly associated with sports and offer off-the-cuff interpretations of them based on tongue-in-cheek medieval interpretations. For example, bowling commonly features a ball crashing into a peacock-like arrangement of pins suspended at the moment of victory. Maybe I’ll do that eventually. In this case, I think it’s a good thing I didn’t focus primarily on a specific arrangement, since the medieval associations are really right below the surface.

The reflections prompted by this assignment mean that I will likely include it in any course that introduces either emblem books or heraldry – a course on Arthurian romance for instance, or a course on representations of race in early modern poetry, a course made possible by Loomba and Burton’s 2007 book Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion.

If you have any questions about how I’ve designed and incorporated this assignment into my curricula, please ask.