Kirikaeshi? Is that going to be on the final?
Kendo as a Class for Credit at Michigan State University: Part 2
By Ron Fox
Academic knowledge (terminology, reihō, sahō and so on) are transmitted both by a pair of handouts and by in class instruction and drill. In the first two class periods we put on the uniform together and fold it afterwards together. Throughout the semester the terminology is reinforced with question and response (e.g. “It’s important to strike with this part of the shinai [pointing at the datotsu-bu] … this is called the what?”).
The written evaluation is done as a midterm exam. The midterm is a take home exam and the questions are drawn from the material in the handouts. An interesting feature of the exam is an essay question for which there is really no right or wrong answer. This question is an attempt to get students thinking, and writing about the meaning and purpose of kendo. For example, the midterm essay question for Spring 2014 was: “Kendo competitions have become quite popular. Do you think competitions endanger or enhance the spirit of kendo as a way for self-development? How do you think the balance between kendo as a sport and kendo as a way for self-development should be struck?”
In addition to systematic and basic drill classes, there are a few feature classes that I hold each semester. One of these is called the the “Kirikaeshi Marathon”. In that class I tell the students that I’m not going to say much, and that I’ll be practicing along with them. I tell them about how kirikaeshi is such an important practice in kendo that in some youth dojo, in the “old days”, practices might consist entirely of kirikaeshi and kakari-geiko. The two hour session consists almost entirely of kirikaeshi. The point of this practice is twofold. 1. For the students to see that they are actually capable of something that their minds tell them they can’t do. 2. The benefits of getting your body tired to the extent that extra motion and extra strength falls away leaving an efficient and pure movement. When we first did the kirikaeshi marathon I was a bit concerned about how that would go over but, I was surprised then, and gratified now with how well it is received by the students.
In the last two practices when possible I’ll have members of the MSU kendo club present wearing bōgu. In addition to practising basic strikes with a motodachi wearing bōgu, the students get a chance to practice uchikomi-geiko in a more free setting (we will do patterned, yakusoku, uchikomi).
Throughout the semester, the students are encouraged to come to the club practices both to provide additional practice time and to find out if the club is something they’d like to join in order to continue their kendo practice after the semester ends.
When I first started teaching the class I figured I would have about 10 or maybe 12 enrollees and that if I ever consistently got enrollments below 10, I would stop teaching the class. I was surprised therefore when in the first semester, with no publicity other than placing the class in the course schedule, the enrollment was 23 students out of a maximum class size of 30. The Spring 2014 term which just concluded saw an enrollment of 34 out of a class limit of 45 people. Additionally I had one club member work with me as a formal teaching assistant.
Over the years the class has changed somewhat. Since 2005 I have added the first two bokutō kihon-hō (ippon-uchi and renzoku-waza (kote-men)) to the curriculum and the final skills test. The three handouts have been condensed to two and the three quizzes dropped in favour of a bit more “action time”. As my own teaching methods have evolved naturally, those have been fed back from the club into the class.
It would be really nice to generate the funds to have a stock of bōgu that the students could use in the second half of the class. I think that would make the class much more interesting and allow the members to experience aspects of kendo that they cannot not appreciate. Unfortunately the cost of that is prohibitive as to ensure bōgu that reasonably fit all students, would require a stock of probably 60-75 sets of bōgu.
There are two things I would improve if possible: I make no secret that one purpose of the class is to provide a bridge into the club practices. In spite of encouragement for students to join the club practices, and be exempt from paying dues while they are in the class, very few students actually make the transition to from the class to the club. Very few, in fact, attend the club during the class, other than to make up absences. Those that make that transition have done very well, including one woman from the first 2005 class who would later become a MWKF women’s team member.
While very few students continue their kendo practice with the club, instructor evaluation surveys the students fill out at the end of the semester show that the students enjoy the class and feel it is a positive experience. Most would recommend it to their friends. I do believe that the class raises the awareness of the existence of kendo on campus. I do know of cases where new kendo club members say they joined the club because a friend had taken and enjoyed the class.