Aikido: An Academic’s Perspective

When I started aikido classes in December of 2008, one thing that I was initially drawn to was the philosophy explained in the introductory class—neutralizing without causing harm to the attacker or attacked.  I was also drawn to the idea of getting out of my comfort zone—previously, I’d only done armed, mostly sword, arts—but not too far (since the school I saw and stuck with does a fair bit of sword and short staff work).

I stayed because I enjoyed the people and the practice.  And I saw, over time, changes in my awareness and in other areas.

The longer I’ve been with the art, training and sometimes lightly instructing, the more I think another key reason that I like aikido, and the school I’m with in particular, is that it has many parallels to my academic and professional training.  Some, but not all, of the principles that I see as being key to good aikido are adaptability, movement options, and awareness of the little things.


For me, and this is not necessarily true for all aikidoka, I find that an important element of aikido is adaptability.  This comes in a couple forms.  First, if a technique is not working, the nage (thrower) may need to alter their technique, from little detail parts to major positioning or movement elements.  Likewise, the technique may not be working because uke (the thrown) moves or responds in a different way, or doesn’t respond, in which case flowing into a different technique may be called for.  Second, every aikidoka needs to adapt to ukes with different heights, sizes, ranges of flexibility, in short different body types.  And degrees of energy—fast, slow, hard, soft—in attacks.

I find this emphasis on adaptation, or at least a need for adaptation, in my professional life.  In teaching and, even more, tutoring, the educator needs to adapt to different students.  Each student grasps certain concepts faster or better than others.  One example or analogy may click with four students, but not with three others.  Seven students may come to a tutor with the same assignment, but one needs help with organization, while another needs to work on grammar, and the third has written an “argumentative research” paper that has no thesis (the most important element).  Adaptation is of particular importance, for me, in tutoring.  In any given eight hour day (sixteen sessions), I have had days where I saw sixteen students, with twelve different assignments, from eight different fields (ex. composition, biology, nursing, psychology, philosophy, business, history).  Needless to say, thinking on the fly and changing (styles, formats, citation formats, etc.) rapidly is of utmost importance.

Movement Options

In aikido, many of my instructors from new shodan all the way up to the top leaders of our national organization have emphasized the importance of not focusing on the point of contact.  They stress the need to remain aware of what else can move.  For example, if the wrist is trapped in a strong grab, it may not be mobile; however, the elbow, hips, and legs, for instance, can still move.  Each of those creates different options for changing the line of strength, escape, techniques, or otherwise resolving the problem.  But, focusing on the point of contact (the grabbed wrist) limits motion and can make the situation more difficult or impossible to resolve.

This, in many ways, reminds me of my academic training.  In particular, cross-disciplinary studies come to mind.  For example, my literature dissertation involved literature, history, theology, psychoanalysis, and a bit of law.  If any one of those was missing, the whole piece would not work as well or in the same way.  Likewise, in teaching writing, we often encourage our students to consider, understand, and present counter-arguments.  There are many reasons for this, but a key one is to show the reader that the writer has considered many options and chosen their particular view as the best (rather than being blindered).  This availability of options is also the philosophy underlying the liberal arts education system as a whole.  We argue that having a broad range of knowledge, including at least introductory familiarity in a number of fields, is helpful to the individual, thus the required coursework outside an individual’s field of study.  Why is this important?  Because training in each academic field is really training in a particular style of thinking and approaches to problem solving, ex. a biologist, a psychologist, and a sociologist are all going to approach the same situation or question differently.  Being aware of different options, of how different fields think, can help the individual look at problems in their own field differently.

Awareness of Details

Over the last decade in aikido, I’ve often told new students, “If it looks easy, it’s not.  If it looks hard, it is.”  Part of this difficulty of the art is that, often, changing a minor detail in a tiny way can make a huge difference in technique.  Sometimes this means nage turning their hand over, or opening their hand, or breathing, or pointing a finger.  These, hundreds of, tiny changes can individually have an enormous impact on the ease, power, and energy use of a given technique.

Similarly, over two decades of writing, studying language, and teaching/tutoring writing have shown me that the little details in writing—spelling, syntax, punctuation, grammar—can make a huge and significant difference in the written word.  These seemingly tiny things can greatly affect meaning (ex. “my parents, Bob and John” vs. “my parents, Bob, and John”), effect on the audience (ex. use of the word team vs. gang vs. class), effectiveness of the piece, quality of the piece, and engagement of the audience.

All of this is simply from my perspective, my experience, and my understanding of both aikido and my academic background.  This is not necessarily true for all aikidoka, or academics, or academic aikidoka.  Everyone’s academic experience is different.  Everyone’s aikido experience, and technique, is different (what works for me won’t necessarily work exactly the same for someone smaller or bigger).  Everyone’s reason for studying both is widely different.

Non-Fiction Writing Tips

Over the last decade or so of teaching composition, I’ve come up with a variety of ways to look at and discuss different elements of writing. Because various people “click” with different explanations, I’ve had to try out a variety of analogies and such during that time. For this week, I figured I’d pass on a few of the most effective ones:

Before the analogies, I do want to stress the importance of prewriting. Whether brainstorming, outlining, webbing, or whatnot, or some combination of methods, prewriting is extremely helpful. Personally, I find brainstorming followed by outlining to be the most effective, as the outline gives me a sort of checklist for my main ideas. But, everyone is different and that combination may not work for all people. This is one way in which writing is an art, something everyone has to experiment with to see what works best for them.

One of the things students seem to have the biggest problems with is introductions. Basically, every introduction should include three things: an attention grabber, a thesis, and a brief outline of major points.

To help, I like to use the analogy to a movie trailer. This seems to be the most effective analogy. Basically, an essay introduction is very much like a movie trailer. It is the one paragraph summary of the essay. It needs to provide enough information to draw the reader in, but not so much that the reader decides there’s no point in buying the movie ticket.

Another way to consider introductions is to place oneself in the role of researcher. The researcher has ten articles, each of twenty pages. Would the researcher rather read through 200 pages of material to determine which articles are useful, or ten paragraphs (say, five pages)? The answer should be obvious.

To clarify for the science and math folks: a thesis is the same thing as a hypothesis. We’re just lazy over in the humanities. For everyone: a thesis is an arguable theory. It is a possible answer to a question. So, every research project, every essay, begins as a question. The thesis is an answer to that question. It is also the Big Idea™ that every part of the project-essay will refer back to.

An essay, an article, is made up of claims. Sometimes, especially in elementary through high school, these are also called topic sentences or paragraph theses. Claims are usually the first sentence of a paragraph. They must be arguable, e.g. they need to be proven, and they need to relate back to the over all thesis. Basically, a claim is a miniature thesis.

Thesis-Claim Relationship
As noted, claims always need to relate back to the thesis. But, students often ask about the difference between a thesis and a claim. I’ve found this analogy works well in answering the question:

The thesis is the roof of a house.
The claims are the walls of a house.
The evidence is the foundation of the house.

With no roof, the house isn’t very effective. Without a thesis, the essay isn’t going to be effective. Additionally, the thesis acts like a roof in that it is the overarching, all-covering idea.

With weak walls, the house collapses. With weak or no claims, the essay falls apart since nothing is there to support the roof-thesis.

With a weak foundation, a house settles and collapses. With weak or no evidence, the essay collapses because there is nothing to support the claims and therefore the thesis.

Writer vs. Quotes
Another major question students often ask is how much they should quote. Many instructors have a minimum number of quotes requirement. I’ve always avoided that, it tends to lead people to build the argument and essay around the quotes, rather than using quotes in a support role. My answer to the question of how many quotes is: However many you need to fully support your argument. That said, if the writer finds that (s)he is stringing quotes together, then there are too many. The voice of the writer must still be there; if the instructor (editor, publisher, reader) wanted to read, say, Thoreau, they’d read Thoreau, instead, they want to read Writer and Writer’s ideas.

The other caveat is that every field of study is different in terms of quoting. In literature, we tend to quote more than other fields because the words are our data. In psychology (APA), the rule is to summarize or paraphrase, reserving direct quotes for use only when there is absolutely no better way to say things. Other fields fall somewhere in between.