A Maze of Seminars

martial arts seminarsWe are starting some new seminars at our school in Santa Cruz, California and I can feel my negativity to the topic returning. I’ve had my doubts about seminars, my own and others, in the past. But when I think more about them I see good attributes and also some shaky ones.

One of the things I realize about the seminar experience is that teachers and attendees basically are looking for the same things, just from different perspectives. This universal quest covers many variations: that nugget of vital information, the fit of teacher to student to school, the kinds of problems where answers do not just sit there but create a chain of practices and observations that can not be neglected, much like the sheer mechanical efficiency of a perfect  murder mystery. Some programs are exceptional, in that the surprise of information is even better than expected.

On the other hand, I have also witnessed many events where participants end up completely baffled, unable to clearly state what they learned, much less able to break it all down. I’ve grown tired of reports from those who attended last weekend’s gathering but have already forgotten its contents. From the informational standpoint, I have felt that confusion buzzing in my ear, like an angry bee, while I try to tell myself the barely microscopic benefits I have gained.

A good student might, as a teacher hopes, leave a seminar happily educated and pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, things can be problematic: the information might be superficial, too complex or even just poorly presented. The student also might lack enough training to really benefit from the seminar.

Seminars can be cost effective. Someone who spends a hundred dollars for a one time seminar may find, even in the middle of his disappointment, that he will save years of monthly tuition in the wrong school.  And does not even include  the expense of time and enthusiasm wasted with a disappointing instructor or environment.

In some ways seminars homogenize all instruction. Many talented teachers can both discuss and demonstrate the level of their skills, but there are also those who do little to inspire or guide the student. This belongs to that ultimately disappointing dish known as ‘seminars for the sake of seminars’. Seminars may introduce unfamiliar information in a familiar manner, but they cannot substitute for that moment of recognition when contact with the right teacher sparks an explosive shift in thought.

Seminars, sadly, may sometimes present topics relatively unsupported by the instructor’s skill. There are too many people who attend seminars, only to immediately turn around and teach the newly acquired subject. Real teachers complain, and rightly so, that students who think of themselves as “sensitive” or “talented” are often the type who toss around hot topics and words despite insufficient skill. This is the rock bottom of seminars, the ones that can actually cause devolution.

“Baji in three lessons,” “Core Secrets of Tai Chi,” “Purple Unicorn Qigong”—it is sad to see how convenience fosters gullibility.” “I met this great Bagua master on the bus.” Teachers should be strict and students should be wary. Shopping is fun, but the student should always look for the real deal, not just a new item to add to the collection. Squeeze the peaches.

And what about the teacher? Ask around, read some articles, think about your needs. Then, when you are in attendance and you see the teacher shift suddenly to that guy having the trouble taking a simple step and, ignoring the rest of the room, he telescopes down determined that this student WILL learn regardless. Relax, you’re home.

I think about all this as I prepare for this new seminar. I hope that the nugget I’ve smoothed and polished is the one they will seek and find—at least, that there will be one or two or three in the group who will look up, part way through, with widened eyes as they suddenly realize that hands and feet and brain are, against all odds, working together.

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2 Responses to “A Maze of Seminars”

  1. Michael Babin says:

    A topic dear to my heart as I attended several dozen workshops/seminars by teachers famous, infamous, as well as relatively unknown from 1987 – 2002 and also gave workshops to strangers on a variety of topics in that same time period.

    Attending workshops can do all the things you mentioned [well put, by the way] though in later years I used to tell my students to avoid workshops until they had at least an intermediate understanding of their main discipline to avoid confusion and that, conversely, sometimes being confused was a great way to stimulate growth. I also recommended that they attend with a partner who would subsequently be interested in working on the material covered after the fact. It’s pointless to pay attention to new material for a weekend unless you find something that you can work on afterwards with someone who can help you correct your efforts and vice-versa. This applies particularly to two-person training.

    As to giving workshops… they can be rewarding financially as well as exhausting in terms of travel and time away from family… they can be rewarding emotionally when you see at least a few members of the audience light-up when exposed to whatever quality you can bring to your teaching and it can suck the soul out of you when you realize that a room full of uniforms covered in badges and stretched over fat bellies just means that you will be casting pearls before swine.

    Whoops, did I say that out-loud? 🙂

  2. Jeff Crook says:

    I’ve taught a couple of seminars, and because I have a tendency to do this: “see the teacher shift suddenly to that guy having the trouble taking a simple step and, ignoring the rest of the room, he telescopes down determined that this student WILL learn regardless”: I felt I had failed the other students.