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This week’s episode is with Dr Dori Coblenz, lecturer in Communications at Georgia Tech, specialising in early modern English drama, digital pedagogy and the history of fencing. She's the author of many papers and the book Fundamentals of Italian Rapier: a modern manual for teachers and students of historical fencing, with David Coblentz.
In our conversation we talk about the differences between classical Italian fencing and historical fencing. Dori’s passion is for teaching teachers, geeking out about sources and how we apply that to teaching contexts.
When it comes to swords, is there is anything at all that is better taught online than in person? Dori makes some great points about the benefits of online teaching, and has some great ideas for how to make using digital media more effective: a must-listen for anyone who teaches or has an interest in pedagogy.
Dori’s website: http://www.doricoblentz.com/
GW: I'm here today with Dr. Dori Coblenz, lecturer in Communications at Georgia Tech, specialising in early modern English drama, digital pedagogy and the history of fencing. She's the author of many papers and the book Fundamentals of Italian Rapier: a modern manual for teachers and students of historical fencing. And that's with David Coblenz. So without further ado, Dori, welcome to the show.
DC: Oh, thank you.
GW: Whereabouts are you?
DC: Well, I'm in Decatur, Georgia, which is this tiny city just to the east of Atlanta, and our club used to operate at the local rec centre here. So we were called Decatur School of Arms. Right now, I'm fencing more on the west side of Atlanta, though, because we've taken over the Rapier programme for the Atlanta Historical Fencing Academy.
GW: OK, so I didn't realise Georgia was such a hotbed of historical fencing.
DC: Oh, yes, it's a good place to be.
GW: Actually, my author’s assistant lives in Georgia. I think she's in Atlanta. So if she wants to have to go swinging a sword around, I should send her to you.
DC: Oh, absolutely.
GW: Excellent. OK, now, how did you get started with historical martial arts?
DC: Well, there was a SCA group that met on my college campus, this is back maybe in 2003, 2004. So that's where I was introduced to the idea of historical fencing. I moved to San Jose in 2006, though, and I didn't really pick it up again for a while. I'm really competitive. So it's kind of frustrating in that environment that I wasn't really getting better at fencing. But then a really bad roommate situation drove me to get out of the house for longer periods of time. So I started being more active in the local SCA group there and fencing a bit here and a bit there. But it really wasn't a hobby for me that I felt like I owned until I began Italian foil classes through a local adult education centre. That acted as this feeder into the San Jose State fencing master's programme. And I love that because it kind of chimed with my background in ballet. There's this kind of clearly specified ideal that you're working towards, but there's not this expectation that you or anybody else is ever going to perfectly align with it. There's a lot of detailed instructions about how to get closer to it and technical communication is in my background. I really like very detailed instructions about how to achieve something, how to take action in the world. So then when I shifted my focus to learning form and distance and timing, instead of just trying to hit somebody, like in a practise where you're given a sword and they say, go spar. Then I found a lot of these rewarding kind of check points. So I didn't need to score a hit to feel like I won fencing that evening. Getting a compliment from like a grumpy fencing master is also a pretty good way to win fencing for an evening. And then I'm at the same time, I was taking classes in Renaissance literature and thinking through these pre-modern models of selfhood. And I noticed echoes with Edmund Spenser's pitch to Sir Walter Raleigh that his poem, The Faerie Queene, would help to fashion a gentleman and Saviolo uses some similar language when he's talking about fencing, he talks about how he's going to make a scholar. So that got me thinking about the ways in which more corporeal and more verbal forms of expression interact in different time periods across time. And so taking fencing lessons, reading historical fencing manuals kind of looped me back into the rapier fencing that I started with.
GW: Wow. OK, there's a lot to unpack there. Saviolo and Sir Walter Raleigh in one sentence, that's awesome. So do you actually got into the fencing master's programme of Sonoma State? Is that correct? Yes, that's right. It started out at San Jose, though, right?
DC: Right. So I started at San Jose State. I had a couple of years there and I got my instructor certification from a board of maestri drawn from the San Jose State and Sonoma State programmes. Then I went up to Sonoma to do my provost to my master's certification of San Jose State because it had to leave San Jose State. So there's still a programme going on up there, but it's no longer affiliated with the university.
GW: OK, and this is the same programme that Sean Hayes and Puck Curtis have gone through. That's William Gaugler set it up, is that correct?
DC: That's right.
GW: I remember 20 years ago, there was a lot of debate because people came in to historical fencing through lots of different places and one of those places was sport fencing, along with classical fencing. It is fairly obvious to me that having a background in something like classical fencing could be useful when looking at treatises, but there's the risk of kind of assuming that the way that you should, for example, parry with a foil is the same as you should parry with the rapier where there are clear mechanical distinctions. So how do you think the classical fencing and its pedagogy can help us historical fencers?
DC: Well, I mean, I think the great strength of classical fencing is also, as you mentioned, something that you have to be on guard against. Haha, I like that. OK, but anyway, so in classical fencing, it's really kind of coming out of the Enlightenment in terms of the history of philosophy and approaches to knowledge production. So in that moment, it's very, very interested in categorisation. So in academia now, we're more interested in destabilising categories. You've probably heard a lot about that. People listening have probably heard that phrase at least one point and some humanities class that they've taken. But in the Enlightenment, they're super interested in taking kind of these inchoate forms of knowledge, ways of doing things and really crystallising it in the most precise ways they possibly can. So in that way, classical fencing can be this really useful resource for us because it's going to tell you the 15 different steps of lunging or the exact right way to feint. It has an idea of what it's going for. And it's really committed to that ideal and it's really specific in how you get to it. Now, I think that, as you mentioned, though, backfilling gaps in the historical fencing manuals, which they're not really designed to teach you to fence from scratch, for the most part, are really meant to be more used in conjunction with an instructor or even as kind of an advertisement to get you in the door for an actual fencing school. So it could be helpful in backfilling some of those gaps, but it can also introduce some weirdness. That's actually why I'm a huge proponent of the Italian classical tradition, specifically for learning rapier, like the parry mechanic you just mentioned. In French foil you're always going to keep your tip online. Your tip is going to stay on target when you parry in third, parry in fourth. If you try that with a rapier, somebody is just going to blow straight through that because the morphology of the weapon is different. But with Italian foil, it never really lost that connection to rapier fencing and rapier mechanics. So when we parry in Italian foil, you're parrying to just outside your opponent's right shoulder if you're parrying in fourth. If you're parrying in third it is just outside their left shoulder. So the point is coming offline, which sacrifices some speed in the repost, but it works better with the mechanics of the weapon. It's a stronger parry. We also centre more of what we're doing at the elbow as opposed to say, the wrist and fingers. And so when you're learning sabre and you're learning foil mechanics in the classical Italian tradition, it is really still closely connected to what we're doing with rapier. So, “classical” is just a big tent term. So I think in our tradition specifically, one thing that we look for is aggression and intent with what we're doing. Some other traditions that come out of more like a French background or other backgrounds, they might be more interested in precision and gracefulness, not like we don't care about precision or gracefulness, but I think within that kind of big tent of classical fencing, you have really different approaches that come from different national traditions and they have different emphases. And I think Italian classical fencing specifically works really well with doing Italian rapier.
GW: OK, let's have a look at the lunge, for instance. Actually, in my Duellist’s Companion book, because Sean Hayes, a friend of mine and a Maestro d’Armi from the same programme, he gave me Gaugler’s book, Fencing Everyone, and I, with permission of the publishers, reproduced his instructions for the lunge and with pictures and details and compared that to Cappoferro’s. And they are significantly different as you'd expect, with 400 years between them or I guess really 300 years between them. How do you deal with those kinds of gaps? Those differences between the two styles?
DC: Yeah, honestly, I think people have just different fundamental stances towards history, not like one is good and one is bad, but I think sometimes some people prefer to look for disruption or discontinuity and some people prefer to look for continuity. And I think I tend to, with fencing, fall a little bit more into the latter camp. So to me, when I look at Cappaferro's lunge, I look at Gaugler's lunge. I think superficially they're different in terms of the knee is coming out further over the toe than we would like. So in the classical tradition, we would lunge with the knee ending at the instep, not extending over the toe. There's more of a lean in Cappoferro’s lunge, but there's also a lot of similarities. You're still profiled and single sword with Cappoferro’s lunge. You're still profiled and you are still flinging that arm back. You're more back weighted instead of centre weighted, but you're still, I think, fundamentally doing a lot of the same things. You know, the arm is coming out first, the foot's raising, but it's staying as close to the ground as it can. You're not lifting up high and then falling down. And the mechanics to me seem more similar than they do dissimilar. And I think that from looking at Gaugler, it can actually help you have a better historical lunge because it can help you drive off the rear leg, say. It can help you get to the point biomechanically where you're doing some of the most important things about the lunge, which have to do with disruptive timing, that have to do with I mean, the form is important too. But alignment. Cappoferro doesn't really talk a lot about alignment. I know you're working on Viggiani, too, so it's actually kind of interesting looking at Viggiani because biomechanically he gets into a little bit more detail than Cappoferro does. But to me, I see more of the similarities between the two and I think that the classical tradition is really useful for supplementing some of what's going on with Cappoferro. I mean, that being said, though, I think that my passion is really for working with teachers and so I can get really down in the weeds in how we view sources and how we apply that to teaching contexts. If I were working with a brand new student, I do work with brand new students. We have a class once a week that meets at the Atlanta Historical Fencing Academy. But it really acts more like a lab for us to kind of experiment on our poor students. I know that doesn’t sound good.
GW: That's been the story of historical fencing since the very beginning. We learnt how to teach by trying stuff out at our students and some of it works and some of it doesn’t.
DC: Yeah, my students don't necessarily need to know everything that I just said. So I can say we're going to be using a rapier lunge like this and they can go to the sources. But I don't necessarily geek out with them about sources unless they indicate that they are interested in that. And sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't.
GW: Sure. And I think it’s probably also worth thinking that you can find photographs of classical fencers from the 19th century who are doing lunges just like Cappoferro’s. And you can almost certainly find, oh, it's unimaginable that there would be people back in Cappoferro’s day who lunged and did not keep higher up and keep their knee further back because maybe they've got slightly dodgy knees, for instance. So there's definitely going to be crossover there. It's just interesting to me that the idea of a lunge as represented by Cappoferro is like there are some mechanical differences to the idea of a lunge, as Gaugler describes.
DC: Right. And one thing with Cappoferro, because of the use of the offhand, you can't completely fill that in with classical sources, because sometimes if you're lunging, you're not flinging your arm back. Your arm is coming forward. You're doing a thing. So there are definitely places where you can't just make a transference. And I guess I see that as part of my work as a teacher and interpreter is to know classical sources well and to know historical sources well, and to be able to make the interpretation when it's appropriate and pass it on to my students. And then if they want to know themselves, then I can talk to them about that for a long time. Or, you know, we have events like RASP, our rapier and sabre pedagogy event where we just get a bunch of coaches together and we can all talk about some of the more in-depth questions around sources and interpretation. And how classical fencing interacts with those.
GW: Well, let's talk a little bit about RASP.
DC: I love talking about RASP.
GW: Tell us all about it.
DC: OK, so we're in our fourth year right now and this really started as a way to get people on the East Coast introduced to some of the great work that's coming out of some of the West Coast fencing communities. So Sonoma State University has started pulling in more historical fencing masters with the classes that they run. So Puck Curtis goes out there, Eric Myers, Kevin Murakoshi.
GW: So Sonoma University is in California. Is that correct?
DC: That's right. Yes. Northern California wine country. So that's a great event. Every summer they have an intensive session where you go for four or five days. You fence for like eight or 10 hours a day. And you work towards a certification that comes through the university. But because it comes through the university, it has university credit with it. It's also very, very expensive. So for somebody coming from the East Coast, they think they might be interested in doing this, but they may not have a couple of thousand dollars to drop on flying to Sonoma, lodging in Sonoma, going to this class. We wanted to have something that was able to introduce some of the ways in which classical fencing can inform the way we approach historical fencing. But without some of those commitments, we're also really interested too. So we've been working with Keith Carter Riley down here who specialises in longsword and he's much more in the HEMA communities, the HEMA side of things. And what's really interesting for us to work with him, to work with the local SCA group, and see the ways in which our conversations are overlapping and distinct and when we can get away from the stereotyping. And we also some with Gene Gettler down here, who recently retired. But he was a really great sport fencing coach. But we found when we could kind of get away from the stereotypes and just talk about swords and talk about our training tactics and talk about how we run tournaments, we had a lot of common ground and we had a lot to share with each other. So when we originally made this event, we thought about it as being, on the one hand, a feeder into the very specific kind of thing that we like to do. But on the other hand, being a place where people from a lot different backgrounds can come together and share their research and share their work and work on building a common language and a common vocabulary so that we can bridge some of those disciplinary differences.
GW: What would be an example of common vocabulary?
DC: Well, so. Let's say second intention action
GW: Go ahead. There have been discussions about the second intention since when I was fencing in the 80s, I'll be very curious to hear what you have to say about that.
DC: Well, I'm not suggesting this is the only way to define second intention. There are historical sources that describe second intention in different ways. But the way that we think about second intention is really specific. So we think about second intention as being an action where you're making an attack. And it's a serious attack, but you don't necessarily expect to hit on it. So example of this might be, I say lunge at your forward target in sabre or rapier say I'm aiming at your arm. Or your hand. So I'm aiming at that forward target. If I hit it, great. But it's not really my primary goal. So I'm lunging a little bit short so that I give myself a little bit of room. I'm expecting for you to parry my attack and repost. So my real intention, my second intention is to respond to that with a counter parry repost. And I love this. I'm five foot four. So as a short person, I love this because it gets the tall people to come to you and you're not as committed in those deep lunges. You're not quite as much danger. If it completely goes sideways, then you have a little more time to react. So with second intention, that's the way that we define that as opposed to thinking about things. Which I think is another way people think about second intention.
GW: So you're using second intention, basically as a way of setting up a counter repost.
DC: Right, right.
GW: As opposed to a feint disengage. I think it's a good. Yeah, OK, that's pretty much how we settled on it in many arguments late into the night in the early 2000s, so I’m glad to see the definition of it hasn’t drifted very far.
DC: I'll give you a more controversial example, because I come from a literature and a technical communications background. So I think that language is really important and I think that form is really important. So language helps us understand the world and it puts things into a form that we can do things with. So I love things like our scripts for group lessons. And I know, I'm a little bit more enthusiastic about this even than other people in my programme. But we have a really set way that we set up actions, we’ll say from the instructor's invitation in third, straight thrust, everybody knows what that means. As the instructor intends to engage in third, straight thrust. Same action. But now you're setting it up in time. So from movement as opposed to statically. From the student's engagement in third, glide. There's a lot of this language that is really student centred. So you're telling a student exactly what they have to do, but there's this huge layer underneath of assumptions that the instructor has to make. So if you're teaching a blade teacher, which is like you advance with an engagement glide and hit. To set that up, you say, from the student's invitation in third blade seizure in fourth, that's all. But from that, the instructor needs to know, get your student on guard, have them retreat once so that they're just a little bit out of distance or an advanced lunge range. Stick your arm out so that they have something to contact when they try to engage your blade, start the action, relax your arm a little bit as they engage in fourth and lunge to hit so that they can make it into that high line target more easily. There's just a lot of stuff that's underpinning that. But the formula would give the student what they need. And we have a way to really succinctly set up each action so that the instructor also has a sense of what they need to do. And part of what I like to do at RASP with my own students is work on giving them that kind of, I don't know, not like hidden language, but the things that are latent in those instructions for what the instructor is trying to do, I think that's part of what I'm really interested in pedagogically speaking right now. That's an example. Like we all like our script. We all like our language. But it's something that I think is really especially useful.
GW: Yeah, when I started out teaching longsword stuff, particularly professionally, 20 years ago. One of the things I had to do was basically create all of that stuff from scratch. Because let's say you want to teach students how to feint. That's the topic of the lesson. You have to have ways of setting up opportunities to feint that make sense in terms of the art and can be quickly and clearly communicated to the students. So you basically have to teach them a language. It took me about 10 years of teaching full time to get that actually properly set up from scratch. So just starting with all of that created in old cloth of some hundred and some years ago by a bunch of clever Italians is a very from my perspective, it seems like a very relaxing way to do it.
DC: Yeah. I mean, it's learning a language as opposed to having to create it. And when you learn a language, it's easier to bring people in together to learn a language, I think, to learn a common language then to I guess, not necessarily translate between individual languages that are, like you said, very labour intensive to come up with.
GW: Yeah, I have so many things that we need to get through. It's a long list of questions, and I'm taking it a little bit out of order. I guess regular listeners will know that I send my guests questions in advance so I hope you don’t mind me taking things out of order. But let's get to the book that you wrote with David. So Fundamentals of Italian Rapier. And it opens with a quote from Joseph Swetnam. This is a book, literally called Fundaments of Italian Rapier, and it opens with a quote from Swetnam, OK, which just really struck me as a bold move.
DC: Well, I mean, he's learning from Italians. So he's a pretty Italian inflected teacher himself. And also, I think he's someone because he is working in a more similar marketplace to where you and I are working right now, because in England in the early 1600s, there was more of a market for middle class autodidactic literature. And you can see that too with the Di Grassi translation. So in Italian, it's like Di Grassi’s practise for blah blah blah blah blah. In English it's like Di Grassi’s practise blah blah blah, so that a man without any instructor or anything besides this book can teach himself how to do blah blah blah.
GW: I think is the first fencing treatise that actually has that claim at the beginning of it.
DC: Yeah, but it's in the title. So Di Grassi is 1574. So he's not necessarily like hitting on this claim really hard that this book is by itself what you need. But when they translate it and they print it to reach that English audience, those kind of middle class people who might still go out and buy a fencing book, they put that claim in the title there.
GW: It’s a publisher’s marketing claim, rather than intrinsic to the text.
DC: Yeah, so we chose that, even though we're working with Italian sources, primarily because in a lot of ways, Swetnam’s situation is more analogous to our situation, our context for learning, because we're trying to reach more average readers as opposed to trying to lure in the elite of Siena.
GW: Although Swetnam was fencing master to the king, as I recall.
DC: Yeah, he did have some connections there, but he's also I mean, he's writing in Portsmouth. He's got this really strong kind of Puritan idiom. So he comes from that more Puritan background. I don't know. He makes a lot of claims about himself. And it's hard to really know what to go with. But, I mean, I think with the way that he's pitching the language and the tone of the text, it's really aiming for more of this middle class audience.
GW: Oh, sure. I mean, the intended audience for his book is exactly as you say. I haven't actually looked at Swetnam for a long time, but now I need to go and dig it out. I know he claims he was fencing master to the king, but I need to find out whether that's true or not. But that's slightly off topic because actually, I want to know about the book that you wrote and how you came to write it, what it's for. It's been out for a couple of years now. I've had this experience where I've seen people who come to my school having only studied from reading one of my books so I can see all the ways in which the book didn't quite generate the kind of movements and things in the student that I wanted it to do. So I imagine you've had a similar experience. So tell us about the book and what you've learnt from having it out there.
DC: Yeah, so we wrote this book starting in 2008, so it spanned about ten years from 2008 to 2018 with writing and publishing it. And I got to be interested first in the backward compatibility of foil theory and practise to Italian rapier. When I went to this workshop that Puck Curtis and Eric Myers ran. This is before they were maestri, down locally close to where I was. And I went to that workshop and they were really working through the same question. And this must be back in like, I don't know, 2006, 2007. And then I saw what I was doing with taking my Italian foil classes and going to SCA rapier practises that weren't really two distinct things and are actually unified in a lot of ways. And I didn't really see a lot of material out there that emphasised the continuity while also paying attention to the difference and really both engaging with historical sources, but having that be, say, sublimated. We have a lot of footnotes. We have so many footnotes because we want people to be able to read the text as users and just be able to do it, to use it as a manual to learn. But we also want to show where our ideas come from, the sources, we take a more synthetic approach, I think, than a lot of the material that's out there right now. So we've got northern Italian, southern Italian, stuff from the early 1600s stuff from the late 1600s that all kind of come together to inform our approach to teaching Italian rapier in this book. So we wanted something that filled that niche for something that’s synthetic, but also kind of historically grounded. And we wanted something that could really draw from things like synoptic tables, which are incredibly nerdy.
GW: Tell us all about synoptic tables. I don’t think the average listener will know what one is. I don’t know what one is.
DC: I don't know, some people love the synoptic tables. I'm OK with the synoptic tables, but they're basically these things that you see in Science of Fencing and like other classical texts like that, you also find in our book where it puts into table form the actions that can or should occur. So it's like if you're doing a double feint, it'll say, well, first the instructor engages or invites or does this and then the student does this. So it's kind of just a way of laying out a table, possible actions for each specific thing. But yeah, actually David mostly did the synoptic tables. I mostly did the introductions and connecting to historical practise. But I mean, I think that we one of the things that brought in from the class, we wanted to incorporate things I brought in from the classical tradition, stuff that we thought was valuable and useful, but then also make it something that is usable and approachable for people who are coming to it without that tradition. They just want to pick something up and read about fencing. I mean, I think to your second question, as somebody who has taught at universities for like the last ten years or so, I never expect my students to read the book honestly.
GW: I know. I would say bloody would, but they don’t.
DC: I'm usually just stunned if one of them asks me a question about the book and I'm like, oh yeah, I guess I did write that down somewhere. So you already know some of this. So I usually start from scratch regardless.
GW: Yeah. I mean, you write the book and you get it out there and you know the people who bought it and you know they even perhaps even read it. And then when you mention something that's in it in the class, it’s just blank. OK, now on the subject of books, you have a book coming out next year called Artful Devices on the Early Modern Stage, forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press. And both of my degrees are from Edinburgh. So I think that's a great place to have your book published.
DC: I have loved working with them. No complaints.
GW: Now I had Ben Crystal on the show recently and he was talking about recreating Shakespearean drama as close as he can get it to how it was probably done in the 16th century, including the dialect, the staging, the preparation and all of that sort of thing. So I imagine that's the sort of thing we're talking about in the book. Am I right? Is that what it's all about?
DC: Yeah, so there's definitely an element of that, I would say the kind of core thing that I'm doing is exploring the ways that Elizabethans transmitted. How do they make and how do they teach practical knowledge about time, about timing? That's kind of the core of the book. And to do that, I use about half literary and dramatic text. So I have a chapter on Castiglione, I have chapters on Shakespeare and Johnson, and then the other half is fencing manuals. So I'm arguing that in the early modern period, you know, Shakespeare and the people who came before him, they're looking for sources of inspiration for this kind of new art form, because the commercial theatre is something that is pretty new in the late 16th century, because before that, you would have troops that might travel around to towns as opposed to being established in one place, or you might have guilds that put on mystery plays. So let's say you might have the Shipwrights’ Guild do a play about Noah's Ark. And it's both as a festival for the town. And it's also teaching in a largely preliterate society doctrine and Bible stories. So there were these different kinds of theatre that were happening before Shakespeare and before the late 1600s. But the commercial theatre where you have one place, you have one repertoire of actors who are going to come back and perform on a near daily basis. And you attract and you have a big enough population centre to support that, that's really new. And so they draw, I think, or not just me, but people have noticed how early modern dramatists will take inspiration from, say, law or from the grammar school in the way that they're conveying what they're doing. I'm also arguing that they're drawing from fencing and fencing form in ways that we maybe don't recognise as much now, because, you know, most people who study Shakespeare, they're coming at it from the history of rhetoric as opposed from the history of fencing.
GW: OK. So can you unpack that a bit? You’ve got Shakespeare. Yes, we have swordfights on the stage, but that's not really what you're talking about.
DC: No, because we have some really interesting books that have dealt with, say, swordfights on stage in terms of, say, gender and national identity. Those are doing some really interesting and important work. But I'm more interested in how fencing formerly in terms of the structure of plays, comes out. In terms of character interactions, in terms of plots, as opposed to, say, parsing, you know, Mercutio versus Tybalt and how they're drawing from their specific traditions, which, you know, that's super interesting, too. But what I'm interested in, is more of this formal influence. And what I do for that is I look at a lot of plays with, I'm doing air quotes right now, “bad plots”. When I was doing my dissertation research, I really just looked around for what are the plays that people think are bad at telling a story. Here's my argument. So you run the plays like, say, Titus Andronicus or even Hamlet and people will say, what is the point of act four in Titus Andronicus, it's just a bunch of jokey digressions and it's not really doing anything to further the plot. And my argument is that when you say that you're looking at it from this kind of perspective of the pyramid. So the rising action climax, falling action, like the Freytag’s pyramid, because that's how we're trained to look at drama. But I think that what Johnson in particular is doing and Shakespeare also to some extent is some really interesting experimentations with form and how they tell stories and plot that is drawing from the fencing tradition and displaying kinds of character interactions. So one example of this is contratempo, which I know is also kind of a controversial term. For me, when I think of contratempo, I think about a purposefully weak attack that needs to draw a counterattack that the attacker is then prepared to counter with their own counterattack.
GW: There will be people listening to this from different sorts of backgrounds. So just let me rephrase that to make sure I've understood it. And that might also make it really clear for the listeners. So contratempo, in your use of the term, is attacking to draw a counterattack onto your prepared defence against that counterattack?
DC: Yes, exactly. And some period authors who will use contra tempo just to make a counterattack. So that's what I distinguish. It's a little bit more like layers than that.
GW: I think of that as the classical fencing usage of contratempo and in the early 17th century, contratempo tends to mean basically you attack and I attack into it. And that would be a contratempo.
DC: I think we probably read Fabris a little bit differently and we can we can maybe go into that another time. But I think that you see the classical tradition still operant in texts, specifically in Fabris, with the way that he talks about projecting weakness to draw an attack that you're then prepared to counter.
GW: Oh, sure. I mean, the idea of deliberately drawing a counterattack onto your prepared response is absolutely that. It's a question of how is that specific label contratempo used in the sources. Anyway, the point is we now are pretty sure what you mean by contratempo. Now you’ve got to apply that.
DC: I think we're on the same page. But I mean, that strategy, I think, is something that you see imported into especially revenge drama, because with revenge drama, like Titus Andronicus, like Hamlet, like the Spanish tragedy, you have some sort of inciting incident where somebody is wronged like, say, in the Spanish tragedy. The ruler really wrongs this Geronimo, who is in a position of control, or in Hamlet. Claudius murders Hamlet's father. So you can't really act directly against them. So you can feign weakness, feign this kind of ineffectual attack like this is the best I can do to try and draw that that kind of squashing counterattack. But then the process of feigning, that's where you get that really long, digressive thing. When Titus Andronicus we see this in act four, where he's doing things like writing poetry and wrapping around arrows and shooting it into the courtyard of the emperor who has wronged him or wrapping a note around javelins and spears that he sends to some of the other usurping rulers. So you have these really long digressions that are typically read as like just maybe signs of madness or pretending to be mad, but I think they're also following this simple logic or intentionally projecting weakness and the audience is supposed to follow along with that and really be prepared for and ready to relish the counterattack and then the prepared response to that counterattack. And then we read it in that way, it's more intentional, I think, and it's more interesting. And it's something that I really try to unpack. And it's a little bit hard to necessarily, I think, detail on a very high level, but in each chapter I deal with one of those plays with a “bad plot” and I unpack that relationship there, and I try to make it more legible for people who come at it from a history of rhetoric background. Because one of the other things that I think about a lot of my work is that the truism of the pen and sword, the pen is mightier than the sword. And that comes from Bulwer Lytton in the 19th century. But that sentiment is there. And a lot of these Renaissance games like saying Castiglione, they're really interested in talking about which thing is worthier. Viggiani does this too. What is worthier or the scholar, the philosopher or the soldier? So I think of that as being more like a continuum, because a pen is not much nicer than the sword, it’s not an alternative to violence, it is in itself its own kind of violence, but it is mightier than the sword. The kind of violence that is inherent in the pen is something that can, if you think about diplomacy, as being a way to avert crises, but also you can think about espionage as a way to incite violence. So anyway, I think that they don't necessarily mean to say the pen and the sword are opposites, but rather that they're on this continuum when they're talking about in the Renaissance, because it also falls into just generically a lot of these texts that have which is better games. And the point isn't really to say which one is better. It's to recognise how the two things are both necessary and they both have important attributes and to kind of unify them in some way. So that all goes back to thinking about the history of rhetoric. People come at it, they think, well, how is how is the pen mightier than the sword in the situation? And a lot of my work is trying to re-entangle pen and sword.
GW: It sounds to me like when the book comes out, this is January 2022. I need to read it and get you back on the show to explain it all, because this is going to be a lot of fun. From the title, I misunderstood what it was about because I imagined it was about like the physical stage, like how did they make thunder on the stage.
DC: Yeah, my publisher made me change the title. Maybe that's why they made me change the title. So now it's going to be Fencing Form and Cognition on the Early Modern Stage and the subtitle’s Artful Devices.
GW: You know what, I would have understood that better.
DC: I didn't like it at first, I was like, no, my beautiful title, but now I think they're probably right.
GW: Well, I mean, the job of the title is to advertise the book to the right people.
DC: Well, they say it’s to like optimise the library search engines now.
GW: It’s the same thing. You can go to Amazon and you can find books that have keywords in a subtitle. There is the name of the actual title and the subtitle is “an extraordinary vampire romance”. Because it is a vampire romance book and they want to maximise their searchability. And so they put a vampire and romance into the subtitle so that people will find the book more easily because it is a stronger sequel to the algorithm than just the keywords. Oh God, I don't do any of that. I just call my books whatever I want. And I can't be doing with all of this. OK. Now. I do prepare for these interviews. It doesn't always appear that way, but I do and I read this in your bio. “My teaching, like my research, foregrounds the importance of Kairos or the seizure of opportune moments. I use writing exercises to train students’ interpersonal timing and their ability to participate in class discussion.” OK, so firstly, we need to know exactly what Kairos is, because most of my listeners won't know. And secondly, how can you use a writing exercise to train interpersonal timing?
DC: Yeah, so this definition of Kairos in some ways is building on work that's been done in the disability studies community. So there is a researcher called Margaret Price who talks about kairotic spaces. And she means that in terms of kairos means opportunity. The opportune time, the right time to do something, the best time to do something. And when she talks about kairotic spaces, she means spaces that inhibit or encourage certain behaviours that may be predicated on assumptions around design, who can use what. So she talks about the way that classrooms are kairotic spaces. So, for example, if you're working with non-neurotypical students and you ask a question, it may be harder for the non-neurotypical students to, on the spur of the moment, articulate in front of all of those people. So you have like an anxiety disorder, right? Articulate an answer to that question you just posed to them on the spur of the moment. Whereas somebody else who comes from a background where they've been doing that their whole life, they don’t have an anxiety disorder. That space for them, that kind of high stakes situation is easier for them to navigate. That's really not a very good definition of kairotic spaces. But I think you get you get the idea. You see spaces that they're academic, they're professional, they're high stakes. And if you get the timing wrong, it can be a big problem. But the way that we make those spaces can be adjusted to be more inclusive. To be more universally usable. That's kairotic spaces. What I what I do with that, though, I think about that in relationship to fencing and things fencing brings in more strongly I think the antagonism, the interpersonal timing and the antagonism that's latent in that. Not that I set students against each other and have them fight to the death, although that would be really interesting.
GW: I wanted to do that so many times, but I’ve never done it because that would be wrong.
DC: But things like those classroom situations are inherently antagonistic to some extent. Because if it's not with your teacher, if it's not with the other students, it's with the environment itself in a lot of ways. And so I acknowledge the antagonism latent there. And part of what I do when I talk about training, like embodied interpersonal timing, is I do things like Think Pair Square Share, which is kind of a shorthand for give your students a minute, ask a question, give them a minute to write down what they think about the question. Have them get in a pair, have them exchange ideas in the pair. Have them get in a group of four, exchange ideas within that group. And then if you have time at that point, because usually that takes a long time in a 50 minute class, but then go to sharing ideas to the class as opposed to the example I gave before of just ask an individual student a question and they immediately have to share the response to the rest of the class. That's one example of writing exercises. When I make assignments, I also take this kind of heuristic approach. So I have students walk through a bunch of stuff. So this is how you read it. This is how you say anticipate what somebody else might say about it. This is how you plan your reaction to what you think the other person in your group will say. This is how you make sure that you're leaving room for other people to say things. I just try to make explicit a lot of the implicit rules that we have with timing and with interacting. I wrote a meeting rubric last year when we went online. And so I had students grade themselves in terms of the preparedness of the meeting, the purposefulness and the balance of the meeting. And that was actually really interesting to get them to think really critically about, especially in a Zoom meeting or a virtual meeting, how the time in that meeting is rationed. How are they making space for other people? Are they saying enough things in the meeting or they kind of being too passive? So I try to just kind of delve into those things for I think a lot of times students aren't trained as much in non-verbal communication as they are in verbal communication. With non-verbal I would include things like knowing when to break into a conversation or knowing how to signal that you're done or knowing how to interpret the rhythms of a discussion. So I think that's something that students oftentimes need a little bit more help with. I teach at Georgia Tech. So my students are like me, they're weird and nerdy and techie. So I work with a lot of engineers. They appreciate the explicitness.
GW: Yeah, and I found that an awful lot of problems go away when you make the assumptions explicit.
DC: Yes. And it's more accessible, right?
GW: Yeah, because the example that springs to mind for that particular reason is when I moved to Finland with my English notion of politeness. Which is very verbal. If an Englishman walks into a lamp post, he apologises to the lamppost, it's just that automatic. In Finland, if somebody bumps into you by accident, the last thing they would do is to compound that egregious invasion of your personal space, your physical space, with a second invasion of your mental space, by speaking to you, that would be extra rude. And so normally they might say, “oh”, which is just this kind of nonverbal grunt basically stands for “I recognise I've invaded your personal space. I didn't mean to do it. I would apologise for it, but I wouldn't want to take up more of your valuable time. So I'm just going to disappear out of your life now. Please forget this ever happened.” That's a reasonable interpretation of “oh”. I was coming back from trips to town, just absolutely furious how rude everybody was until it was explained to me that politeness is cultural. Burping after dinner is polite in some places and not in others. If you bump into somebody, not speaking to them is polite in some places and not in others. And that was really hard, but as soon as it was made explicit, it's like, OK, now I understand the rules and I can do this thing. And it was much, much easier from then on. And the same thing works in fencing classes.
DC: When we were in Italy, we had kind of a similar experience with politeness, because no matter how good your accent is, if you say please and thank you all the time when you're ordering food or ordering coffee, it's definitely an American.
GW: It's not necessary.
DC: Yes, it’s not necessary.
GW: Yeah. And they sort of appreciate the effort.
DC: I think they think it's cute.
GW: Yeah. But my top tip for speaking Italian other than drink wine, at the beginning of any conversation, come out with something like, “Yo parlo Italiano molto bennay”. And everyone is like, “What!?” And they fall around laughing. Whatever you say after that, even if your accent isn't that good, it sounds so much better than what you started with that they think it's amazing.
DC: Set the bar low.
GW: Set the bar so you can trip over it when drunk. OK, now on the subject of pedagogy. You list digital pedagogy in your bio and I have no idea what that is. And I would like to follow that up with can we teach fencing over the Internet?
DC: Yeah, so that's something that I think we've all been thinking about a lot more this last year. So digital pedagogy in one way, it's really just the thoughtful use of digital tools in your teaching. So knowing when to use video essays, when to use web projects, and when to use traditional papers, and when to assign those things to meet the learning outcomes that you have for your students in those specific areas. I think in another way, it's this deep recognition of the affordances of the medium. So what is video good at doing? What's a podcast good at doing? What is writing on a word processor good at doing? And then recognising the affordance of the different media that you're using to communicate and then basically structuring your teaching around that. I think when you're doing this, this relates to what we're talking about with fencing, it's really important to not try and just replicate the in-person instruction space, because when you're working in an online medium, it can do different things well than an in-person medium can. So, yes, you can teach some fencing virtually. But it's different. And if you try to approach it like it's put on our video cameras and I'm going to go about teaching exactly the same way as I would if we were in the same gym together. Except I can't touch you and I can't adjust your distance and I can't give you the cues, then that's not going to be as successful as it is to lean into some of the affordances of that medium. And I'm still thinking about this. I'm only taught a little bit remotely fencing. But when I've done this in terms of writing, I teach a first year composition class sometimes. And normally what I would do for this is really think about how to train interpersonal timing in the way I described before where we’re all in the classroom together, we get up, we move around, we do different things. And the centre point is this 15 minute lecture and then exercises and stuff like that, which is pretty typical for composition pedagogy now. When I went to an online format, I realised that it would be terrible for my students to log in three times a week for 15 minutes and listen to me lecture. And then I guess we use the breakout rooms. But I was trying to think of a way to use the affordances better. So I put them into smaller groups of five people and I let them schedule their own meeting times. And then I went to those meetings several points throughout the semester.
GW: Oh, that's brilliant. That’s genius.
DC: It worked a lot better for them because they had one group and I gave them some really specific instructions about how to have a good discussion. What I was expecting them to read, what I was expecting them to talk about. And honestly, they never knew when I was going to drop in on their five person group. That was part of their grade, like were they prepared when I dropped in. But it worked really well, especially because some of my students were still in China or India and it's this huge time zone difference. So I wanted them to be able to meet at a time where it's not 4:00 in the morning for them. But yeah, I mean, so that was a way that I used the affordances of the medium in order to lean into that and to teach the subject in a way that wasn't available to me when I was doing it in person. Another way is when you're teaching online, usually it’ll be way too much work to explain an assignment or it’ll take up too much class time with a final assignment to go over and explain the different possibilities for multiple assignments. But when it’s online you can just do an asynchronous lecture on each one. You'll let your student pick if they want to do the video essay for the final, if they want to do the web project, if they want to do the traditional essay, give them a little bit more choice. And for me, it's more fun when I'm grading because I'm not getting seventy five of the same thing to look at. It's all different.
GW: That's really interesting. I've been teaching fencing in various forms over the Internet since the pandemic started and running a warm up exercise, mechanics, footwork, classes, no problem, because everyone is on their own and they're in their rooms and that's fine. And taking experienced students and improving their mechanics is also quite straightforward. But basically, if I'm going to teach relative beginners to actually do the right techniques, they have to have a partner with them in the room. And that's relatively unusual, particularly during lockdown, because an awful lot of sword people don't have other sword people in their house with them.
DC: I know, it's tragic.
GW: It is tragic. So there are some things that we've been able to do quite well, for example, you’re into pedagogy, we have this coaches' corner kind of thing that meets one Saturday a month and it is really a support group for instructors. But we'll have a topic and I'll present my views on the topic because it's my class. And then people will ask questions and put their views on it. And someone will say, in our club we do this and someone else will say in our club we do that. No one has been taught how to teach fencing from scratch in those things, but it's really useful for people who want to just think about the process of actually teaching and running a club, that sort of thing. That works really well. But we can't, for instance, have somebody up in front of a class, see how they're doing, and make useful suggestions as to how they could do it better, because we can't organise to be there in the class to watch them teach.
DC: So it seems like in those constraints. So when David and I teach, we think in terms of modo, tempo and mesura, so we think in terms of form, timing and distance. And I think in the online environment, it's a lot easier to do modo or form technique, but it's super hard. Like how are you going to do distance with somebody who doesn't have that kind of dynamic partner that they can work with? I'm sure you can come up with some creative ways to work on timing, but it's hard. So yes, I think you can teach fencing online and it's like anything else with the medium. It's actually in some ways you can get more people in, if it's an online thing. So more people get exposed to fencing, which is really great, it's more accessible. And a lot of times the choice isn't between in-person and online, it's between no fencing and fencing online. And so I think it's actually a really valuable thing that's really useful to explore and build out. And there's probably ways that I could do it a lot better. But yeah, I think to get a lot better, you have to have that kind of in-person element somewhere, somewhere in the chain.
GW: If maybe you can teach 30 percent of what we're doing online, that's fine and we get really good at that 30 percent in lockdown and then after lockdown, we'll have time to spend on the other 70 percent of the art. There are plenty of clubs who had me over to teach a seminar during the pandemic because they could they could afford to set it up over Zoom. But they couldn't possibly afford to fly me to wherever the hell it was and put me up for three or four days and do all the things that get getting me to go to them would entail. An hour or two over the Internet. I’ve taught in Portugal and Florida and all sorts of places I've never been to before simply because we're doing it online instead and because there's no alternative it doesn't actually feel like a compromise. It's not like we're supposed to be here at this event, but instead we're just doing a Zoom call. There is no event. We have a Zoom call. Do you think there's anything that could be taught better over the Internet than in-person?
DC: Hmm. I mean, that's an interesting question, one thing that comes to mind is judging, I don't know how much you focus on this, but one thing that we like to do, because we run SERFO, which is a Southeast Renaissance Fencing Open, and in that tournament, we have a director who is usually somebody who's more experienced, like Kevin Murakoshi has come out before to direct for us. They're more experienced at parsing the timing of an action, so we have kind of right of way, but not like modern right of way, but if there are two hits at the same time, we have a way for thinking about if you both lose or if there's some mitigating circumstance. So we have the director who's in charge of the timing, like what was the phrase of action. Then we have four judges who are in charge of two people look at one person, two people look at the other person.
GW: That’s how I was taught in the 80s.
DC: It's pretty much yeah. It's like that. And there's a lot of things I really like about that. But one thing I think that you can do better online is teach people the skill division that you need to analyse and interpret phrases of action so that they can say if you see two people fencing and somebody gets hit, they can say, oh, well, the person on the right attempted a feint by disengage, or a disengage with an advance. The person on the left counterattacked with an arrest straight into that. And that's why the person on the left had the hit. So I think being able to map the stuff they're learning for their own bodies, their own techniques, onto what other people are doing as spectators and as analysts of the fencing phrase really helps people move from novices to experts and it helps them with parsing those things. When you do that online, especially in an asynchronous format, you can see a phrase, you can pause it, you can try to describe it in your own words. You can rewind it and you can put it in slow motion. You can see it again. Whereas if you're doing it in real time, it's like zero to 60. It's a lot easier, I think, for people if you slow it down sometimes at first.
GW: I set up fencing like that for my students. We got the two fencers and we got the four judges and I call them the president. These days I think they call them the director. But back in the 80s, they were called the president. And the judge's job is just to look for the hits on the other person. But what they are learning to do is to watch fencers. That prepares them for when they're being the president. And we rotate the roles around and we actually teach them this. And we have exercises for developing fencing memory so that you can remember what’s happened when you were fencing, but also so you can remember what's happening.
DC: I want to see those exercises because that is something that we really need to do more of. I think that's one thing where we could really improve. I think in the US generally in our tournament culture is judging what people complain about.
GW: This is one of these and I think it's probably in part three of my Rapier Workbook Series. I don't suppose you've seen these, have you?
DC: I have, but it’s been a while.
GW: I'll look it up and I'll send you the e-book. Developing fencing memory; page 21 of 56 in part three. But I’ll send it to you.
DC: I think developing fencing memory can be a good place to use it the affordances of the online medium.
GW: That can also be done just by videoing it on your phone and then going over it. That can still be done when you're in the same room as everyone else. So I'm really struggling to find anything that is strictly better over the Internet. I’m a very analogue sort of person.
DC: Accessibility is a big thing.
GW: Well, that's true. That's another thing. There have been people coming to my classes who, for example, are autistic, who they just would not cope with a live event because it's just not what their brain will handle.
DC: Or young parents. You don't have to pay eighty dollars to babysitters to go to your fencing class.
GW: That also, too. Yeah. OK, so. Yeah, you have given me some stuff to think about. I think I'm going to have to be getting you back for a round two, certainly when your book comes out anyway. But OK. I have to ask, what is the best idea you've never acted on?
DC: OK, so I had to think about this one for a while, because I don't really get that many ideas, and then when I have an idea that's good enough to do stuff with, I usually just try and do it. But my best idea I've never had is using RASP. Having RASP this summer, we're thinking about doing RASP at Pensacola at the beach, and then it could be GRASP like in Gulf, like the Gulf Coast RASP event. And we can have fencing on the beach and there's like tiki bars. It would have been awesome. But then we found a venue with air conditioning up here in Georgia that was probably just more practical. Our typical venue, we meet at a really beautiful summer camp in the mountains in Georgia but we typically do it like in January or February. And there's no air conditioning, but there's heating. So it's fine. But because Georgia is in the 50s usually. But this year we're doing it in the summer and we had to find air conditioning. So we're thinking about going down to Pensacola because we have a lot of people who come up from Pensacola and doing it there. And I was kind of getting excited about the beach idea, but it ended up being better to do it here.
GW: OK, so, yeah, I can imagine the real downside to a fencing event on the beach is there’s the beach. You could just put your sword down and just go for a swim.
DC: Take it with you, you know.
GW: Yeah. Also swords really don't like sea water that much.
DC: Well you wouldn’t take your best sword.
GW: Maybe slum it and get stainless steel for the event. My last question is, if you had a huge sum of money to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide, how would you spend the money?
DC: OK, so I've got two things for this. So first, I would endow some positions at universities for interdisciplinary appointments. So, for example, you have Maestre Sullens out at Sonoma State. He's a professor of philosophy, but he also runs like the fencing certificate programme there. William Gaugler is the same as a professor of archaeology and he ran the fencing programme down there. So I think if we could have more regions kind of throughout the world that have people who are dedicated academics, it's their day job. They actually get paid for it. And they can really pass on a lot of institutional knowledge and a lot of the oral tradition in a very systematic way. That would be super cool. Second thing I would do is just have childcare, all major events, no matter what. There's always going to be childcare there.
GW: Good idea.
DC: Yeah, because when women are at the age where they get into activities like fencing, not that you don't get in fencing when you're 50, 60, 70. I'm not saying that, but a lot of people get into fencing in their 20s and 30s, which is also prime childbearing years. And so it's just either you pay a whole bunch of money to be able to go and get a babysitter to do the event. You have a partner who doesn't fence and you trade off or in our case, we both fence. So we're going to WMAW with a newborn kind of strapped to us and try to do the best we could.
GW: I remember. How old is your child?
DC: She was probably about six months when we went.
GW: When was that.
DC: Oh my goodness, it was eight years ago.
GW: I vividly recall the baby at WMAW because I have two kids myself. And every time I go to an event, I'm basically leaving my children behind.
DC: Right. Yeah. So if you have on-site childcare, I think you get especially women more involved. I think here maybe it's less this way where you are. But at least here the women primarily end up being in charge of childcare, even if you're both working full time. So I think you get more women involved. It's a way to kind of improve the pipeline. And if people expect it at events, then they'll be more likely to plan for it. We've offered childcare at SERFO before and nobody has taken us up on it and we haven't done it again. Yes, I mean, that was one of the ideas I had, the best of ideas you've never acted on. And I was like, yeah, you know, I've acted on that. But because people don't expect there to be childcare, it's still something weird. It's not something that every event does. It's not something that people really take advantage of. So that's why it'll just be all the events, any event that has more than fifty people, you just have onsite childcare.
GW: That is genius. But one thing I would love to do, is now that my kids are older. They are fourteen and twelve. Is take one of them with me. And the thing is, when I’m at an event I'm basically in a sports hall or in some convention centre or something from breakfast on Friday until dinner on Sunday. And that's it. Neither of my kids are in swords, so they would be bored out of their skull. It’s a complete waste of an event and the expense of carrying a child with you.
DC: Because you're not doing a great job with your kid and it's hard to really pay attention to what you're doing. So this will be the first year I'm not going to have to go back and forth with RASP, with moving my kids around from babysitter to babysitter, having them on site with me and going to check on them and relieving the babysitter and missing some part of what's going on. So I'm really looking forward to just not having divided attention this year for once.
GW: Because wouldn't it be especially good if it wasn't just, OK, there's childcare on site, but let's say you have an event in California. And so one day all the kids get taken to Disney World.
DC: That's actually one thing that the SCA does well here in Georgia. And I haven't been super active in Georgia just because I worry about heat stroke. You know, some parents worry about their kids getting too chilled. I worry about them getting too hot. So an SCA event in Georgia's like I'm driving them around in the car with the air conditioning on the whole time anyway. But they do have for older children, like five or six and up, a minister of children. And they just organise child appropriate activities for the event. So you can leave your kid there. You can go and do your fencing. And it seems like a pretty cool system.
GW: Yeah, it would be really good if the kids really want to go. They're really looking forward to not your stuff, but the stuff they want to do when they're there. That that would be really cool, huh? OK, that's an excellent use of the money. If I had it, I would give it to you. I say that to everyone. I don't think anyone has come up with an idea for spending the money where I thought no, it’s a bit crap. But oh my God, it would be so good. Because people offer, when I go to Seattle or whatever my friends say you should definitely bring your kids in. Yeah, that would be great. But they have no interest in sitting and watching me teach fencing all day. You know, it's not really fair for you to then spend the whole day doing stuff with them because, you're not the babysitter and the reason you're getting me over to do the event because you want to come to the event, so the organisers who are hiring me to come, they don't want to be spending time looking after my kids. They want to spend the time doing the thing I'm going to do. So it's tricky. But if it was properly organised, I think that could be a game changer, particularly for getting women into the art. Yeah, you're right. They do tend to get left with the kids. Wow, OK, you know, Monica Gaudio sent me a email saying you really should speak to Dori, get her on your podcast. And, you know what, I think Monica was absolutely right. It’s been a delight talking to your Dori, thanks for coming.
DC: Yeah, I've really enjoyed it. Thanks for the opportunity to geek out a little bit and share about some of my research, my work down here.