Sewanee is full of extraordinary people with fascinating stories. Here they share those stories–in their own words.

Bill Engel

Nick B. Williams Professor of English, Sewanee's Maître d’armes

Learning to fence and learning about English literature are very similar processes. In fact, I’ve devoted an entire chapter of a book to applying the metaphor of fencing in teaching.

As Sewanee’s Maître d’armes, I start my fencers off with rudimentary drills before eventually breaking them into pairs and simulating duels to the best of their abilities. In the classroom, I similarly start with the basics. First, we must work in groups or as a class to discuss and come to understand the basics—the ring-structure that guides the narrative of Beowulf or the theme of familial and political authority found in King Lear for example. These are the fundamentals; the things you just have to know.

But meaningful learning requires more than just memorizing concepts and reciting them as instructed. It necessarily involves a wider application, which produces something new and unique. Once my fencers have mastered the basics, I begin working with them individually to craft their personal style, to bring them into alignment with their own balance and their own body. They learn to employ the skills they’ve gained in their own way against opponents and, what’s more, they learn to do it guided by a tradition and a sporting spirit that goes at least as far back as Alexander the Great. And it’s no different in the courses I teach. When students have come to understand the fundamentals of the material, I help them develop their own ways of engaging with that material, of formulating and expressing their unique perspectives. And, of course, just as in fencing, this idea of combative mutual discovery is alive in the classroom. The offense and defense that embodies intellectual debate is always, and necessarily, conducted with respect for those against whom you are arguing.

Because what is the good fight if not fought in good faith?

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