In my September post On back to school and starting as you mean to continue I talked about the importance of setting habits and beginning well. The idea of getting off to a good start is a familiar one but I think we ought to pay just as much attention to endings.
As end of term fast approaches (Wednesday’s the last day of the fall semester, woo hoo!) I started thinking about Aikido and its emphasis on finishing well.
In Aikido there’s this term “zanshin.”
Zanshin (Japanese: 残心) is a term used in the Japanese martial arts. It refers to a state of awareness – of relaxed alertness. A literal translation of zanshin is “remaining mind”.
At the end of technique zanshin means continuing to pay attention to your partner, seeing the movement through to its conclusion, being alert and present as your partner returns to the starting position.
“This is the mind of complete action. It is the moment in kyudo (Zen archery) after releasing the arrow… In shodo, it is finishing the brush stroke and the hand and brush moving smoothly off the paper… Zanshin means complete follow through, leaving no trace. It means each thing, completely, as it is… a mind of continual readiness, like a mirror ready to reflect whatever is shown to it…” (Zen monk, The Venerable Anzan Hoshin Roshi, 1988). from Memoirs of a Grasshopper
I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than just ending well, but as a beginner I’ve noticed that you can get the middle of a technique wrong and make mistakes but it you begin well and end well, people don’t pay so much attention to the mistakes in the middle.
Over time, I’ve acquired the habit of maintaining eye contact with my partner, rising to stand in time with them, and returning to our starting position together. The idea is that you don’t just throw the person and walk away. You keep the connection. Smooth and rhythmic at the start and the end and no one remembers the middle.
What’s that got to do with the end of the semester?
I’ve been thinking these past few weeks how courses tend to go off the rails a bit in the middle. Students get grades they don’t like and you’re disappointed in how you’re teaching. Class prep gets squeezed with meetings and conferences. They’re late handing in work and then you’re late grading it. It’s just the messy middle of term.
But you can rescue a course, just like an Aikido technique executed clumsily, by refocusing your energy at the end.
Friends have been joking about their standards of dress slipping throughout the term. One friend wrote about forgetting to tie his tie one day. I showed up on campus every day this week with my big weekend purse (dubbed by my kids as the “hippie side bag”) rather than my briefcase. Some of my lectures just trailed off rather than having a coherent narrative structure. I ended with the “well, that’s it for today.”
But it’s my plan for the last classes to prepare as if they were the first day. I’ll come in with a story to tell and get them excited about the ideas and arguments along the way, just as I did on Day 1. It’s why I tell my students to make sure they write good conclusions for their essays. Don’t just let the paper trail off. End strong.
Students can also do the same when it comes to the end of semester. Focus on getting enough sleep, do the readings, come to class prepared and ready to learn as if were the first day.
Start well, end well. Zanshin.