In many martial arts styles, essays are part of the requirements for Dan (black belt level) examinations. At my dojo, I require Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) candidates to write a 500-word or more essay answering the question “What’s the most valuable thing you’ve gained from training in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu?”. For Nidan, they must write an essay of 1000 words or more, explaining one or more ways teaching Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu has changed their perspective. At the higher levels, these essays become more like a thesis on a topic that is specifically assigned to the candidate.
The purpose of writing these essays is not to test students’ writing skills. I personally don’t expect people to have the eloquence and grammar of someone who writes regularly. The idea is to give students an opportunity to reflect on what their martial arts training/teaching experiences has meant to them at the first Dan levels. That’s why the questions are quite open to different interpretations and can be looked at from a wide variety of angles. Chris Olson Sensei from our dojo wrote “How I Learned to Be a Student” for his Shodan essay, which gave insight to his perspective of coming to train in a different style of Jiu-jitsu after already having trained to brown belt in his original style (Shorinji Kan). It was actually quite a humbling essay in his journey to open his mind to accept and integrate teachings from a new style. I look forward to reading his Nidan essay (which is coming up pretty soon, I might add). By reflecting in this way, it helps students understand the human experience of martial arts training as a whole, albeit from their own perspective, which can help them better connect with other students as they take on more and more of a leadership role in the dojo.
At the higher levels, the purpose is to encourage them to explore a particular topic in detail that draws both on their experiences, as well as pushing them to look beyond what they have already learned for further insight. For my Yondan (4th Degree Black Belt), I wrote a thesis on A) the history of knives, types of knives and knife striking methods, and B) how I would prepare to teach defense against knife attacks. I called it On the Knife’s Edge: Exploring the History of Knives as Weapons and Defense Strategies against Them (click the link if you’re interested in reading it). I spent several months working on this paper, talking to instructors with far more experience than me in this particular topic, ordering books, doing research on the Internet, etc. I immersed myself in the topic, reading grizzly books like Contemporary Knife Targeting as my bedtime reading, which showed a variety of images of actual edged weapon wounds. I even play-tested one of the ideas I had about the psychology of knife defense on my blog, gaining insight on different perspectives on a very subjective topic. I wasn’t told how long my essay should be, just that it should be long enough to cover the topic I was given. It ended up being over 20,000 words, but I was happy with how it turned out. As for my Godan (5th Degree), I didn’t end up having to write a thesis this time. I think the essay requirement was likely waived, considering that I wrote an entire book/DVD, When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-Jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense (coming out in February 2013), which was far more work than just a standard thesis would have been with all the photography and accompanying video.
Ultimately, the purpose of writing essays, theses, etc, as a part of Dan examinations is not the writing itself, but the thought that goes behind them. When one writes these papers, they can be an intimate exercise in self-examination or an extensive outreach that pushes the boundaries of what you think you know about the martial arts. Although I have a distinct advantage in that I enjoy writing, I think everyone can benefit from the thought exercise that goes into writing, whether the person is a writer or not.
Are essays a requirement for black belt gradings in your style? If so, what types of essay do people write? If not, what do you think of the concept? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 🙂