Today in Llwyd's pontification: SCA Households

This article is a collection of my thoughts and experiences with households and mentoring. I don't know that it really makes any particular point. But it was useful for me to write to work through some of my reservations about the topic.

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Inclusion is generally good; exclusion is generally bad. 
  • Coaching and mentoring are related but not identical.
  • People's personalities are different and the best way to connect with useful guidance will vary.
  • Try before you buy.

Background

As of this writing, I've been in the SCA for around 30 years. I've moved around the country to multiple Kingdoms. I was never in a formal student/mentor relationship but have learned from scores of people over the decades. Now as a Peer for almost exactly 9 years (and more recently a double Peer), I have not yet taken any formal students. I have had people ask and am considering it. But as part of my decision process I wanted to try to work through my reservations about the idea by writing this article. I also hope that this will be helpful to potential future students to understand how I view these kinds of relationships.

Since this article will contain a lot of cautions about households, let me acknowledge that I am in one: The Company of the Dragoon Guards.  It was founded well before any of its members were Peers and does not function in a Peer/student manner. Rather, it is a collection of friends who enjoy SCA rapier melee and typically band together as a combat unit when fighting in melees.

What are SCA households?

Households in the SCA are unofficial, voluntary, groups of people. They are self-selected group of friends who have chosen to group together. Frequently they will have a particular focus beyond just being a group of friends. A very common form of households are ones consisting of one or more Peers and their formal students. I will first talk about households in general and then discuss the mentor/student relationship in more detail.

General Household Issues

The SCA works hard to be inclusionary. Anyone who makes an attempt to wear garb and who pays the site fee can attend an event. We actively go out and do demonstrations to try to spark interest and recruit new members. Households are by nature exclusionary. While anyone can form a household, any particular household is not open to everyone. You must either apply or be invited. Some people will not be accepted. This is a fundamental disconnect between the two approaches. I don't consider it fatal, but it is still important to acknowledge that this difference exists.

Any given person has a finite amount of time. They choose how much of that time they spend in the SCA. And they choose how much of their SCA time they spend doing household-only things and how much they spend playing with their local group and Kingdom. This generally means that when a person joins a household they then start to spend less time with non-household people. 

This leads into the first of several general issues that I have seen occur. Some households can be very predatory about scooping up new SCA members into their household. When this happens, much of the new-person enthusiasm and energy is lost to the SCA and expended with a much smaller group of people. And if the household turns out to be a poor fit for the person they don't have a pool of outside friends to fall back on, so they leave and are lost to the SCA.

When this happens to excess, the households can take over a local group. I have seen cases where a dominant household just swaps the local group's officer posts among each other. They discuss who will take on a new role within the household and then show up at the group meeting with a new slate of officers all picked out; the smaller group of non-household folks are locked out of serving and locked out of even having a say on who gets chosen.

This can still get worse. I have also seen a Kingdom calendar completely locked down with household run annual events. There is no room for anyone not in a major household to autocrat or to try a new innovative idea for an event. A whole lot of energy and creativity is just walled off from being able to work. 

I have also seen households that have tried to function as voting blocks in polling orders. They decide that a household member deserves an award, organize a campaign of recommendations, and vote as a block to approve that person. The flood of extremely similar, and frequently lacking in important details, recommendations can be really obvious and is not nearly as helpful to the candidate as one or two well written and complete ones. Sometimes the candidate is actually well qualified, but other times the household is just after a status bump for having one of its people get a new award. In the latter case, the campaign does active damage to the candidate's award potential.

Each of these situations really happened. I choose not to be more specific about the exact details to avoid derailing the point of this article.

Mentor/Student Relationships

The mentor/student relationship is an authentic medieval (and earlier) construct. It survives to modern times but is now much less common. I have an ongoing and very positive experience with my graduate school adviser who guided me to both a masters and doctorate degree. We still regularly correspond and occasionally meet for a meal together. He follows my career and has nominated me for recognition within our professional society. A couple of weeks ago I ran into a favorite high school teacher who had a big impact on me. I had a smile on my face for two days from seeing and talking with him.

Mentor/student relationships are very common in the SCA. Most often they are between a Peer and a non-Peer, but that is not required. Indeed, these relationships are completely unofficial and can be formed at the will of any two people. My wife chose an SCA mentor who was not a Peer at the time of their agreement. He was an extremely helpful resource for her who advised and promoted her for the many years it took for her to be recognized as a Laurel. 

The Peer to student relationship is common enough that there are standard names that many people use. Students to Knights are most often called squires. Pelican students are termed proteges and Laurels take apprentices. The Masters of Defense have not settled on a single typical name for their students. "Cadet" is most common, but some groups use "Provost" or other names. Most often a student finds a mentor that has been recognized on their intended path, but sometimes they choose someone who understands them, is good at motivation and at listening, and who can give them good feedback. My wife's mentor was on the Pelican path while she was on the Laurel one.

Either the student or the mentor can suggest forming the relationship to the other. If the idea is mutually of interest, then followup discussions should be held to establish expectations for the relationship. It is common for the student to receive a token from the teacher when the relationship is formalized such as a red belt for a squire. But, this is not universal. Finally, students get no rank or title from their relationship.

An ideal mentor can provide feedback and motivation to the student to guide them on their path. They can be a point of contact for outside feedback and questions about the student and report on their students accomplishments to appropriate Orders and Crowns. If they are skilled in the particular field that the student is pursuing they can point out weak points and suggest ways to address the problems. And they can be a sympathetic ear when the student is frustrated.

Mentor/Student Issues

Like any human relationship, a mentor/student relationship can develop problems over time or be doomed from the start. The potential for problems can be reduced but not eliminated with frank up front discussions prior to finalizing the relationship. A failed mentor/student relationship can be as emotionally draining as a failed romantic one or can be ended cleanly if both participants are more adult.

Let me try to make a fine distinction. I think of coaching and mentoring as related, but not identical, jobs. A coach is someone skilled in your particular area of interest that helps you with technique. A mentor is someone interested in your personal development who helps you meet your broader goals. Those roles could be filled for you by more than one person. That is effectively the route I chose.

As with households, there are some problems that I've seen and would like to share. The first is forming a relationship just for the status it conveys. I've seen supposed mentors who collect large numbers of students. They are unable, and frequently unqualified, to provide useful mentoring guidance to the students. They are just after the status of being a "teacher" to a large stable to people. Conversely, students can choose a mentor to gain reflected status ("I'm a squire to Duke Bob!") with no intent to learn or perform the expected duties.

I've also seen mentors who go above and beyond to be supportive. One mentor who felt strongly that their student should attend and participate in a particular event took on the additional task of watching their student's child at the event so that the student could attend, participate, and learn. I suspect that support was not specified in their pre-relationship discussions, but that it made a difference for that student. It certainly impressed my wife and I.

People change over time and life happens. One of the pair could move, have a child, get married or divorced, change interests, or otherwise be much less able to perform their agreed duties. This can cause significant distress if options for dissolving or modifying the relationship were not discussed and agreed upon up front.

My (lack of) SCA Mentor Experience

For most of my long SCA career I have been focused on rapier and service to the SCA. Later, due in large part to my wife, I expanded my limited interest in A&S to a much more significant one. I have traveled to and lived in multiple Kingdoms and learned little bits from hundreds of different people and had major impacts from around a score. But I have never had a formal mentoring relationship in the SCA. 

Why is that the case? I think there are two main reasons: access and ego.

From a fencing point of view, I have never lived where there was a notably better fencer in my local group. Certainly there were better fencers around but they were fairly distant and difficult to get training from. In many locations I was lucky enough to have another fencer who was very close to my skill level. We could challenge each other and improve from that competition, but a mentoring relationship was never appropriate. The situation on the service side was slightly better. I had lots of people who helped and motivated me, but few were well suited for a formal mentor relationship. 

I must also freely admit that my ego was also a factor in this decision. I know that I'm a very smart guy who can analyze how things work, self-critique my own efforts, and do what I need to do to accomplish my goals without someone else holding my hand and pointing the way. I did take guidance and examples from people I respected, but I did not have any single person that I worked with on advancing down my path.  And, for me, that worked. But, did my ego slow down my progress on the path when another set of eyes could have helped? Perhaps.

How People Learn

Master Dante very recently pointed me at an excellent book on how people learn, train, and practice to achieve excellence.  It is called "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise" by Ericsson and Pool.  I highly recommend it. It is a fascinating book that looks at all kinds of expertise including skill at chess, music, medicine, and even taxi driving and extracts the common features of the training necessary to achieve that expertise. The book describes "deliberate practice" where the student's current skill is measured, weak points are identified quickly rather than being themselves practiced, and focused effort is made to improve those weak points. While one can certainly guide oneself through improving via deliberate practice, it is generally much better to have a skilled coach. That coach can watch your performance from the outside, compare it to an ideal, and help identify the weak portions of the skill and techniques to address those weaknesses.

The book goes on to describe how people build mental models of the ideal for their skill and try to match these models with their own technique. Since elementary school I had chosen to take lecture notes in my own words rather than writing verbatim the words of the teacher. This process put me a step ahead because I was already building a mental model of the material rather than doing memorization. That analytical approach served me very well in my engineering training and career and allowed me to, eventually, succeed in my SCA goals. So, a coach that can help you to build a valid mental model, compare your technique to it, and work to correct issues is an invaluable resource. 

Having a mentor who is also an effective coach is a wonderful asset and a great way to improve your desired technique. But depending on your personality and access to knowledgeable folks in your field you may be better served by separating the roles across two or more people. Figure out what you need, what resources (people) are available to you, make a tentative plan, and then go talk to the people you would like to get guidance from.

Recommendations

Some random recommendations:

  • Do not join a household or become a formal student for at least one year after joining the SCA.
    • During that year try all kinds of things and meet all sorts of people.
  • Have a formal trial run for your potential mentor/student relationship. The Dragoons call this an internship. 
  • Have lots of discussions about roles and expectations before finalizing a relationship
  • Include in your discussions how and why you might end that relationship
  • Your new Peer will probably serve as the main planner when/if you are to be recognized with an award.
    • Let them know how you would like things to go.
    • Google for a "in case of peerage" questionnaire, discuss it and leave it with them.
    • Update when your choices change.
  • Make it a requirement to support your local group:
    • go to work days,
    • serve as an officer or event staff,
    • fight with a Baronial unit.
  • Mentors should advocate for their students in Order discussions gently. You have the best information on their skills, but it is easy to over do it, turn off your Order peers, and hurt the student's chances.

New Peers often get the suggestion to wait a year before taking a formal student. I definitely agree that they should ease into their new role and shouldn't go out and collect a stable full of students. But I can envision formalizing a pre-existing mentoring relationship if that Peer and their student want to.

My final thoughts

Writing this article has been helpful to me to organize my thoughts and feelings (build my mental model) on this subject. The lack of a strong conclusion reflects my continued ambivalence about the subject.

I am comfortable filling the coach role and I have been working on improving my skills in this area by studying a formal period sword system (Fiore) and by studying modern teaching theory (Peak). I am also comfortable with informal mentoring and have been doing it for many years. For instance, I have encouraged people to teach at University, helped them develop class materials, and even served as an assistant during their classes. I encourage and support mid-level fencers in working with newer folks. I provide subtle and unsubtle hints to folks who are ready to step up and teach or lead something. And I advocate in Order discussions for folks in my Barony and other people I work with.

I am not as comfortable with formal mentoring. I am slowly moving in that direction and have received a couple of requests. I'm unsure where I will end up.