By Bryan Donoghue
A professor develops expertise in their area of study after years of building their intelligence. A martial arts instructor culminates themselves into a master of their craft. There are three professors on campus who instruct in the classroom and the studio.
Each professor said they see Bruce Lee as an inspirational pop-culture icon, but their own origin stories begin with a simple fascination of martial arts rather than following a role model.
Hal Genger, an oceanography professor at Humboldt State University, is a 5th dan black belt in aikido and has been practicing the art since attending graduate school. His career at North Coast Aikido began in 1978, and has since become an instructor.
“I just love to train with people,” Genger said. “When it flows good, I just feel so much better. Almost every time I get out of class I feel better than when I went to class. Every class does not go as well as I think it ought to, but I’m just working on myself figuring out how to do this.”
Even now, Genger retains interest in martial arts. Not only does he enjoy passing on what he’s learned to his students, but Genger also finds benefit in martial art’s stress relief, as well as how it helps people battle their ego.
“You know, kind of my whole life I’ve been interested in martial arts, and it really helped with some anxiety issues,” Genger said. “It helped me survive graduate school,
and then I just got interested in the physical, mental, spiritual part of it. It was important to my whole life.”
“Any martial art is dealing with your ego, you become a little bit more humble and you learn to listen more, feel the experience that’s going on instead of going directly to a conflict situation,” Genger said. “That’s really important in dealing with your significant others. It’s better to listen instead of argue.”
Aside from dealing with ego and helping with anxiety, Genger finds the connection between martial arts and the classroom to be related to how he interacts with his students.
“In the lecture you’re verbally interacting with your students, but it’s not a physical interaction, but with aikido it’s a little bit verbal but it’s just physical,” Genger said.
A fellow instructor at North Coast Aikido, Peggy Ilene, teaches aikido at the university. Ilene is a kinesiology professor, and although she only instructs aikido at the school currently, she has taught other classes in her time at Humboldt State. Her perspective of how students relate to the dojo and to the classroom is the difference in setting.
“It’s simply that in the dojo every single person who’s come into the dojo is really dedicated to that art in a more specific way,” Ilene said. “Often people who are coming to the university have a more general either curiosity or they’re coming in to find out about it.”
The benefit in either the classroom or the dojo is based on the interaction we have with other people. According to Ilene, people learn from each other by working together.
“There’s something new to learn because, partly because, we’re working with people. People are so intricate,” Ilene said. “We’re working with principles that can simulate that intricateness and find a way to difficult places.”
Aikido isn’t the only martial art present in Arcata that houses an instructor who is simultaneously a professor. Corey Lewis is an author, master of Arcata’s Sun Yi Tae Kwon Do academy and emeritus English professor at Humboldt State University. He finds that the relationship between martial arts and academics is based on balance.
“For me, there’s always been that balance of that scholar warrior,” Lewis said. “It’s not just about the jock, the warrior and the athlete. You got to feed the mind and the spirit. You got to have scholar, too. You got to read, you got to write. It’s about the pen and the sword.”
Fights and bullies were problems Lewis dealt with growing up until he made a decision to learn self-defense at 10 years old. From that point on, Lewis trained with Grandmaster Sun Yi who became like family to him, and then went on to teach his own classes when he turned 21. Lewis taught english classes at Humboldt State until 2014, and helped produce many graduates, and since owning his own practice in Arcata, Lewis has trained around 40 black belts. There’s a method to his instruction.
“What I would tend to do in classes like that is what I learned in martial arts.” Lewis said. “First, need to break it down into its constituent components and model it several times. Then, have the students practice it a bunch. Then, you critique the students practice to help them improve.”
A college degree or a black belt can boost a person’s confidence, but the underlying benefit is the way a balance as a martial artist and academic helps an individual grow.
“I’ve always been really interested about how education empowers us and builds skills, and how martial arts empowers us and builds skills.” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of similarities between both of those.”