Practical Arbalism – A Freshman Seminar

Comedy / The office of a professor / A crossbow / 993w

FFC 2018 Round II Entry

Buford Regional College associate lecturer Dennis Greene settled himself behind his desk, habitually smoothing the peeling laminate along its edge, and loaded his emails. He shared the cramped, windowless office with an elusive adjunct from the English department, who fortunately was not there to hear the undignified bark he let out upon reading his first message:

Hello Dennis,

Dr. Tong and I spoke further about your course, but – as I suggested would be the case – we still agree that it is not feasible for the department to offer it. The enrollment would likely be extremely limited, to say nothing of the potential for injuries and the associated liability.

We do truly appreciate your enthusiasm, and hope that, before the beginning of the fall, you are able to channel it into the development of a syllabus more suited to our student population (and funds). We hope you understand. 

All the best,


Marie Milliner, PhD

Curriculum Coordinator

Department of History


Dennis released a deep, irritated sigh. Why, he wondered, ask him to develop a freshman seminar capitalizing on “the expertise of our faculty,” that was “likely to draw the interest of our freshmen and increase their retention,” only to immediately shoot down just such a proposal? His idea ticked all the boxes: it was unique, it had depth over breadth, and it offered a chance to study history from an uncommon angle. He glanced over at his mounted wallarmbrust (“Wally,” in his more affectionate moments) and scoffed at the notion that any red-blooded college freshman wouldn’t jump at the chance to wield an authentic sixteenth-century crossbow and learn the ways of the classical arbalist.

He opened a new message and began drafting his reply to Marie.

There was a quick and inadequate rap at his door, and Ismael Hemman entered. Dennis suppressed a grimace. Just what he needed at that moment: the bowman.

“Hello, Dennis,” Ismael said, sitting down uninvited in the English adjunct’s chair. Dennis quickly minimized Marie’s email and swiveled around.

“Ismael, hello,” he said. “Doing well? How goes the publication?”

Ismael shrugged. “Decently. The journal has high standards. But since this particular area is fairly unexplored, I think they’ll bite.”

Dennis doubted it. What could possibly be unexplored about archery? It was the deadest horse there was. Of course, he and Ismael had had this conversation several times, arguing over everything from the superiority of firing mechanisms, to the level of skill required to use the weapons, to even the number of odes and poems dedicated to the practice, nay the art, of the crossbow versus the bow. Ever the archer, it was usually Ismael’s style to pick fights from afar (but not that far, from the point of view of an arbalist). That made an in-person visit an anomaly.

“Did anything come of that attempt to establish a peer-reviewed journal in your field?” Ismael asked mildly.

A deliberate jab, but Dennis’ mail was not so easily pierced. “Not yet,” he replied with just a hint of steeliness. “Did you need something?”

Ismael’s expression turned oddly timid. He shifted awkwardly, causing the chair to squeak. “I wondered,” Ismael asked, carefully, “if there were any updates as to your seminar proposal.”

Dennis cringed. The memory of the lukewarm reception he had met at the department meeting was still circulating unpleasantly in his mind, like a toilet that wouldn’t flush. Had Ismael come to gloat?

He gave the adjunct professor’s universal shrug of resignation. Although his pride protested, the arbalist’s code of honor didn’t allow for lying. “It won’t be running, it seems.”

Ismael nodded. But instead of smirking, he chewed his lip thoughtfully. Then he said, “I hadn’t mentioned this earlier, but I also submitted a proposal. ‘An Archer’s History of the World.’ It wasn’t accepted, either, I’m sorry to say. Tong’s walls are too high.”

Dennis frowned. “My misery does appreciate the company. Do you know if any seminars will run?”

“Alex’s ‘Family Quarrels of the Greek Gods.’”

The two lecturers groaned simultaneously.

“When will we ever move on to something interesting?” Dennis wondered aloud.

“If we don’t do something, we’re doomed to languish on Mount Olympus forever,” Ismael said, shaking his head.

At that, a question sprang into being and hung in the air. Dennis swiveled fully around and regarded his colleague curiously.

“I had an idea,” Ismael continued. “I thought that we might have more luck convincing the department if we…joined forces, so to speak.” Discomfiture flashed across his face, but he controlled it quickly.

Although he had managed to see the shot coming, Dennis still wasn’t ready to face it head on. The rivalry between arbalists and bowmen (and bowwomen; archery did cling to its backward gendered language) had a long and violent history. To reconcile the two sides in the intimacy of a classroom seemed an impossible target to hit.

But. The stakes were high. The siege of academia seemed as though it would never end. Perhaps it was time for a new tactic, to force those gates to open at last.

“It isn’t…a bad idea,” Dennis said. “I would need to look at your syllabus. And you mine,” he added quickly. “It’s possible we could define a few shared objectives.”

“My thinking exactly. A broader perspective could be our ticket in.”

“Surely we could scrape up a dozen students between us.” Dennis’ excitement began to mount. “‘Arbalists and Archers: History’s Long Shot.’”

“Or, ‘Bowmen Across the Ages: Projectile Weaponry and History.’ After all, arbalists are technically bowmen–”

“We would need to carefully and thoughtfully distinguish our two areas,” Dennis said loudly, “on the first day, of course. Introduce the relevant terminology.”

“Naturally. Do you think we could hand in a proposal by Monday?” Ismael’s eyes sparkled with energy.

Dennis nodded. “Let’s each exchange drafts tonight. Or better yet, do you have time now?” He threw a notepad down between them and offered Ismael a pen.

It was time to devise the final battle plan.

Writer’s Note

Here’s my entry for round 2 of the Flash Fiction Challenge 2018. I ended up enjoying writing comedy more than I thought I would. As a beleaguered (no pun intended) adjunct professor myself at times, it wasn’t too hard to inhabit this setting and character.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to give my characters more flaws. I feel my protagonists tend to be too bland and unidimensional. I’m rereading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (David Mitchell, one of my favorites) and he does such a good job of being honest about the characters’ fallibility, in both high- and low-stakes situations.

The judges like Field of Vision, although they thought it could use more detail in general (which I avoided because fairy tale, but maybe that isn’t really a necessity).



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