The Quality of Mercy

images

Maggie Smith as Portia–BBC

I just finished grading my British Literature I online students’ responses to The Merchant of Venice. Their words prompted a very long response of my own, which caused me to re-evaluate the “quality of mercy” in light of recent events.

When I get discouraged, it’s teachable moments like this that keep me going. 

Here’s my response:

After reading the responses to the exercises, I wanted to clarify a few things:

Number One– Shakespeare’s view of Shylock is based on white, Christian views of the16th Century, but there are many indications that Shakespeare did not espouse these views completely. The society was inherently anti-semitic, and yet, Shakespeare writes a powerful statement against racial and religious discrimination in Shylock’s most famous speech in the play:

To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Shylock said it, but Shakespeare created the character and put those incredible words in his mouth. 

Number Two--Portia tries to save Shylock, but she MUST fully represent the law. I urge students to read some more commentary about The Merchant of Venice or go back and read through the play again, especially the courtroom scene. Portia gives Shylock multiple chances to show mercy, AND he is offered his money back, plus some (Portia is willing to give her new husband , Bassanio, enough gold to pay Shylock twenty times over in order to save Antonio’s life), but Shylock refuses to show mercy because he wants Antonio dead in return for the way he has been treated. Understandable perhaps, but not noble, not admirable, not justified. 

In the most famous passage of the play, Portia begs Shylock to have mercy because the law, that she represents, can only render justice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant
there.

But Shylock will have none of it and then must face the consequences of his actions just as he was insistent that Antonio pay in full for his. 

Number Three–Shylock does not lose his life, and a portion of his property is returned. It is the duke (perhaps taking Portia’s speech to heart) who spares Shylock’s life. Antonio also shows some mercy by allowing Shylock to keep half of his portion of the money until Shylock dies. The harshest thing, however, to our modern minds, is when Antonio insists that Shylock become a Christian, but in Shakespeare’s day, even this would have been seen as a merciful act, because the conversion means Shylock will not suffer for eternity in hell. Modern readers will no doubt find this analysis unacceptable, but I urge students to see the play in the context of Europe in the 16th Century.

We have a superb modern example of Portia’s idea of mercy, admittedly a Christian view of mercy, in Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of the former Dallas police officer who shot and killed his brother, which has reignited the age-old debate about justice and mercy that we see in The Merchant of Venice

Read about the debate and see the clip here: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/03/766866875/brandt-jeans-act-of-grace-toward-his-brother-s-killer-sparks-a-debate-over-forgi

Too Long

blog icon information internet

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This is what I get for teaching in the summer—less time to work on my blog. I almost let all of June go by without a post, but I made it!

I am saying right now, while I am in the midst of it, that I will never teach a course in the summer again. What was I thinking? Those of you who know me understand how I can get during the school year–I’m kind of intense, let’s say. Summer has always been my time to work on myself—my writing and reading, my diet and exercise, my family, my friends. Oh, and my Scrabble online time.

Not that I haven’t been doing all that.

However, I should have anticipated that teaching a composition course in eight weeks instead of sixteen is naturally going to take up a big chunk of time. And it has. Yet, I’m not sorry that I have done it because even if I do not succumb to the allure of teaching in the summer again (oh, Lord, I hope not ), I have learned a great deal that I can apply when teaching my sixteen-week classes.

Here we go:

  • Streamline assignments–I found that with fewer assignments, students are getting an ample amount of writing practice. I have also found that I can assign less time for assignments and still get the same quality of work from students. Giving weeks of time to complete the major assignments doesn’t seem to help either. Plus, I don’t have weeks of time when teaching a sixteen-week composition course in eight weeks.
  • Compact assignments–I re-wrote assignments to get more information in a single assignment so that I could afford to streamline. It takes some work and creative thought, but I dig that kind of stuff. Hey, course design is one of the reasons I love teaching so much.
  • Add video and text resources but keep them well-organized–I always have included a myriad of video and text resources, but with our new clean-looking LMS interface, it is easy to use labels to keep all of the student resources organized and easier to access. One tip–add resources that come from highly respected institutions (a plagiarism quiz from Cornell, which covers just about every possible plagiarism situation my students stumble across) and those that involve technology (a video about how to use Survey Monkey, which students like to use when doing field research for their capstone project).
  • Spreading out due dates–Students would find it difficult to be successful if they tried to complete two weeks worth of work in one cram session right on the day assignments are due. We can say good students get started early all we want, but the reality is most students, strong or weak, wait until the due date to complete assignments. Spreading out due dates helps students manage their time and helps me keep up with grading.
  • Introduce and summarize assignments–I have always added an introduction to my assignments, including key concepts from the text that I want to reinforce, but I have rewritten the introductions to be more intentional. I have also added summaries that include ONLY a bulleted list of what the students actually must submit for the assignments. This seems to help a great deal in avoiding confusion. Aristotle’s old advice, tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said, still holds true.
  • Create screencasts–It is relatively easy to create explanatory screencasts and upload them to YouTube with my ipad. I created a screencast just the day before yesterday that is about eight minutes long and takes students through the steps to find sources on my college’s website. YouTube has a feature that makes it easy to close caption in order for the video to be ADA compliant. All together, including upload, the screencast took me about one and a half hours to create. That would be more than I might want to dedicate during the school year, but since I have only one class this summer, and this screencast will be able to be used again, it was worth the effort.
  • Stay in touch–I have always tried to stay in touch with students, but I have made an even more concerted effort to communicate with students this summer since I have more time. I try to answer e-mails quickly and maintain a light and friendly tone with students. Last night I called a struggling student and spent about fifteen minutes offering some advice but mainly encouraging her. Fifteen minutes to save her from withdrawing a second time from English composition. Time well-spent. I know in the regular school year, with six classes, I will be unable to talk to all of my students this way, but I can certainly try to make a more personal connection to online students who are struggling.
  • Encourage strong students, too–This summer it has hit me harder than usual how much my strong students need me. They need to see not only a blanket “good work” on assignments, but also remarks on their essays about specific things they have done well. Sometimes the A students are lost in the shuffle. I don’t want to forget them this coming school year when I start getting busy putting out fires.
  • Empathize with difficulties–It doesn’t hurt to be human. I try to remember what it was like to work two jobs, be active in a campus club and be in student government while I was carrying a full load of classes. Some of my students have small children to care for as well. I can’t imagine. But I need to try.
  • However, don’t lower standards–While I try to show students compassion and make concessions where I can, I never want to lower my standards. I would not only be doing a disservice to the student but also to the college and society at large. Our students’ potential employers deserve workers who can read and write clearly, concisely, and persuasively. I have to be kind but firm.
  • Maintain a sense of humor–Much undervalued in education, I think. Having a sense of humor when communicating with students, when appropriate of course, eases tensions and humanizes me and the situation. It helps establish rapport with students like nothing else and helps them realize that, wildly successful or not, this intense eight-week English composition course will be just a blip in their lives, an important blip, but not the be all and end all of their existence.

Now, I had fun! I love writing this blog and hope someone reads it, but even if no one does, I have had a chance to pull together some interesting conclusions about my experience teaching this eight-week online composition class, and it is giving me some good, good, good vibrations. Sounds like summertime to me!

Anyone for a game of Scrabble?

letter blocks

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

cover_springsummer2019

DON’T FORGET TO SUBMIT TO TEACH! WRITE! DEADLINE FOR THE FALL 2019 ISSUE IS AUGUST 1! CLICK HERE FOR SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. I WOULD LOVE TO SEE YOUR POETRY, SHORT FICTION, OR CREATIVE NON-FICTION! YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A TEACHER OR A PUBLISHED WRITER TO SUBMIT!