The Quality of Mercy

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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

Blog Share–Jeff Goins’ “The Essential Sadness of Art”

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First day of classes but have to write. It’s the only way I can cope. But I have to give my primary attention to my students. They have to come first today. So I will just take a little break and share this terrific blog post by Jeff Goins, author of five books, including The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve. Funny that this article would come from one who writes mainly about the business of writing.

That’s what makes it so great.

Here are some highlights from “The Essential Sadness of Art”:

“We want broken and beautiful, real and raw. Sure, we want abundant life, but we know it comes at a cost. And when you don’t illustrate that cost well — with sacrifice and toil — we don’t believe the story.”

“What a beautiful mess this life is. Beautiful and broken and begging to be redeemed. And for those who are listening, this is a truth that resonates.”

~~~

My students like to laugh, and we did today, but the vast majority of them have not signed up for one of my English composition classes expecting or wanting fun and games. They want to learn how to write well, or at least well enough to get the grade or the skills they need to move on to the next class.

Some of them, during the moment, might be glad if I spent the time joking around, playing games, giving “fun,” undemanding assignments, but when they moved on to the next class, they would no doubt resent the heck out of me, and rightly so, when they realized they wasted their time and money on entertainment. Writing is difficult work and effective writing can be disturbing and uncomfortable, dredging up old hurts or even creating new ones.

Writing, even expository writing, can be a very intimate, personal experience. It is often hard to get poor grades on writing assignments. No matter what the professor says about not taking grades personally, it’s hard not to. I know. I have had enough editors, agents, and fellow writers tell me not to take rejections personally, but I can’t help it. Nothing can stop the sting of rejection. It hurts.

But the goal of life is not to avoid hurt. It’s masochism, of course, to seek the hurt, but it is courage to attempt difficult things that may very well result in pain and failure that we then have the privilege to struggle through and become victorious over.

Because then we will grow.

So I will ask my students to read sad and disturbing essays and stories. I will assign them difficult tasks to complete that may cause some of them distress. I will confront them when called for and discipline them when necessary–to help them learn and grow as students and people.

I will seek to break out of my own comfort zone, go into the dark places–for the sake of knowledge and truth, even if it causes momentary pain.

In the end, we will laugh out loud and know what it means to be truly happy.

“2 My brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  –James 1:2-4 (NRSV)

 

 

 

Questions

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Soon I will have time to write, but tonight, it is not to be, chéri.  No watching baseball with my hubby, either. Too much to do. But I don’t want any more time to go by without posting about one of my persistent concerns–high school students taking college classes.

Here is an interesting, balanced article from Joseph Warta, a homeschooled young man writing for the conservative educational think tank The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal: Dual-Enrollment: A Head start on College or Empty Credentialing?

Warta points out both positive and negative aspects of his Career and College Promise experience at a North Carolina community college with his primary complaint being that his college classes lacked rigor, which I had never heard before. The complaint I hear most often is that my classes are too difficult.

But, of course, not all colleges or instructors are the same, are they?

I turn grades in on Thursday, graduation is Saturday, and then the summer. I will be teaching online–a pilot eight-week freshman English course that I will certainly blog about because I truly love curriculum design.

It’s funny, isn’t it?

When I went to Auburn, the university was on a quarter system; then, it moved, with most of the rest of the college and university system, to a semester system, and now the move is back to quarters. What goes around, comes around.

Seems to be true of education especially, doesn’t it?

 

End of School!!

smiling woman holding white android smartphone while sitting front of table

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Only a little while longer left in the school year, so I am knee-deep in grading, but I wanted to post something–it’s been so long. I found this great article on how helicopter parenting can damage college students. I think it is important, especially since we have a growing number of high school students who are taking college-level classes. If parents do too much for their children, they can severely handicap them when they transfer to a four-year university (maybe as a junior!).

Here is an article called “6 Tips for Parenting College students” by Chrystyna D. Kouros, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

It’s good advice for all parents of college students but especially for those who are parenting a minor who is taking college-level classes.

Now, back to grading!

The growing importance of baccalaureate degrees in workforce development

battered posterMy new play about domestic violence inspired by Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book is called Battered. It makes its debut April 11-14 at the Patton Auditorium on the campus of Blue Ridge Community College. One of the best things about working where I do is the opportunity to collaborate with other departments and community members on developing art that addresses important issues in our society.

For this play, I collaborated with the director, student and community actors, technical theater students, student filmmakers, campus police, fellow professors of drama, English, psychology, and sociology as well as employees of various social service organizations in the area.

Because of having so much to do (I still teach a full load of English composition and literature classes as well, along with all of the grading, of course) I do not have much time to write, but I wanted to share some important passages from the conclusion of a white paper entitled “The Evolving Mission of Workforce Development in the Community College” by James Jacob and Jennifer Worth, published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University:

As more jobs require higher skills, the education levels demanded by employers will continue to rise. This means that more community college workforce programs must assume that students should be prepared to complete a degree at a four-year institution or complete a community college baccalaureate. [my emphasis] Except for allied health areas, most career and technical programs lack consistent integration between the skills programs and their “foundation” or basic liberal arts and sciences areas. Most occupational programs do not require these courses for certificates, and even if students want to complete a degree, occupational faculty consider them add-ons to be undertaken after they complete their technical program sequence. This is a mistake because not only do survey data clearly indicate that most career and technical students wish to obtain a four-year degree, but the evolution of many of these occupations means they will soon require a four-year degree. [my emphasis] Even in work-based learning programs such as apprenticeships, particularly the younger students view them as a first step toward a four-year degree. The work of Anthony Carnevale at the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has been very important in emphasizing that degrees in specific college majors lead to income gains, and his data support the belief that both specific degree skills and general skills matter in the long run for anyone attending a community college workforce program (Carnevale, Jayasundera, & Gulish, 2015). [my emphasis]

In many occupational areas where community colleges are strong—such as nursing programs—the employer desire for a four-year degree is already very apparent in most metropolitan labor markets. Moreover, the anticipated adoption of artificial intelligence by many sectors of the economy suggests
that there will be even less employment for those without a four-year degree. [my emphasis]

Thus, community colleges must continue to remain responsive to the unfolding
needs of their communities for more employees who have four-year degrees and/or possess the appropriate basic skills to obtain these degrees. Clearly there will be many students, primarily adults, who need to acquire skills quickly so they can obtain meaningful work. Community colleges need to continue to provide that opportunity, but they also need to indicate to students that they will need credentials of value if they are to be competitive in the labor market. [my emphasis] This challenge will continue to inform the future of workforce development in the American community college.

NOTE: A previous version incorrectly identified the location of the Community College Research Center as Cornell University. The Center is part of Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Too Busy to Write

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 

Seems an apt quote to begin this new year. I hope 2019 brings us all closer together and united to pursue excellence in whatever we do. But in that pursuit, let us not be afraid to fail because somehow, some way, we will. But it is not a sin to fail–it’s not even a bad thing.

2nd day of registration here at the old college and getting ready for the new semester. Rested. Relaxed. Re-energized. Feeling good about the future. I was doing a rare thing today–going through my bookmarked pages–and found this interesting blog post about the value of a liberal arts education–one of my favorite subjects as those who follow my blog know.

Hope you enjoy reading it. Soon I will blog about my new play, which will make its world premiere in April. I will also have a new installment of “The Five Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing.”

Here’s the post:  http://sites.psu.edu/krb5476/2014/03/06/the-advantages-of-being-useless-ci-3/

 

Can’t pass this up

GRADUATES (3)

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I’m slogged down with grading here at the end of the semester, but David Leonhardt, Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist and economics expert, has once again renewed my long-held belief that marginalized students can and should pursue four-year degrees in greater numbers.

Leonhardt has asserted most effectively that “[four-year] college graduates fare better by virtually every available metric — income, wealth, health, life satisfaction and more.”  He goes on to cite two recent studies showing that many students who attend four years of college and earn a bachelor’s degree or more improve their lives significantly. Furthermore, he notes that most people, even if they voice skepticism concerning the value of education, still pay a large amount of money to send their own children to college.

And yet, many in power seem to want to limit the education of rural, lower income, or  minority students to two-year technical degrees or certifications. This is a constant frustration to me, a person who believes fiercely in the intrinsic value of  higher education and a staunch promoter of true liberal arts education, teaching people to think for themselves. How can democracy survive without that?

Therefore, despite my heavy grading load right now, I wanted to share one of the studies that Leonhardt mentions in his op ed column today. It is a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Closing the Gap: The Effect of a Targeted, Tuition-Free Promise on College Choices of High-Achieving, Low Income Students” by Dr. Susan Dynarski, et al.

I encourage you to read David Leonhardt’s articles linked in his op ed column today about the value of four-year liberal arts degrees, not only for individual students, but for the economic strength of our country. Then read Dynarski and colleagues’ research that shows how colleges and universities can make four-year degrees at elite institutions a reality for high-achieving, low-income students.

Four-year degrees may not be possible for all marginalized students, but no students, and the families that love them, should have to give up on dreams of obtaining four-year degrees and the rewards that often come with them because of who they are or where they fall on the socio-economic ladder.

Korean sign-krosseel

 

Submissions are still open for the Spring/Summer 2019 edition of the literary magazine Teach. Write. Submission Guidelines can be found here.