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

No Time to Write

cover

Busy grading and working on the new edition of Teach. Write. slated for publication on April 1, but been thinking a great deal about optimal number of students in online writing intensive classes. Below is a link to an article by Wayne D’Orio, an award-winning education journalist, writing for Inside Higher Education.

“Online class sizes: one size does not fit all.”

Online class sizes

My favorite comment: “All sources for this story agreed that writing intensive courses demand fewer students.”

BTW—online literature courses are writing intensive if taught correctly.

Just sayin’.

 

First edition of Teach. Write. to launch September 1

writerwritingframe-300px (2)

It is the perfect time for Teach. Write. to launch. As I begin my 23rd year of teaching at a small community college in North Carolina and work on producing the first edition of my first foray into producing a literary journal, I am reminded of how much I love my chosen professions. Since I was a little child I have wanted to be a teacher and soon after that dream was born, thanks to a marvelous English teacher named Mrs. Riskind, I have wanted to be a writer.

Now I am both.

To add editing to those two honored vocations exceeds all my expectations. It is modern technology that makes this journal possible and gives voice to those who deserve to be heard–English composition teachers. These are unique voices–surprising and refreshing. I can’t wait for you to read the short stories, essays and poetry of some special writing teachers.

It won’t be long now, so stay tuned!

December 1 still the deadline

mid

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Globe Theater, London 2015

I haven’t written this blog for almost two months. I’m sure you can guess why, so I won’t go into it. Maybe I will some day, but not today. Today is the end of a restful and contemplative Thanksgiving season, the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of comfort. Today, I am thankful and comforted that I still have something to give to this world.

And yet.

It’s been a long two months, y’all. I have been hopeful, elated, disheartened and even depressed, but none of these feelings are going to get me anywhere. They certainly won’t make me a better teacher, a better writer, a better person. So, I have rested and recuperated, found myself again, the quiet and peaceful me, the me who has a confidence she rarely shows the world, who rests in the certainty that the Apostle Paul was right when he wrote: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

But what tools does such an insignificant person like me have to do good? The question is absurd. I am a writing teacher. My position affords me tremendous opportunities to do good, and I am so grateful to have these chances to help people pursue the most important achievement of  all, becoming better. Certainly I can help students make their writing better, help them to discover ways to strengthen sentence structure and word usage to better communicate. But teaching writing, because it is so intimate, because students will write things they could never say, forms a bond that few other people can have with a relative stranger–a person who sits and listens and learns for only a few weeks and then is gone.

However, I am not only a writing teacher dedicated to helping my students become better, I have other tools to do good. I am a writer–a true writer.  I write because writing is a part of who I am. One reason I have come to prefer teaching online to teaching in a classroom is that I’m a better writer than a speaker. When I write I can go back and revise, find better words, create better sentences, more effective structures, even different punctuation, until I’m satisfied, or more likely, have run out of time. Being a writer forces me to re-evaluate my words and the way I say them, allows me to instruct more clearly, more permanently, offers me opportunities to express myself with groanings I can not utter, gives me the chance to communicate the joy and sorrow of my life, bringing comfort and cheer to others.

And then there is this one tool that I can’t quite figure out how to use–the one that gets me into so much trouble–my anger. It exhausts me, being angry all the time. Oh, I understand it, even like it at times. It burns inside of me and makes me feel alive. Mostly, it is a righteous flame. At times it fuels me to do good–to speak for those who cannot, to protect like Mother Bear. But these past couple of months, the anger has flamed and threatened to overtake me like the wildfires around my mountain home, sparked by two long months of drought and by small minds who care little about anything other than their immediate ill-conceived pleasure.

But the rains are coming. The showers are already here.

I got this package in the mail the other day. I didn’t think it was for me because I hadn’t ordered anything, but no one else in the household had either, so I opened it up, right before we got the first rainfall that we’ve had since September. Here’s a picture of it:

001

As you probably know, it’s from Midsummer’s Night Dream. Helena says it to Hermia when they are fighting over something stupid. Isn’t it funny that these few little words came to me, I still don’t know by whom, at such a low point, the driest part of the season, like raindrops? These words, originally meant to be an insult, hurled at Helena’s vertically challenged rival in a moment of pique, came to me as precious moisture to help dampen the fire of my anger, to redirect it into positive action.

It was just a little rain that day. Just a little. It didn’t really change anything, but it gave me hope. You remember hope.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -”  –Emily Dickinson

I am little, oh so little, but I am fierce,  never stopping -at all.

***

And……Still plan to roll out my literary e-zine on December 1, so watch for details and submission guidelines for TEACH. WRITE. in the coming days.

 

Teach. Write. Again.

writer-605764_640-2

I have a dream. To publish a literary e-zine that celebrates the writing of composition teachers.

The one thing that has helped me most to become an effective composition teacher, besides twenty-seven years of teaching English composition of course, is writing and pursuing publication of my work. Such a process has certainly kept me humble (I quit counting when my rejections reached over two hundred.) and has never made me rich. However, a couple of years, I did make enough to be taxed. (Of course, that isn’t saying much, is it?)

On the other hand, with over two dozen short stories published in print and online publications, as well as over a hundred theater reviews and features for the local paper, five years as columnist for my college, two or three years as an arts columnist, and now approaching the production of my second full-length play, my writing avocation has also boosted my confidence as a writing  instructor and given me a certain credibility with my students, some of my students.

Above all, being a writer keeps me mindful of what it’s like to write for a critical audience–a critique group member, an editor, an agent, an audience.

3990049531_e1c94fdd9e_bBecause I’m a writer, I am reminded of what it’s like

  • to procrastinate.
  • to spend more time revising and editing than composing
  • to be uninterested, or lose interest, in a project
  • to be obligated to complete said project
  • to have a work criticized or rejected
  • to take that criticism or rejection as a personal attack
  • to be misunderstood

But it’s not all bad. Because I am a writer, I can truthfully inform my students that good writing, while hard, and often thankless, work is

  • a valuable skill
  • a confidence builder
  • actually can be fun
  • and sometimes, every now and then, absolutely glorious!

fun-1012681_640-2

So, the dream is to have this little online publication called Teach. Write. that will allow present and former composition teachers of all types to try their hands at writing out of their comfort zone, to make themselves vulnerable again to constructive criticism and rejection, to boost their confidence and support their colleagues–to write, and in so doing, become better teachers, better people.

The e-zine will be for writing teachers by writing teachers, specifically, but because the style and subject of essays, poetry and short stories will be open for the most part, the magazine should appeal to a general audience.

Although I will consider pieces that are on the subject of writing if they are unusual and compelling, I’m not particularly looking for work that is about writing or being a writing teacher. As I mentioned, this magazine is calling for teachers to move out of their comfort zones, so I would rather they write a literary short story or a flash piece, a sonnet or poem in blank verse, an essay about a night spent in jail–whatever they want to say. These will be the general submissions.

Because I want this e-zine to be useful to writing teachers, I also will have a regular feature called “Writing Your Own.” In this feature I will call for composition teachers to write pieces based on their own writing prompts. For example, the fantasy e-zine, Mirror Dance, published a flash piece called “Waiting for Beowulf” that I had written as an example for a creative writing assignment in my British literature I online class.  It is so helpful for instructors to write with their students–it can also be simply fun, yielding strong writing from students and publishable work from teachers.

I have set December 1 as the deadline for setting up the website. At that time, I will begin accepting essays and short fiction of 2,500 words or less, poetry of 100 lines or less (up to three poems accepted in one document), ten-minute stage and screenplays (ten pages), and pieces for the “Writing Your Own” feature (250-2,500 words).

All teacher-writers should include a short (100 words or less) biographical statement, which includes their present or past position as an English composition teacher. This statement is more important to me than publication credits. Of course, elementary and middle school language arts teachers, high school and college-level English teachers can submit, but if they have taught independently for business and industry or as part of a continuing education program, they are also eligible. If they have tutored in English composition professionally or as a volunteer, they may feel free to submit. They should simply mention composition teaching experience in the bio..

From  December 1 to June 30, I will accept submissions for the inaugural edition, which I hope to publish in the fall. My desire is to begin publishing twice a year, fall and spring, hoping that contributers who are working teachers can write and submit in the summer and winter, then enjoy, along with their students, their published work in the fall and spring.

I believe it is important to pay writers, but I don’t have much money, so I will be offering only a small honorarium here at the beginning of my venture, hoping that in the future I can offer more. I will let writers know the amount in December.

If anyone is interested in submitting  work to Teach. Write., start writing and look for an announcement on Hey, Mrs. Winkler with a link to Teach. Write. 

I have had this dream for a long time, but as it is has been with most of my dreams, they only happen when I find the time to do them and set to work.  The time is now.

 

Teach. Write. Not Yet.

frankenclassicI know I said that my next post would be about my new endeavor into the literary e-zine world, but I am super busy with getting my stage adaptation of Frankenstein ready for auditions in August, so I haven’t had time to work on it.

Just a little advertisement: if you live in the Asheville area, please consider making Blue Ridge Community College’s production of Frankenstein: A Faithful Adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Classic Novel a part of your Halloween weekend. The play runs October 26-31. We had our second read through (my 6th draft) of the play this past Monday with about 20 student and community actors coming out for the reading, and many of them will be auditioning. I could not have been more pleased.

I will keep you apprised of developments!!

But until I have time to work more on the e-zine, here is another great article from one of my favorite educational bloggers, Bernard Bull. The topic is humanizing educational policy. A great read.

Policies Don’t Care about People

Guest Blog–Zoe Carpenter of The Nation

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (postgazette.com)

Discouraging news today as the war on liberal arts, especially the study of literature, continues. Let’s make it possible for students not to be challenged or stretched by their education. Path of least resistance to a meaningless piece of paper. What are the hardest subjects? Let’s make it possible for students to just skip those bugbears.

It’s just getting worse folks.

I used to think that people in power just didn’t understand how writing literary analysis helps to lead  students into higher levels of thinking. Now, I’m not so sure. Could it be that the powers that be don’t want students to move into levels of higher thinking? Thinking people, after all, are much harder to control, aren’t they?

Oh, well, I must go back to grading my American Literature I and British Literature II course work and developing practical, yet exciting, exercises to help my students learn active reading and deeper research skills while I still have a chance.

Lord, I’m just too tired to deal with it today, so I’ll let Zoe Carpenter speak for me through an article from 2015.

http://www.thenation.com/article/how-right-wing-political-machine-dismantling-higher-education-north-carolina/

And another great article from Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, a chemistry professor at a liberal arts institution:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/02/18/we-dont-need-more-stem-majors-we-need-more-stem-majors-with-liberal-arts-training/