Herman Melville, Lincoln’s Inn and Serendipity

Lincoln’s Inn–London (photo courtesy of Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn)

One of the things I love doing as a teacher is creating opportunities to become a student again. It renews the love of learning that is at the heart of my profession but sometimes gets lost under the mind-numbing bureaucratic tasks and pointless political pandering that has become so much a part of what it means to be an educator.

It’s at times like these that I most need to remember how exciting it is to learn something new, to read and study a work I’ve never encountered before, to visit places I’ve never been. My trip to London in the fall of last year provided me with many such opportunities.

Like the day I discovered Lincoln’s Inn.

I say discovered because I hadn’t gone looking for Lincoln’s Inn. I didn’t know it was there. I didn’t know anything about it. I certainly didn’t know that a month later I would be writing a lesson on Herman Melville for my new online American Literature I class and encounter Lincoln’s Inn once again.

It happened this way:

I woke up the first day that I was alone in London, finally free to do some serious walking and exploring. I planned out a trip that I had been longing to take ever since I developed a sample travel project for my British Literature II class several years ago. I decided to walk from my hotel in Russell Square to the Sir John Soane Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Sir John Soane was a famous and wealthy Regency Era architect who designed the Bank of England and other famous landmarks, including his own house that he willed to his country.

Not knowing how long it would take me to walk there, I sat out rather early, clutching my google map instructions tightly in my hands. I made quick work getting there, too quick in fact. The museum was not yet open. With more than 20 minutes to wait, I decided to cross e street to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and walk around. Although it is a beautiful little park with its trees at their peak of Autumn foliage, I still had about 15 minutes to spare after walking the perimeter.

I decided to explore just a little further, and noting the street names began to head towards the most interesting brick building. As I approached, I realized that there were other similar buildings. Then, I passed through what looked to be a very old tower gate, and I realized I was in some sort of compound–beautifully landscaped and tended–the large main building almost like a church with beautiful stone accents and stained glass windows. I saw that there was a library  in the building and got a hint to its use when I saw a man traditionally dressed in barrister’s robes walking up the sidewalk towards the building.

I returned to the Morton Hotel after many more wonderful adventures, including the Sir John Soane Museum that I finally got to see (it was magnificant), an outdoor art display by Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts (incredible), lunch at a classic London Pub (tasty onion and mushroom pie) and a trip to the British Museum (I love that place). Even though I visited the British Museum on my first trip to London, I went to rooms I didn’t get to see that first time–my favorite being the Ancient European room and the clock room.

After a bite to eat from the little Tesco down the street and a hot shower, I settled in to find out what exactly that incredible building was. I quickly discovered that what I had been looking at and admiring was none other than Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, which are the professional organizations for all barristers in England and Wales. I researched and read until late in the night, fascinated and excited to learn something new that would help me read, study and teach more effectively as well as humbled, feeling that I, as a teacher of British literature, should have known more about these things already.

When I returned home, I immediately found ways to incorporate what I had learned in my British Literature I class. That goes without saying, but I had no idea how my experience of discovering Lincoln’s Inn would enhance my teaching in American Literature until I read Melville’s “A Paradise of Bachelors.” The setting is one of the Inns of Court where the main character in this highly autobiographical story goes walking through the streets of London just as I did and is impressed with the beauty and grandeur of the grounds around the Temple Bar, just as I was.

IT lies not far from Temple-Bar.

Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.

Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street — where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies — you adroitly turn a mystic corner — not a street — glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors. Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.

Melville’s description spoke to my experience so completely. His observations so piquant that I immediately found renewed admiration for this, one of the greatest of American writers.

“Found in the stony heart of stunning London.”

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Again, No Time But Must Post Something

Prop poster

Mock Propaganda Poster Inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (Pinterest)

I’m in the midst of grading my brains out here at the end of the semester, but I don’t want to let any more time go by without posting something because the current state of liberal arts education, especially at the community college level in my state, demands it. Thank goodness there are others who feel the way I do. So until I’m able to do some more research, I’m posting this great article by Gary Saul Morson, professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University.

As a literature instructor I was a bit taken aback at first, and a little insulted, but then I read on, and he has some great things about the importance of college level literature studies as well as sensible ways to engage students in literature classes.

Article by Gary Saul Morson from Commentary Magazine

BON VOYAGE!

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Professional development–It means different things to different people, I suppose, but in my mind, I will soon be experiencing the most wonderful professional development a teacher of British literature could ask for. I’m going to England! One of the highlights of the trip will be seeing Benedict Cumberbatch performing the leading role in Hamlet at the Barbican in London.

The timing is perfect because while I am there, seeing Hamlet live, my students will be reading Hamlet and watching a movie version of it. I wish I could take them with me, but I plan to do a video pre and post show in front of the Barbican and take as many pictures and videos as I can to use in my British literature classes.

I also plan to use my experiences to continue to refine the major capstone project in my online literature classes–the literary travel project that I have discussed in previous blogs. I have created sample literary travel projects, and now I can test out my own literary travel plans to further refine those samples, as well as the project directions, and help my students get the most out of their major research project.

Keeping up with all of my classes, seated and online, will be a challenge, but I thought one way to stay in touch with them, and with anyone who is interested in the value of international travel as professional development for faculty. will be interested in my blog posts over the week–STARTING ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23!

William Eldridge Dabbs–My Uncle El

The Foundling

This is the edition that Uncle El gave me. I had to replace it a couple of years ago because I read and re-read it so much. I still have the copy, though.

My Uncle El, my mother’s only sibling, passed away over 25 years ago. He, like the rest of those in my mother’s family, was a teacher–at least for most of his life. He taught Spanish. After his first heart attack, even before really, he, like so many teachers before him, was experiencing some significant burn-out–totally understandable burn-out, but he never lost his teacher heart–his love for books and words and music–his yearning to travel and see new places.

He was a tolerant and patient uncle, up to a point. I think when I was about 10, my brother, sister and I learned just how far we could push him–my younger brother learned later. He was a kid’s dream uncle. He would take us to the movies in whatever cool car he had at the time (the convertible complete with 8-track player was my favorite). I remember one time after seeing Charlton Heston in a Sci Fi movie, riding around Columbus with the top down, hanging out the window and yelling, “Soylent Green is people!” And he let us do that! What a great guy!.

Always single with no family of his own, he was always there when we needed him. He drove mom to the hospital when she went into labor with my brother Rob. He took my sister and I to horse shows–staying with us in the heat of an Alabama summer day and late into the night. He accompanied our family across the country when my dad came home from Vietnam, and we wanted to meet Dad in California. He took us out for pizza and steak, ice cream ahd his favorite, Chinese food. He bought us fireworks (legal in Alabama at the time), something that Mom would not have done for sure. He would let us play while he stayed inside and read his books. He was always reading a book.

To satisfy his love of books on a public school teacher’s pay, he often frequented the big used book store in Columbus, Georgia and another one in Montgomery, Alabama–Auburn was still just a little college town and didn’t have too many places to shop in the 60s and 70s. He would go on these book trips and get dozens and dozens of books. He was very proud of them and kept them all in order. He would get detective novels, historical fiction, thrillers, and even romances. He never said that he got the romances for me, in fact, I often saw him reading them himself, but he always made it a point to show me the romances that he bought, and I felt that they were for me.

After one of these shopping trips, he showed me a box full of one particular romance author–Georgette Heyer, his favorite Regency romance writer. I had not started reading Jane Austen yet. She was still a bit difficult for me, so he told me that Heyer was a 20th Century author who wrote about the early 19th Century in England, just like Austen, but that Heyer would probably be easier for me to read. He had at least a dozen of her books in the box, and he challenged me to read them that summer. I took up the gauntlet and after the first book I was hooked! Heyer wrote with such wit–her characters were funny, heroic and honorable–just like Austen. Heyer’s heroines were not always the most beautiful or even the most clever, but they had courage and resilience, and I so wanted to be like them.

Uncle El made it a point to collect all of the Georgette Heyer Regency romances and mysteries. He would read them too, and we would talk about the wonderful characters and the funniest passages. Reading Georgette Heyer, and soon afterwards, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and others, I became a true Anglophile and have remained one ever since, now teaching British literature, specializing in 19th Century British literature.

I don’t think my uncle was looking for a teachable moment when he introduced me to Georgette Heyer–he just shared his love of books with me, but his interest in me and in my literary education has had a profound and lasting impact on my life. He was a great teacher, a great man, and I miss him.

*   *   *

If you like witty, charming romantic novels, give Georgette Heyer a try. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • The Foundling
  • Friday’s Child
  • Cotillion
  • The Quiet Gentleman
  • The Unknown Ajax

Traveling the Book: Teaching Deep Research in 200-Level Online Literature Courses, Part II

It took me a while, but I finally elizabeth-whitman-from-the-Coquettefinished my sample “Traveling the Book” Project for my online American Literature I class that I’ll be teaching in the fall. As I explained in my last post, the major research project in the class is to research a book of literary and historical importance to the time period we are studying, then write an annotated bibliography of ten scholarly sources, concentrating on the biographical details of the author, the historical context of the author’s life and of the book, as well as the setting of the novel.

I have had great results with this project in my British Lit. I and II online courses, but I wasn’t sure how it would work to make travel plans for a literary tour of the U.S., but my sample imaginary tour turned out great!

The students start their presentations with a summary, then a historical timeline. Next comes a 14-day itinerary of their plans that must relate to aspects of the book and/or the author’s life. Finally, there is a detailed itemized budget.

I hope you’ll take a look at my project presentation whether you are a teacher or not. I think you’ll like it. It certainly was a great deal of fun to produce.

Note: All the photos used are purely for educational purposes.

The Coquette

Traveling the Book: Teaching Deep Research in 200-Level Online Literature Courses

elizabeth-whitman-from-the-Coquette

Imaginary portrait of Eliza Wharton, the tragic heroine of Hannah Webster Foster’s 18th Century American novel–The Coquette.

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I have been teaching 200-level literature classes for some time now, having developed three from the ground up–World Literature II, British Literature I and British Literature II. This summer I’m working on my fourth online literature course, American Literature I. Now that the state has for some ungodly reason pronounced only American Literature I and II as universally transferrable, there is more demand for American literature than British, which is ridiculous to me since our language as well as many of our ideas and values originated in jolly old England. But that is a topic for another post.

Today, I am excited because I have been working on the major project for my American Literature I class, which is based on the major project I first used in my world literature class and now use in all my online literature classes–the Traveling the Book Project. I have also called it the Travel Project and the Traveling the Novel Project, but Traveling the Book seems best for American Literature I since there are few novels but many historical writings, important collections of essays and short stories as well as books of poetry that students may wish to “travel.”

The assignment has been made up of two parts: An annotated bibliography of sources about the author and his or her work and an itinerary of a two-week literary tour, including a summary or description of the work and a daily itinerary of places in the modern world people can visit that are related to the book and/or author. Students must also include an itemized budget, explaining how they will spend an imaginary $10,000 dollars, not including air fare, on accommodations, food, travel, entrance fees and miscellaneous cost. For American Literature I, I am asking students to also include a timeline of important events in American history as they relate to the author and/or work.

I have learned a great deal over the years about what works and doesn’t work concerning this assignment and continually refine it to help students reach the goals of the project which include coming to a better understanding of a major work of literature and its author, of course, but perhaps more importantly, learning how to pursue the deeper, more significant research they will hopefully be expected to conduct when they transfer to a four-year college.

One of the things I have learned is that students don’t really understand how to do deep research, so they have a hard time grasping the requirements of the project, so clear directions on completion are essential. I also limit the number of sources students can locate using simple web searches, encouraging instead the use of scholarly databases, e-books and print sources.  I also disconnect the sources used to find general travel information from the annotated bibliography, which should be more scholarly in nature.

Although detailed directions can help, many students are grateful that I post examples of the annotated bibliography and the travel itinerary presentation on the course home page for reference purposes The process of generating the samples for each class has become an enjoyable part of my summer. (I know, I’m strange.) I learn so much from each project I complete and going through the same process I want my students to go through helps me anticipate their questions and give them a real idea of how much time they will need to spend on each part of the project. (I worked ten hours or more over the course of four or five days to complete the sample annotated bibliography for American Lit. I.)

Creating the sample also allows me to model deep research, which means

  • reading the original source actively and thoroughly
  • reaching past general biographical information
  • searching primary sources rather than relying only on criticism and other secondary sources
  • researching certain aspects of the work including primarily historical context and setting
  • applying the research to the itinerary

I have just completed the annotated bibliography sample for American Literature I. The novel I chose is The Coquette, an epistolary novel by Eighteenth Century writer Hannah Webster Foster, and is considered to be the first American novel written by a woman. I will be adding the required summary of the novel before I actually post the example, but here are the ten required sources and their annotations to give readers an idea of what this part of the project looks like.

When I finish it, I will post the travel itinerary presentation example.

Katie Winkler

ENG 231

Instructor Winkler

May 28, 2015

A Woman on Her Own:

Hannah Webster Foster and the Independent Woman in Early American Literature

Brown, Richard D. “Daughters, Wives, Mothers: Domestic Roles and the Mastery of Affective Information.” Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press,1991:160 196. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 27 May 2015.

Chapter Seven discusses the role of women in Early American society and the importance of Bostonian women’s importance to the publishing industry, especially newspapers, as well as the growing importance of novels, such as The Coquette. Although this source doesn’t mention Hannah Webster Foster or Elizabeth Whitman directly, it does have a wealth of information about the role of women in the time period when Foster lived and wrote. In addition, I have found that Foster’s first publications were political articles in Boston newspapers and that the first newspapers in America were printed in Boston.

There are several interesting aspects of the chapter that make Brown’s book relevant to my itinerary, especially a discussion on life as an upper class woman in 18th Century, particularly the life of Mary Holyoke of Salem, who kept a detailed diary of her social, political and domestic concerns as the wife of a prominent man in society. The woman described sounds very much like Eliza Wharton, the heroine of the novel. Other interesting information in the chapter is the importance of newspapers to women in all levels of society, the sensational nature of much of the newspaper reporting and how the patriarchal society of America attempted to suppress the reading of novels.

Davidson, Cathy N. “Hannah Webster Foster.” American Writers of the Early Republic. Ed. Emory Elliott. Detroit: Gale, 1985. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 37. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 May 2015.

A short biography of Hannah Webster Foster and a critique of The Coquette, which yields some interesting information about Foster and Elizabeth Whitman, the woman on whom Foster modeled her heroine. The author lived her whole life in Massachusetts, first in Salisbury and then in Brighton after she married John Foster, who became the minister of the First Church in Brighton, Mass. She had six children with Foster. Her first novel of two, The Coquette, was published in 1797 after the birth of her first child. This article mentions, as have other biographies, how Foster moved to live in Montreal with two of her daughters, both writers in their own rights, following her husband’s death, although I am not sure if I will include Montreal in my itinerary, which will probably include locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut only.

The article also offers a critique and analysis of The Coquette, and interesting to my purposes, also posits that Pierrepont Edwards, the son of the important “Great Awakening” preacher, Jonathan Edwards, was the father of Elizabeth Whitman’s child and the model for Major Sanford in Foster’s novel, convincing me to do some research on Jonathan Edwards and Pierrepont’s situation and perhaps add some relevant locations to my trip.

“Elizabeth Whitman: The Mysterious Coquette of 1788.” New England Historical Society. WordPress, 2014. Web. 25 May 2015.

Speculates on the life and loves of Elizabeth Whitman, the real-life Eliza Wharton from Foster’s novel, The Coquette. Not only gives some background on Whitman, but also speculates on her suitors and the men who possibly fathered her child, including Pierrepont Edwards, the philandering son of Jonathan Edwards, the firebrand preacher central to the Eighteenth Century’s Great Awakening, a protestant spiritual revival. Edwards lived In New Haven, a town that Whitman frequented. Another reason to visit New Haven is that many of the letters written by Eliza Wharton in Foster’s epistolary novel are penned in New Haven.

Other possible models for the character of Major Sanford, the seducer in the novel, are U.S. Senator James Watson and even, Aaron Burr, who became the third Vice-President of the United States, as well as Timothy Dwight, future president of Yale University, who helped with the cover up after Whitman’s untimely death. Helped me to make up mind to visit Yale as part of my trip.

Grove Street Cemetery. Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery, n.d. Web 28 May 2015.

A website that gives detailed information on the cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut, where the fictional Eliza Wharton penned most of her letters. Pierrepont Edwards, youngest son of the prominent theologian, Jonathan Edwards, is buried here. Edwards is believed by many to be the model in the novel for Major Sanford, the man who seduced Eliza and abandoned her. In real life Edwards is the most likely candidate to be the one who seduced Elizabeth Whitman, impregnated and then abandoned her.

Also, buried in this cemetery is Timothy Dwight, one of the early presidents of Yale, who is also sometimes mentioned in connection to Elizabeth Whitman, either as the seducer himself or one who helped the Edwards’ family cover up the scandal after Whitman’s death. The website gives quite a bit of information about Dwight, all lauding his accomplishments. Nothing, of course, about the scandal. Nevertheless, there is a wealth of information here to help me with my travel plans, including a self-guided tour map, listings of prominent people buried in the cemetery and a short video about the important Revolutionary figures buried at the Grove Street Cemetery.

Marchione, Dr. William P, PhD. “Hannah Foster: Brighton’s Pioneer Novelist.” Brighton-Allston Historical Society, 2001.       Web. 26 May 2015.

Excellent article that gives me actual addresses to places in Brighton Center (a suburb of Boston) related to Hannah Webster Foster. I can plan much of my itinerary for the Brighton leg of the journey from this article. I found that the building (10 Academy Hill Road) where Foster wrote the Coquette, was then the parsonage for the church her husband pastored, but is now in disrepair and a store front, but Dr. Marchione, the author of the article, petitioned to have a plaque put up to commemorate the building’s importance, and the plaque was supposedly erected. I plan to look for myself to see if it is there.

In addition, I plan to visit the first residence of John and Hannah Foster, The Ebenezer Smith House on Peaceable Street 15-17, which is still standing, according to the article, and is thought to be the oldest building in the Brighton Center area. The third residence caused some stir in the area as it was a huge, elaborate mansion and some residents thought it inappropriate that a clergyman should build such an expensive and opulently furnished house. Only a portion of the original house stands at 181 Foster Street, so I will plan to visit there. Since I have all of the addresses, I can simply plug them into my GPS and head on out!

Olver, Lynne. “Colonial and Early American Fare.” The Food Timeline. Lynne Olver. 1999. Web. 27 May 2015.

An important part of any trip I plan is doing my best to order foods that relate to the book I am “traveling.” In this case, The Coquette is about an upper class woman in the 18th Century who lived in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and I found wonderful information at this site. I discovered that popular foods in New England during this time included pies, cakes, chowders, baked beans, roasted meats, breads, salt pork, bacon and ham. I will also keep my eyes out for a special dessert called “Election Cake” and unusual fish choices like Hannah Hill and Black Fish.

Because this website breaks down cuisine by time and place, I can very easily pick and choose foods that I will want to keep in mind when looking at menus to plan my trip. In addition, there are interesting cultural tidbits of information on the site as well as a myriad of links to other sites, including the helpful source, American Cookery, which is a facsimile of the first cookbook written by an American.

Simmons, Amelia. American Cookery. Hartford: Simeon Butler, 1798. Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook   Project. Michigan State University Libraries. 31 August 2003. E-book. 27 May 2015.

American Cookery is the first cookbook written by Americans for Americans and is a great resource to discover what New Englanders were eating during the time Hannah Webster Foster was living. In fact the cookbook was originally published i  n 1796, just one year before Foster’s novel, The Coquette. In addition, the book was published in Hartford, Connecticut, which is where the real life Eliza Wharton (Elizabeth Whitman), the tragic heroine of the novel, lived and will be one of the stops on my trip.

The cookbook discusses raising, preparing and cooking all manner of dishes, including seafood like lobster oysters, cod and eel; fowl like chickens, geese and duck; vegetables like potatoes, onions, beets, asparagus, artichokes and carrots; fruits like pears, apples, currants, grapes, even watermelon, and other foods, including a whole variety of legumes, lettuces and cabbages. The next section of the book includes recipes: roasted meats, stuffed turkey, chowders, stews, pot pies and minced pies as well as desserts like apple pie, rice pudding, Indian pudding, bread pudding, apple dumpling, puffed pastry tarts, custards and syllabub, which is a sweet custard flavored with wine or liquor. This information will be very helpful as I choose authentic meals to eat during my travels.

“Tragedy in Tale of Love: What an Old Weather-Worn Peabody Gravestone Tells.” The Coquette and the Boarding School:  A Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Jennifer Harris and Bryan Waterman. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013: 327-332. Print.

Published first in the Boston Sunday Herald in 1902, this article is a testament to the enduring popularity of Foster’s first novel that was a best-seller in its day and for decades afterwards. The anonymous author of this article makes a compelling case for the idea that Nathanial Hawthorne used Foster’s Eliza Wharton character as a model for Hester Prynne in his magnum opus, The Scarlet Letter. My trip to Salem, and Peabody where Elizabeth Whitman is buried, will now include a trip to The Salem Custom House where Hawthorne lived and worked while he was writing The Scarlet Letter.

The article also gives more in-depth biographical information about Elizabeth Whitman, the model for Eliza Wharton, than some other articles have given me, especially about her enduring religious faith and her upbringing in Hartford, Connecticut, including her father’s position as pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Hartford, which is still a functioning church (now called South Church) and one of the oldest churches in America. I’ll definitely want to visit there.

Waterman, Bryan. “The Elizabeth Whitman Paper Trail.” The Coquette and the Boarding School: Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Jennifer Harris and Bryan Waterman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013: 302-307. Print.

Waterman’s name keeps cropping up in literature about Foster and Whitman. This article, first appearing in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2009, reprints several excerpts from articles about Whitman that appeared in newspapers around New England, including a notice of death appearing in the Salem Mercury and Pennsylvania Mercury, but none in Whitman’s native Connecticut. The wide interest in Whitman’s story generated brisk newspaper sales and is an example of the growing power of the newspaper.

The article also contains one of Whitman’s poems written late in her life, lamenting that her lover is late in joining her as he promised. Mention is made of Foster’s high position in Hartford and New Haven societies and her death in Danvers, Massachusetts (now Peabody) at a wayside inn not long after the birth of a still born child.

—. “Who Reads an Early American Book?” Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life. 9.3 (2009). Web. 25 May 2015.

Waterman gives detailed information on the grave site of Elizabeth Whitman, the model for Foster’s Eliza Wharton in The Coquette. Explains the continuing interest in Whitman’s story—a popular and prosperous young unmarried woman from Hartford, Connecticut, who travels alone and pregnant to Danvers, Massachusetts, now Peabody, checks into the Bell Tavern, lives there until she has the baby and dies soon after. The plot of Foster’s novel follows closely the real-life situation of Whitman, so naturally I will want to include Peabody, as well as Hartford, in my travels, including, of course, the gravesite.

The article also gives information about the new gravestone, next to the original, that was erected in 2004 by the Peabody Historical Society that has gone to great efforts to restore interest in the story of Whitman, her alter ego, Eliza Wharton and Foster’s novel.

The Quality of Mercy

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Maggie Smith, one of my favorite actors, as Portia 
in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice--
the BBC's 1972 version of the play

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

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:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned 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, …

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.

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

I am so much like Shylock. I believe strongly in justice. Just like Shylock, I don’t just seek justice, I demand it. But unlike him, I hope, in dealings with my students anyway, I see the wisdom of Portia, one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s female characters, and I know that it would have served Shylock well to heed Portia’s words and render mercy. And indeed, many times when a student asks for mercy, and I choose to give it, we are indeed both blessed. The student gets a chance to rectify whatever problem there is–attendance, poor performance in class, misbehavior in class, whatever it may be, and I get the satisfaction of helping a student succeed and truly learn something valuable.

Sometimes, however, that mercy is given, the student takes it, and then uses my act of mercy against me. This just doesn’t happen to teachers, of course, but I find that the teaching profession seems particular vulnerable to the ungrateful. I get so disheartened when this happens that I want to make a list of strict rules and never show any mercy whatsoever. Sometimes I think my colleagues and supervisors would be happier if my mercy were a bit less freely given.  Now, I do have rules and high standards, but I temper them with mercy if I see that I can help the student. I just have to, you see, because of the mercy shown to me.

I remember when I was a senior in undergrad school. I was struggling, like a lot of my own students, with who I was and where I was going next. I was pretty smart and had a way with words, but I was so caught up in my life –meeting people and learning a new language and becoming a woman and discovering hidden talents, like acting and persuasive speaking, that I had, frankly, lost interest in my English studies.

I procrastinated with my paper and put it off and off that last semester of my first senior year that when I finally started working on it in earnest, I realized that it would be impossible for me to finish. I had to ask for an extension. I was truly scared when I walked into my professor’s office. He was intimidating because he was so brilliant as well as being the head of the English department. I didn’t think he even really knew my name. I was standing there and couldn’t speak. He finally looked up and said something, I can’t really remember, and I blurted it all out. Not all of “it” was absolutely true either, but he had mercy. He gave me the extension I requested without hesitation. Then he did something I never expected–He pointed to the chair and said, “Now sit down and tell me what’s really bothering you.”

I finished the paper that first semester of my 2nd senior year. I never had worked so hard on anything in my life. 35 pages comparing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Franz Kafka–two displaced people who didn’t fit in anywhere, so they became writers or maybe they were writers and that’s why they didn’t fit in. I still don’t know. Anyway, I could say I finally found my way while I was writing that paper, and it would be a lie. I could say I stopped procrastinating and learned my lesson; that too would be untrue. No, I worked that hard out of gratitude to the professor who showed me mercy. His mercy, freely given, was twice blessed.

So I lean towards mercy when I think that mercy is going to be best for the student, when the student has a chance of making real change in his or her life. However, the quality of mercy is not strained (or forced). If the mercy is to be at all, then it must come freely given from the person granting that gift. For example, Portia is a wise judge. She knows she cannot legally force Shylock to have mercy because then that mercy would simply be a violation of justice. True mercy requires true justice. So she appeals to Shylock’s sense of justice when she appeals to his mercy. But he doesn’t want justice. He wants revenge.

As we see later in the play, Shylock made a grave mistake not granting mercy–it led to his bankruptcy and loss of his only child–making the play a tragedy more than a comedy in my mind, so great is Shylock’s loss. But Shylock’s fall is inevitable because Shylock is so full of anger, justifiably so perhaps considering the anti-semitic society in which he lives, that he can not show mercy because mercy must be freely given.

Therefore, even if a student takes my merciful action and uses it against me, it is still a gift freely given in an attempt to help that student. If now that student is demanding mercy, I can not give it because it is not freely given and would corrupt justice.
However, if I truly believe that I am standing my ground for the sake of the student as well as the integrity of my profession, then I am blessed no matter how the student misuses my gift. If no one ever acknowledges that I did the right thing and some people rally against me because of my stand, I will still be blessed because I didn’t allow others to pervert my deep sense of justice. 
I will continue to seek justice by upholding established policies and procedures, to fight for what is right, and I will continue to show mercy. Not because it is in my nature–it is not; not because my faith demands it–it does not. I show mercy out of gratitude–gratitude to the one whose unmerited favor has given me such a wonderful, abundant life.