on midterm breaks

It’s not just you, or living in a pandemic, or students, or students changed by pandemic times: this is a rough time of the term and of the academic year for wear and tear, and for being run down if not yet fully burned out.

Our current term has a certain prescribed number of teaching days / contact hours* and extends through 14 weeks. While some of these are not full weeks—a day off here or there, this week up to three days off depending on your schedule—that still means, in practice, 14 weeks. It is too long. And our “midterm break” / “reading week” is not in the middle of the term, not a week long, and not (for many people) a break.**

Every year, there’s a sweet spot when I’m up to date on marking, and not scrabbling with course prep just before class and failing to eat properly. It happens around week 8 of term. That is the natural moment at which to end a term. Then take a break. Then have another term. More shorter terms, and one single set of exams at the end of the year. Better still: a break from courses, with exams about a month before the start of the Happy Academic New Year, to test something approaching actual learning and knowledge, not just short-term memorisation.

That’s not our world, alas. But also: this right now is a holiday break and a time for reading, for dreaming, and for imagining other worlds.

So. In the meantime, spare a moment for the following thought. Consider doing what you can to subvert a system from within. A moment to advocate for students and for faculty colleagues: the next time that you’re designing and planning courses, the next time we have a midterm break please for the love of all the goddesses especially the ones who curse bad people PLEASE make it a break, for everyone. No assignments right before which then hang over faculty for marking. No assignments during the break for students. No test/exam assignments immediately after the break which mean that students “study” during the (pseudo-)break. If you “have” to have an assignment at this time of the term, for reasons of symmetry and pace and rhythm, make it an assignment that is itself a week-long break.

I did this at this time last year in all my courses: that is, three university undergraduate courses, comprising two sections of beginners’ French (FREN 101) and “Introduction to Literatures and Cultures of the Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern” (RMST 201). Romance Studies is a “uniquely interdisciplinary, transnational and cross-cultural” part of our department (French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies; within the Faculty of Arts; at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver). Its present associate head, the excellent Dr. Elizabeth Lagresa-González, describes its attractions nicely:

If you have an interest in transcultural perspectives and have an independent and inquisitive mind, you will find your intellectual home in our program [which] will also be particularly valuable for students specializing in the study of foreign languages, and fields that value linguistic, literary and cultural diversity.

—FHIS News, “Why Specialize in Romance Studies?” 7 June 2022

Details for the 2021 RMST 2021 midterm assignment follow below. I hope that might be useful for other people out there. Be that as the base for an assignment for a course or for your own creative pleasure. If philosophy begins in wonder, poetry begins in delight; and it is true of both that once begun they do not end.

If students have just one course that is kind, or at least not unkind, to them: it can make their lives more livable. It could make their term. It might move them to your department, maybe for another course, maybe one day a minor. This is how we save people from The Inhumanities by welcoming them into The Humanities as a place of refuge, respite, and resource. This is how we save The Humanities. Maybe also humanity.

* counting hours sort of makes sense and sort of doesn’t; it wouldn’t matter if everyone in all faculties taught well and intelligently, if the same was true of all students and their learning, and if that time was quality time of intensive contact in smaller groups with a more reasonable number of courses and 100% dedication to academic work and no outside work or need for it (unless part of a work-study-co-op)

** (doesn’t really affect me as I’m working to rule and refuse to work outside regular working days and hours and a maximum of 44 hours per week; have been since 2020’s 6 months’ massive unpaid overtime including every weekend)


Credit for the idea:

  1. Dr Caroline Lebrec, poème de métro assignment for French language learners (here is my translation and slight adaptation of her original assignment for FREN 101)
  2. Dr Tamara Mitchell, literary sound studies and transmedial studies, including spoken word poems as student assignments. Read her “In Defense of Wandering: Podcasting as a Pedagogical Tool” (Medium, 10 June 2020). It will—should—change you and your teaching.

A caveat on my enthusiasm about changing your teaching: Eventually. And the if and when and how and what and how much and why are of course your business and not mine. I don’t mean to be bossy or interfering: that would be absurd, anyway. We’re just sitting around reading and thinking here.

Changing teaching takes time. It needs time, time between courses, time when you can think and devote your mind to thinking. Yet also not time when you should not be working but you should be resting and doing other things with your brain and the rest of your self; albeit your individual “rest” might be teaching-and-learning-adjacent or otherwise related to scholarly stuff, because that’s how you and your brain work. But either which way, time when you can breathe, metaphorically and literally, when you’re not pushing back and pressing down the 101 things that all have to be done right now as you should have done them last week or the week before but you got to the end of the day and you’d been working for 10 hours, or the end of the week and more than the 44 hours for which we are paid, and you had to stop. Because you are a sentient life form with humanimal limits.

I’ve been setting commentaries of some kind for a long time as an assignment; see for example “On reading, writing, and commentary” (2016). The first time was as a graduate student TA nearly 20 years ago. I’ve included commentary in literature courses here at UBC since 2009.

The first time that I offered students the option of doing commentaries in media other than writing was for reasons of accessibility and disability. That—or rather, these individual student people—made me think about accessibility and disability. They helped me to see how it made sense to redesign an assignment so that the non-written option wasn’t an exception but a matter of equity and inclusion for everybody. It was a small step from there to starting to read and think about accessible design, universal design, and equity-oriented pedagogy. I say “starting” as there’s a lot to read and learn, and I still have a lot of reading and learning and thinking to do, and those plus the actual making and shaping and doing are very much work in progress. That’s OK. Work in progress is the best and truest kind of work.

A caveat about the assignment guidelines below: some links won’t work because they’re internal, copy-pasted from Canvas. I’ve added a couple of screenshots if I thought that clarification might assist comprehension.

I’m not copying and sharing student work here as that is theirs and I have not asked their permission to do so. If you’d like to see / hear examples and you’re a colleague, though, I’d be happy to show you examples separately; in my office, by appointment, etc. and not for reproduction, dissemination, or any kind of publication. (If you’re one of my old RMST or MDVL students reading this: thank you for doing fabulous work and being awesome, yes I reread your work even after the end of a course and yes it continues to make me happy, please keep being poets and living poetically, and may you live long and prosper 🖖❤️🦄.)

Assignment guidelines


  1. Write and/or record a commentary that brings together 
    — an object or location on the UBC campus (see next section, Instructions > 2) 
    UPDATE: OR wherever you are during reading week
    — and one of our narrative texts from Weeks 4-9: Adventuring and other Romance romances.
  2. Work alone or in a pair or small group (3-4 people).
  3. Around 500 words / 5 minutes talking per person:
    • For a pair, that would be 1000 words / 10 minutes; for group of 3 people, 1500 words / 15 minutes; for 4, 2000 / 20 minutes.
    • Form / format: the default is a recording, podcast.
    • This could be a video.
    • It could be recording a voice-over accompanied by at least one slide with an image of your chosen object or location.
    • It could include background music.
    • Like in a lyric poem, you are aiming for quality not quantity.
    • Writing without recording is also an option; or you could work in a pair and distribute the work so that one person does more writing and the other more performing.

Instructions and further details

  1. Reread Marie de France’s Lais & The Romance of Silence.
  2. Quest: find a local UBC object or location 
    UPDATE: OR wherever you are during reading week
    that illustrates, represents (including mood, feel, tone), or can otherwise be connected to a scene, episode, event, or text passage in one of Marie de France’s Lais or in The Romance of Silence
    • Go to one of the museums / collections on campus—free for students—for example the MOA, Beaty, or Belkin
    • OR to an outdoor location: a garden (ex. outside our classroom, Nitobe, Botanical, and other smaller gardens and vegetative/reflective spaces around campus).
    • Look around until something catches your eye: ask yourself what in the Lais or Silence it reminds you of;
    • repeat until you have found “your” chosen object or location.
    • If you find too many possible objects or locations and cannot decide: consider forming a team so that you can talk about more than one of them.
    • UPDATED 2021-10-15 (thanks anonymous student for the question) Some options for pairs and groups:
      • one object or location, multiple interpretations (2, 3, or 4: one per person); this could be a larger more complex object or location
      • OR one text, multiple objects or locations (2, 3, or 4: one per person)
      • OR … open to other options and ideas, come and talk to me
  3. Adventure: explain your choice and the connection. This is your reading and commentary.
    • (This could include retracing your steps before you chose your object or location, or your rationale for choosing, if it was a complicated process rather than love at first sight.)
    • Include an image of the object or location in your commentary.
    • Situate the scene/passage that you’ve chosen very briefly (1-2 sentences): use your word limit for argument, explanation, and ideas.
    • Use the text (Lais / Silence) to provide examples to support your reading.
    • Focus on your reading, interpretation, and response to your object or location of choice.
    • THIS IS NOT AN ESSAY. Commentary is an older form beyond (and before, outside, behind, and underneath) the essay. What might you include in your commentary? What is a commentary? This (slightly ancient) guidance might be useful: ”On reading, writing, and commentary” (O’Brien 2016)
  4. Post your podcast (or writing, if you prefer to write instead of recording):

Items 1 and 2 above, the research part, might—as with all research—be what takes you the longest: 

  • reading and rereading the Lais and Silence
    • (pro tip: you could choose one lai and reread it several times very attentively)
  • wandering around campus and visiting beautiful gardens and places like the Museum of Anthropology
    • this is what should take you the longest
    • it’s also a not very subtle way to give you an excuse to spend time in these places 😉

Inspiration (with way more historical background, yours is NOT a research exercise but a reading exercise, and none of us are advanced expert professional museum curators!): a multimedia project from 2010 that brought together a museum exhibit, a virtual exhibit, and commentary. The commentary was a radio broadcast and collected as a book and audiobook. 

Learning objectives

  • “romancing” a local world
  • observation, description, and close reading
  • thinking analytically and analogically, doing comparative and pattern-recognition work (similarities, difference, what sticks out, what’s difficult and resistant and problematic; troubling, haunting, echoing, resonating with your other knowledge)
  • writing: critical and creative and communicative
  • showing insight: wandering and wondering, and saying something curious, fascinating, and wonderful

[A note, added at this time of writing, and not in the original version of the assignment guidelines for students: The eagle-eyed reader will observe that these “objectives” are not correctly phrased in our institutional terms—which emphasise active verb forms and measurable end results—and do not map onto course-level “learning outcomes.” This is not entirely accidental, erroneous, or deliberate.

One: The form of English that I grew up with and that comes more naturally to me is one that includes more progressive tenses and aspect in verbal forms, inflected by Hiberno-English and infused by other surrounding languages in a non-Anglophone and multilingual environment.

Two: It can be pedagogically vital, especially in the (literate thinking imagining) humanities, to do three things that don’t fit with a standardised generalised institution-wide perception of learning objectives and outcomes. The first thing is for process to be an “objective” (rather than product), including what’s often called a “metacognitive” aspect of learning. Wandering and wondering. The second thing is that “transformatively innovatively engaging” in process is progressive and includes kinds of activity—ways of learning and ways of being—that are not immediately obviously active and therefore might seem, and be dismissed as, passive (and passivity deemed as negative and of just one kind, the opposite of activity) by other people in other areas including The Inhumanities but also in areas like the more quantified social sciences that are, in our institution’s organisational structure, part of the same faculty as the humanities proper.

The third thing loops back to the first point about “my” language and where it’s from and how many of its nuances differ from “standard” English (be it the British version, or those from the USA or Canada). It’s a philological and intersectional feminist social justice thing. Marginalising and excluding other verbal forms and their associated ways of being and doing to the profit of all that is active and goes in a direct straight line in one direction, is quantifiable and measurable, and has fixed end-points and targets and end-products … should make you stop and ponder how such language is an active part of conquest, colonisation, extractive capitalism, and cultural destruction.]


  • Criteria for an A / A+:
    • (1 point) You completed and submitted work for which you undertook research; 
    • (2 points) you developed an argument and used evidence to support it; 
    • (3 points) you showed thought, understanding, and insight in your reading; 
    • (2 points) and you presented your ideas in a clear, compelling, creative, and inspiring form. 
    • (1 point) You handed it in on time (or later but with an extension agreed between us beforehand).
    • (1 point) Other students appreciated your commentary, by liking and/or commenting on it in the week 10: reading-week commentary assignment discussion
  • Criteria for a B / B+:
    • nearly all of the above (7 points)
  • Criteria for a C:
    • most of the above (6 points)
    • (if this happens, or a lower score, I’ll invite you to talk to me and submit a rewrite later for a compromise mark; my aim in this course is that all of you should—as you can—comfortably have at least a B/B+, so that you can focus on learning and not be distracted by worrying about grades)

The course also had regular weekly Canvas discussions, and a running undercurrent of poetry and poeticising, not just in its first part / module that was specifically obviously poetic.

To keep up that pace and pattern for reading week, in lieu of our usual kinds of discussion this was a musical one, creating a reading-week soundscape.

I hoped that might offer some creative (“constructive, productive”) distraction from other “proper” work set by other courses for the reading week, a reason for collegial and amicable relations to continue for our students at a time that could otherwise be lonely, and—in functional flat-footed immediate terms—an auditory backdrop for our own course’s “improper” work. A complement and supplement, and a continuing building of a class and community, but in a different mode and mood from our usual regular weekly pattern. For some students, it provided some inspiration for sounds and motifs weaving in and out of the musical offering and the creative assignment.

The discussion started out as a postscript to the last class before the midterm break, when I’d promised to share some music. I thought that we could open that up to others sharing too, if they so wished. Its “1 point possible” was because all Canvas Discussions contributed to a general participation grade, so that everything counted, because some people like that or at least find it comforting; but some things were weighted lightly like this so that they wouldn’t feel onerous, just done or not done for a tiny 0.00001% or whatever, the point being the doing of the thing—and reading and listening to others, which had no points attributed—and learning for their own sake, for curiosity and love of learning.

If knowledge and learning are accessible, that means that anyone and everyone can become a philologist.

And we can all be poets.




some ballads


a long allegorical poem, like a romance but with less interaction and relationships, more focussed on a “me” and my woes (including, of course, suffering from love and the idea of being of love and wanting to be in love and loss)


a Latin mass, to “Notre Dame” = Our Lady / Virgin Mary / Mother Of God (but with a lot of cross-over with love poetry in French; words, rhymes, motifs, style, musical structure and performance):


motets = fashionable song-form, like other very structured fixed forms also associated with group dances and dance fashions



UBC library + your CWL = access to the Naxos Music Library:

the world’s largest online classical music library. Currently, it offers streaming access to more than 46,000 CDs with more than 653,000 tracks, standard and rare repertoire. Over 800 new CDs are added to the library every month.

The library offers the complete Naxos and Marco Polo catalogues plus the complete catalogues or selected titles from over 250 classical and world music labels with more labels joining every month. Classic pop and rock music as well as Chinese orchestral music are also represented.

For our “utopia module” period, may I recommend:

  • Guillaume de Machaut
  • Guillaume Dufay
  • Johannes Ockeghem
  • Josquin des Prez

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