A Ghost Walk on the University of Alberta Campus

I’ve always believed that ghosts haunted the University of Alberta campus. Last week, I found out I was right.
Last week, I went with some friends to take in the UofA ghost walk. We gathered in front of the Rutherford House on Saskatchewan Drive—a surprising forty people for a cool night in late October. Our guide stood on the steps of the house and outlined our walk. She told us about the house itself, Alexander Cameron Rutherford and his family who moved into the house in 1911. She encouraged us to visit the house, where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the ghost of a little boy and his ball who has haunted the second floor of the Rutherford House since the 1980s.
Our walk took us across campus to the Power Plant, where we learned about Dr. Carl Clarke, an early researcher into the oil sands, whose lab-coated ghost still wanders the building. We headed next to Pembina Hall on the west side of campus, where we learned about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in Edmonton, and the bodies that were temporarily piled in the basement of the building. Finally, we walked all the way BAC across campus to the Emily Murphy House, where our guide told us about Emily Murphy, the Famous Five, and the early days of Alberta politics. People say you can sometimes still see the ghost of Emily Murphy, and sometimes, you can hear the kettle whistling in the room that was once the kitchen.
There was much more to our walk, as it was a historical tour as well as ghost walk, and our guide had many stories about the early days of the UofA. You can find more stories about campus ghosts here.
I wouldn’t say I’m overly sensitive to ghosts. I’ve been inside Glamis Castle in Scotland, which is supposed to be one of the most haunted castles in the country, and I didn’t feel too bothered. One gets a sense of days long passed in such a place, but I never felt or heard anything specific.
But I’m still prepared to believe such stories. As I said, I’ve always thought the UofA had its ghosts. If you are in the Humanities Building at night, as people clear out of the building, you will begin to feel the oppressive silence of the place, like something pressing on your ears. You will start watching, listening, and looking around corners. And sometimes, if you turn quickly enough, you might…

October and Literacy

October has me thinking about literacy. In my job at the university, I talk to students about sentence construction, about nouns and noun phrases, about usage, idiom, parallelism, and all the grammatical stuff they will mostly forget once they leave my class. But visiting a junior high school earlier this month during Read IN Week reminded me how critical literacy is to the lives of young people. Literacy is more than just learning to read and write. It’s about understanding, self-expression, engagement, and taking part in the world in a fulsome way.
Each term, I teach classes in first-year academic writing. Almost the first thing I tell my students is that they aren’t in an English class: it’s a writing class. Of course it’s English, but I make the point about writing to derail their prejudices.
Many first-year students come to post-secondary with a misunderstanding about books and reading. For many, English class is boring, or hard, or tedious, or weird, and the professor’s opinion always counts more than theirs. In many ways, I can’t blame them. They’ve been told all throughout their school careers that books are important, and many books are better than others. Hamlet beats Harry Potter, and Pride and Prejudice beats Twilight. Perhaps so, but literacy is more than the literary equivalent of American Idle. It’s also more than having to read Lord of the Flies for grade twelve English, recognizing all the important bits, then writing an essay about the disintegration of society. Literacy involves communication in all its multitudinous forms. It includes Facebook and Twitter, texts and email; it’s about a person’s ability to function competently in a world that thrives on the dissemination of information, and her ability to sort this bloated, often self-reflexive mass of news bites, internet pages, and memes into something usable.
The kids I met earlier this month at Spruce Avenue School were all new comers to Canada. Literacy for these young people is less about popular culture than it is life. They are learning a new language in a new country. They have to learn to communicate with teachers, peers, and neighbours. I came in for part of the afternoon, and we talked about fairy tales. I told them the story of Red Riding Hood—my version of the story. They had read the story earlier in the year, and they were very appreciative. Storytelling can be one of the finest vehicles for literacy, as it puts the storyteller right in front of you. As the listener, you become part of the story, and sharing in such an experience mostly makes you want to explore more stories. Contributing in a small way to those young people’s growing experience of literacy was gratifying and encouraging—as much for me as it was for them. Hopefully, I can visit them again soon.

Kid’s Books I Can’t Stand to Read

My students sometimes expect me to only say difficult things about important books—books they find hard to read or understand. My children’s literature students, especially, are surprised and sometimes shocked by my tirades against the books I can’t stand to read. I’m supposed to have read everything, and worse yet, they seem to think I should like all of it.
The fact is, I’m a reader first. Teaching is the vehicle for imparting knowledge and understanding, and it’s best when that knowledge arrives with passion—and perhaps joy. But reading is the initial exploration into a book that has the potential to set your world on fire. Many do. But some books, I can’t stand.
I’ve always thought my inability to appreciate a particular book to be a shortcoming—practically a moral failing. A lifetime of reading, and I still sometimes question my judgement when a book leaves me cold.
Worse yet, I sometimes encounter a book I can’t stand. I will often read them again, and I still can’t stand them. The problem is, you can’t unread a book. Once read, a book is in your head forever, and if you hate it, all you can do is try to forget it.
Unfortunately, I never seem to forget books. I can’t always say why a book bothers me, but I know when I don’t like it. So here’s a list of five books I can’t stand, in no particular order, and with no particular ranking.

1. Lewis Carroll’s, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Sure, I know it’s a classic, but I can’t stand this book. I’ve read it a dozen times, taught it several, and I still don’t like it. I find it weird, creepy, over rated, and don’t understand why people insist on calling it a classic.

2. Lemony Snicket’s, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Yes, I know I said books, but I can’t stand this series—and I’ve only read the first four books of thirteen. I don’t have a problem with dark fiction, but these books are excessive. They’re not even dark for any reason I can discern.

3. E. B. White’s Stuart Little
I wouldn’t say I can’t stand this book. I think I just don’t get it. Is he a mouse or a boy? He’s a mouse—or maybe he’s a boy/mouse. The book has always left me baffled.

4. Gail Carson Levine’s, Ella Enchanted
I love fractured fairy tales, and I whole-heartedly appreciate novelizations of fairy tales. More than that, I love strong female characters in such books. So why don’t I like this Cinderella story? In part, it’s the world Carson Levine builds I find preposterous. But when I read the scene where Ella encounters the centaurs, I almost stopped reading.

5. Suzanne Collins, Mocking Jay
More than any other, this book tested my ability to sympathize with a character I began by liking. Katniss is an absolute train-wreck by the third book in the series. Her self-serving, self-involvement nearly put me off the trilogy. But I read it anyway—several times.

There you go—a few books I can’t stand to read. You no doubt have your own list. Don’t get me wrong. All of these books are worth reading and worth discussing. We can’t, after all, only talk about the books we love. Keep reading, and keep sharing.

Read In 2016 in Edmonton

This week is Read In week for Edmonton Public Schools. You can find out more by following the Read In link.
Read In 2016

Years ago, I told stories to my daughter’s grade 2 class, and the kids drew pictures to go with each of the stories. The magic of quilting brought those pictures together into something new. Share a story, and create a memory!