The Class of 2026 received their first assignment before ever setting foot in a classroom.
During orientation, they were introduced to the Common Academic Experience, a series of programs centered on a single text — “Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation” — designed to acquaint first-year students with academics at Clark. Every student received a copy at the outset of the semester.
“Parable of the Sower,” a dystopian science fiction novel written by Octavia Butler in 1993, takes place in 2024 — when the country has grown unstable due to climate change, wealth inequality, and corporate greed. The book is written in the form of a journal kept by Lauren Oya Olamina, an African American teenager who experiences “hyper-empathy,” the uncontrollable ability to feel the sensations she witnesses in others, particularly the abundant pain in her world.
The book was adapted as a graphic novel in 2020 by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, who received the 2021 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. The Hugo Awards are annual literary prizes for the best science fiction or fantasy works, presented by the World Science Fiction Society.
Betsy Huang, dean of the college and professor of English, told students at orientation that the post-apocalyptic story looks beyond survival to sowing the seeds of a meaningful life.
“We chose this book because it offers so many entry points of inquiry and conversation,” she said. “There’s something in it for political scientists, geographers and climate scientists, economists, sociologists, biologists, philosophers, and more. … It’s a great book to demonstrate to you how Clark’s academics are plugged into the world, and how plugged in you will be, too.”
This week, first-year students are participating in book discussion groups led by Clark faculty. According to Huang, these groups offer not only an informal way to explore the issues raised in Butler’s story — profound inequality, isolationism, racism, climate change, food insecurity, and more — but also provide students with opportunities to connect with fellow first-years and meet new faculty.
The small group discussions have allowed students to share their thoughts on “Parable of the Sower.” For example, in a recent conversation, a student recognized that the gated company town in the book echoes the historical mining towns of the 1860s in their home state of Colorado. Another noted that Butler’s science fiction narrative merely amplifies issues that exist in reality.
While new student orientation has typically included a common academic activity such as a film screening and discussion, this is the first year that the program has extended throughout the semester. “During orientation, students are scheduled every minute,” Huang said, “so instead of jamming one event in, we thought we would spread it out and build a set of programs around it.”
The next event in the series, an interdisciplinary faculty panel on how the “Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation” inspires research, teaching, and activism, will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 12. Panelists will include Dean of the Faculty Esther Jones (English), Professor Jacqueline Dresch (Biology), and Professor Chris Davey (Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies).
The Common Academic Experience will culminate on Nov. 3 with a plenary session featuring Damian Duffy and John Jennings, the adapter-illustrators of “Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation.”