The magic of “The Handmaid’s Tale:” Getting incoming students on the same page through literature

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Leonie Leonida/Staff

Last Thursday, you may have noticed dozens of UC Berkeley students crowding into a massive, snake-like line outside of Zellerbach Hall, Cal IDs and Margaret Atwood books in hand. Perhaps it wasn’t so obvious who these eager students were all anticipating. But with the Hulu adaptation bringing the haunting narrative of “The Handmaid’s Tale” back into the limelight, perhaps it was.

Atwood herself graced the campus with her presence and a keynote address entitled “The Handmaid’s Tale Escapes From Its Book” that was equal parts witty and genuine. The event was free to all students with a school ID, and leftover tickets were distributed — again, free of charge — to members of the general public.

It was fascinating to witness how many different Berkeley populations were brought together by their common interest in Atwood and her work: Audience members ranged from students to faculty members to affiliates of Revolution Books, in addition to other interested locals. In the spirit of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a handful of attendees showed up wearing the red cloak and white bonnet worn by Offred, the novel’s protagonist, and other women of her social standing.

None of this would have been possible, however, without the On the Same Page program.

Every year, this program gives freshmen and junior transfers alike something in common they can discuss as newcomers to the campus. It goes beyond summer reading and a special keynote, extending to a discussion thread linked together through subsequent panels, a UC Berkeley-exclusive Goodreads group and even a one-unit course centered around the year’s selection — L&S 10.
Choosing the topic is a yearlong process that starts in January. The first titles are chosen by a committee of four faculty members, a librarian, Dean Bob Jacobsen and the program’s director, Alix Schwartz.

It’s the first time that a novel has ever made the final cut.

Top choices become summer reading for faculty members and librarians, and when the fall semester starts, student volunteers read and review the resulting shortlist. This process ensures that multiple perspectives are taken into account, with a focus on finding volunteers who know the student body well and can speak on more than just their own behalf.

“At the end of the fall, the deans take all of that input and choose the book,” Schwartz said. “And then I invite the author (to come and speak), and if the author says yes, then we choose that book.”

New students receive a free copy of the book before arriving on campus, courtesy of donor funds. Originally, this entailed a physical copy being given to students when they arrived at CalSo, the former orientation program. Now that the Golden Bear Orientation program, or GBO, has been implemented, the copies are provided via an online Amazon redemption code. According to Schwartz, there was a 24 percent redemption rate among this year’s incoming students.

Schwartz, who also spearheaded the creation of the program back in 2006, expressed excitement about “The Handmaid’s Tale” being this year’s selection.

It’s the first time that a novel has ever made the final cut.

“Stephen Hawking was the very first,” said Schwartz, gesturing to her wall of posters for the various On the Same Page themes collected over the years. “He was coming to campus to visit the physics department, … and that’s a big deal. So one of our donors heard of that and said, ‘I would love to buy a copy of his book for every student.’ … And the program was born.”

Up until last year, when the committee chose the original Broadway cast recording of “Hamilton: An American Musical,”  most of the selections were nonfiction or out-of-the-box projects.

Not all have been successful, however. The controversial 2010 “Bring Your Genes to Cal,” event entailed the collection of voluntary DNA samples from incoming students. Although the program continued with its theme, the actual genetic testing was canceled because of intervention from the state Department of Public Health.

Faced with the daunting task of choosing an engaging piece of media that will pique the interest of all students, not just those interested in literature, it’s easy to see why a novel would have a hard time standing up among other more interdisciplinary options.

“It’s really interesting for people in the United States to see what’s the same and what’s different in Canada, whether it’s politics, whether it’s immigration, the environment.” — Dr. Irene Bloemraad

So why “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and why now?

“(‘The Handmaid’s Tale’) had that kind of magic something where … all these different people from different disciplines can get into this,” Schwartz said. “So there are a lot of people who care about themes that come up in this book. … It meets the criteria. In terms of student response, I think the main thing was how powerful it is.”

Why this particular narrative has the power to enthrall so many distinct groups was also discussed during the lecture.

“It’s coming a little too close to the line that is supposed to divide fiction from reality,” Atwood said. “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t do it. Next time, vote. … You do not write this kind of book because you want it to happen.”

The thinly veiled jab at the current state of U.S. politics was met with knowing laughter.

A reception hosted by the Canadian Studies Program followed the lecture and gave students a chance to talk among themselves about the book. Atwood’s arrival and status as a Canadian author also sparked conversations that crossed national lines, inspiring inquiries as to what the United States can learn from looking to its northern neighbor.

“If you think about both Canada and the United States, they’re both settler-colonial societies that are products of the British Empire,” said Irene Bloemraad, co-director of the Canadian Studies Program. “And they’ve taken sometimes different paths. … It’s really interesting for people in the United States to see what’s the same and what’s different in Canada, whether it’s politics, whether it’s immigration, the environment.”

On a more personal level, a junior transfer, Lily Green, spoke on how the book has impacted the way she views her identity.

“(‘The Handmaid’s Tale’) just made me reevaluate my own standing as a woman in a country like America because I feel like we do often fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Everything’s fine, this could never happen here,’ ” Green said.

To borrow Schwartz’s phrasing, individual yet widespread appeal is the “magic” of Atwood’s novel — it brings people together with terror and challenges the worldviews of those who read it.

It’s impossible to tell just how many incoming students actively participated in On the Same Page and impossible to know how many of the 24 percent who redeemed their codes for the e-book actually read it.

But one thing is for sure — when Atwood came onstage and Zellerbach Hall erupted into fierce applause, everyone there was on the same page.

 

The On the Same Program includes the following upcoming events: 

Reproductive Freedoms and Barriers in the U.S.

Monday, Sept. 10, 2018 — 4:00 p.m.
The Toll Room at the Alumni House

 

Modern Surveillance: Living “Under His Eyes”

Monday, Sept. 17, 2018 — 3:30 p.m.
Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall

 

Screening of the film “Tomorrow”

Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018 — 7:00 p.m.
Osher Theater, BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley

 

Utopia/Dystopia: Imagining the Future

Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018 — 4:30 p.m.
Maude Fife Room, 315 Wheeler Hall

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alexluceli.