June 16, 2005

Balmer, Randall Silver_nugget
Religion and American Culture II

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

I came into this class wanting to take a class for my American Studies major, an Atheist with no previous interest or knowledge of religion and no real desire to study it, and left as a Religion minor with Balmer as my major advisor. It was by far my favorite class and a treat to attend everyday. It was my first class of the day and I hate waking up; furthermore, all the notes are presented on powerpoint (easy to take down!) which makes copying them from others easy--that being said, I still never missed a class. It was everything that could be interesting about American religion compiled into one class... we studied some broad topics but mainly the class was focused on interesting tidbits that Balmer deftly explained with interesting anecdotes from his own in-depth study of the topic. The material was simply fascinating, and in general the TA's brought a lot to the discussion as well and their absence was even felt during the week-long strike in April (though sometimes they did carry on too many irrelevant personal conversations with Balmer during class).

There are 4 units (sort of five, we didn't finish--more on that later) and you get to pick 2 to do a paper on, which is nice because you don't have to write on something if it bores you. You can also choose to do one research paper in lieu of the two, shorter unit papers. I loved the lectures but I have some qualms about the organization of the class... sometimes the material of the unit didn't really fit together, which made writing a paper on the unit difficult. This was particularly evident with the unit on immigrants, because there was material on immigrants spanning two units. Also, we didn't really come close to finishing the material on the syllabus, which is a shame because it all seemed so interesting. The guest (a Native American woman and Jewish rabbi) lectures were both a waste of time but, to his credit, they were both impromptu as they had called Balmer that morning and I don't think he'd known how they were going to go. Also, some of the books weren't very good ("The Secret World of Penitentes," a topic in which I was very interested, was so bad that I actually couldn't force myself to finish reading the horrific writing). But take this class for the lecture and you'll enjoy yourself immensely.

There is an in-class midterm and final, both of which are VERY heavily memorization-based. Fortunately, they eliminated multiple choice on the final, which made it a lot easier since you're studying for the ID's anyway (he gives you the list of possible ID's ahead of time), and Balmer lets you double either your midterm grade or your final grade (if you so choose). However, it is still difficult to memorize 50 VERY detailed paragraphs worth of material, and if you leave off minor details you will get marked off (you have to write EXACTLY what the TA's are looking for). This has drawbacks and benefits, but since it really comes down to how much time you're willing to put into studying for the test, you are truly in control of your grade and if you study you will get an A. I recommend trying really hard on the midterm because if your grade is good enough it will be one less final to study for come finals week. The rest of the class though is basically no work... you are supposed to read the books at your leisure and have them completed by the end of the unit, however if you are not writing a paper on the unit you don't really need to, since if they're going to be on the final you'll know from the list of ID's he gives you. However, some of the books were interesting and I kind of filed them under my "read for pleasure if I have time" category.

All told, I highly recommend this class as a very interesting introduction to a (who knew?) fascinating topic that is very relevant today. Balmer is a captivating. charismatic lecturer who has good material to work with. Really, the class was just plain fun, and I am doing whatever I can to make sure I take as many classes with Balmer as I am able to do at Barnard!

Workload:

Very light--2 papers of 6-8 pages which are fairly easy and based on however much reading you want to do for them (skimming one book could be good enough to write the paper). 1-2 books are assigned for each unit (5 in total) but the reading is rarely necessary... only to answer the ID's on the tests but he gives you the list beforehand so you'll be prepared anyway. Extra credit is available on both the midterm and final, and you can substitute either grade for the other. All tests and papers are worth 20 points each, for a total of 80 points. The grading on papers varies by TA... my papers were about equally good and one got a 40 while the other one got a 34 (which is a B and therefore a pretty low grade). If nothing else, this class is an easy A- if you just apply yourself a little bit and an easy A with some effort when writing the 2 papers and taking the test (you only have to do well on one since it's doubled!)