Ben Serby is the *best*. Kind, extremely knowledgeable, engaged, a superb seminar leader, dedicated to students. This pandemic-era class was taught over Zoom and yet for me, and for many other people in the class, it was still somehow one of the best Columbia class experiences ever. Ben pre-recorded lectures for us to watch at our own convenience before class — despite the fact that this no doubt took him a lot of extra time. These lectures are absolutely packed with information and are organized in an extremely clear way. I re-watched a few of them when preparing for the midterm and lecture, they are THAT good, and I have 100+ pages of single-spaced notes because of how knowledge-dense (in the best way!) they are. Our seminars/discussion section were always so helpful and thought-provoking and made me understand the readings much more clearly. I always looked forward to these. Nearly everyone in the class participated on a consistent basis because Ben is such a good seminar leader and made it so easy and comfortable to speak up and always helped students draw out their ideas more clearly.
Ben was also just a great teacher to just chat to. He would stick around before and after class and during breaks and lots of students regularly hung out on the Zoom to talk with him about random, not-even-directly-class-related stuff. He reminded me of the cool, friendly English/History teacher you probably knew and befriended in HS who cares a lot about their students as people and enjoys talking to and learning from them. Ben seemed to really be interested in what we thought and had to say about all of the readings and lectures and all that was going on in the US at the time, and has not a single shred of condescension or dismissiveness in how he engaged with us. I'm mentioning this because this kind of teacher can be hard to find at Columbia, especially when we are taking classes over Zoom. Our last day of class felt genuinely emotional and a bunch of people stuck around for a while after it officially ended to talk about much the class meant to them.
This is not even to say anything about directly the course material/subject, which is also unbeatable. I think this may be one of the most important classes taught at Columbia. We survey, basically, the history of economic inequality, race, gender, and political power in the US from the post-Civil War period forward through the critical eyes of some of each decade's leading intellectual voices. Every single student (at the VERY least, humanities/social sciences students) should take this class before graduating: it provides more insight into US history and how to understand contemporary America than any other politics or history class I've taken here. I'm sure Professor Casey Blake's fall edition of this course is also fantastic, so if you can't take this class with Ben, definitely take it with Prof Blake. It should be part of the Core, it's THAT good and important.