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500 Pages in 10 Days: ‘I Wouldn’t Want to Do It,’ Historian Says

Alan Brinkley, a professor of American history at Columbia University, has never taught an online course and doesn’t spend much time thinking about who reads his books. One of those books, The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People (McGraw-Hill), is required reading for a two-week course in a controversial online program.

The course, “American History (1865-present),” is one of about 30 offered in a 10-day format by Western Oklahoma State College, a rural community college whose online classes have become popular with athletes. (I profile the college here.)

In the preface of his book, Professor Brinkley notes that scholars have concerns over the growing amount of material they must cover in teaching American history. As a result, he writes, many instructors have opted for briefer volumes that provide basic information, and have supplemented those texts with other readings.

But abbreviated courses like Western Oklahoma’s were not what Mr. Brinkley had in mind when he wrote his book.

He is certainly not accustomed to teaching that way. Instead of covering such a broad swath of history, Mr. Brinkley tends to slice off shorter time periods. Next semester, for example, he is doing a series of 24 lectures on what happened between World War I and World War II. (He won the National Book Award for his historical account of that era, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression.)

Professor Brinkley has experimented with shorter-format courses. This summer he taught for three weeks in Japan, where he lectured two or three times a day about the events from 1929 to 1945.

I asked him to imagine covering roughly 10 times that many years, in just two weeks.

He laughed.

“You mean from what, 1865 until right now?” he asked. “I’m trying to think how you could compress that to 10 days. … It’d be a completely different way of teaching, that’s for sure.”

He paused.

“You would need a different kind of book to do that kind of teaching,” he said.

To cover that much ground in The Unfinished Nation, Mr. Brinkley said, students would have to read about 500 textbook pages.

“Could you do that in two weeks?” I asked.

“I suppose you could,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do it.”

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