Associate Professor of History
Ph.D., University of Kansas
M.A., University of Iowa
B.A., University of Iowa
“I discovered in law school that lawyers mostly read real estate contracts and what I wanted to do was read books and talk to people. That’s what I do as a professor, I read books and talk to people and I get paid for it. It’s the best job ever,” said UMF History Associate Professor Christopher O’Brien.
O’Brien was once a history and political science major who planned to become a lawyer, but when he eventually got to law school, he changed his mind.
At any given time, O’Brien is usually reading five books simultaneously which he leaves scattered in various rooms around his house. In addition to histories and biographies, he reads the occasional fiction and even the odd science fiction novel, he said.
History Is An Argument
“History is not set in stone,” O’ Brien explained. His first goal is getting his students to understand the contested past; that there are always conflicting views on how an event unfolded and its importance.
“Most of my first-year students come thinking they know history because they had a history class in eighth grade. They often think it’s all about filling in the blanks,” O’Brien said, “It’s a big intellectual leap for them to understand that the past is an argument and people disagree about it.”
“When I’m successful, my students start thinking in new ways,” O’Brien said. “Good teaching should make students a little uncomfortable,” he added. “I’m a big proponent of work — there will be a lot of reading. Students will be pushed hard to think and re-think and reconsider,” O’Brien said.
Through Students’ Eyes
O’Brien said that a few years ago he wanted to combine his interests in documentary filmmaking and history and created a unique project for students in his 20th Century History course.
“We did a documentary on their lives in the 21st century. They did it all. They wrote it, found the images, found the music — one student even wrote original music — and they put it all together. We showed the final product in Thomas Auditorium and more than 150 people showed up to see it,” O’Brien said.
“And it was really their story, really theirs. It started with 9/11 which was for those students a crystallizing moment. For me it was, often, a horrifically sad film. It wasn’t the way I would have told the story of Post World War II America, but it was theirs,” O’Brien said.
The project proved so popular that O’Brien has continued incorporating documentary filmmaking in his history classes showing how film can frame certain events and define a historical perspective.
Students in O’Brien’s modern history courses carry out original research and begin learning the craft of the historian. For instance, one class created an online encyclopedia of the 1960s, O’Brien said.
“This time around I had my students do something different. There’s no great history of Maine in the 1960s so that’s what they are doing instead. I told them to go research towns and communities to see how life was lived in Maine in the 1960s,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien tried the local research project in an earlier class on the Great Depression. The project proved challenging as the state archives did not carry all the local newspapers, and students had to track down first-hand accounts at local historical societies, he added.
“What we found were all these cool, little stories about towns in Maine and what surprised the students was how normal things were during the Great Depression. Most people had jobs. The real poverty they had expected to see was rare,” O’Brien said, “Bread and soup lines were really rare, but communities putting money into the community chest with small-scale, often tax-based charitable contributions was very common.”
“It was also a time of construction. Building was inexpensive and people were building. Students discovered that over the course of the Depression both private housing and public building increased. Some of these findings were things I would not have guessed. It was really very interesting,” O’Brien added.
What To Do With A History Degree
A recent news article polled the richest Americans on what they studied as college students and many of them were History majors, O’Brien said. History majors learn how to analyze information and share that information with others in clear, organized presentations, he added.
“We train analysts and those are skills that everybody needs,” O’Brien said. Before becoming a professor, he worked as a political speechwriter, an acquisitions editor, and a salesman.
“Our students go to law school and even medical school. There are also a lot of small business owners with history degrees,” he added.
Some of O’Brien’s students have continued on to graduate programs at Harvard Divinity School, Oxford University, the University of Chicago and the Muskie School of Public Service. Other recent UMF History graduates are pursuing careers in library science, museum conservation and even teaching English in the Ukraine.
“It’s the skills our students learn here at UMF that make them valuable later. You can get those skills in other liberal arts majors, but History is better,” O’Brien said with a smile.
The University Is More Than Classes
“The important part of the university is the whole experience, not just history courses. I think when people look back at their university experience they look back on the time they spent in and out of class, their extracurricular activities, the friends that they made,” O’Brien said.
Going to college is a way for people to find out about themselves and find out about the world, and the faculty have to make that possible, according to O’Brien. To that end, he devotes time to serving on almost a dozen different campus committees that shape the direction and policies of UMF.
“There’s no doubt that your brain should grow while you’re here and we should pushing you to think hard, to challenge your perceptions, to really try and figure out the world around you. But you should grow in other ways too,” O’Brien said.
For several years, O’Brien and a group of fellow faculty members competed in the U.S. National Toboggan Championship at the Camden Snow Bowl where more than 400 teams in wooden sleds race each other, reaching speeds of 40 mph across the frozen face of Hosmer Pond each winter.
“I’m pleased to report that in the first year we competed, we were the Western Mountains Regional Toboggan Champions — we actually had to create the title. There wasn’t one before us, but we beat the other team from UMF,” O’Brien joked.
As a native Midwesterner, O’Brien said he discovered tobogganing because he was not a skier and wanted to find a way to enjoy the Maine winter outdoors. “You come flying out of a chute that’s 400 feet long — it goes by in no time at all — then you slide out onto a frozen lake seemingly forever,” O’Brien said, “It’s cold out there on the lake, but it’s a lot of fun.”
“For me, it was a really good way to meet people when I first came to UMF. It gives you a unique perspective on your colleagues when you are crammed on a toboggan, screaming your heads off,” O’Brien said.