Associate professor of early American history Christopher Magra finds meaning in the present through the past and shares this passion with students.
Magra's areas of research explore early American social and economic history and are specifically focused on merchants and maritime labor.
Following a class about the American Revolution as an undergraduate student, Magra was inspired to learn more about the subject.
“I am a naturally curious person, but that class made me think in different ways about the American Revolution,” Magra said.
Magra decided to partially focus his studies on fishermen during the American Revolution since most of the research was centered on farmers.
His interest in this particular perspective was realized after his first book, “The Fisherman's Cause: Atlantic Commerce and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution,” was published in 2009.
“I’ve come to view many aspects of Dr. Magra’s research with interest and admiration, but two things first attracted my attention. First, 'The Fisherman’s Cause' demonstrated a forgotten or neglected cause of the American Revolution which is also the focus of my own research interests,” graduate student in history J. Tomlin said.
Because of Magra's focus on an overlooked aspect of history, Tomlin said the research was important in spurring more conversation about the subject.
“His research recognized the influence of ideas, goods and peoples around the Atlantic world on the American Revolution, which is a necessary first step to understanding the event and its actors,” Tomlin said.
In the classroom, Magra uses his curiosity to push his students to delve deeper into concepts and share the same level of interest while utilizing critical thinking skills.
“I hope that they become critical thinkers and do not just accept things at face value,” Magra said. “We read about them; we talk about them; we write about them and we think about them before we come to conclusions.”
Senior in English Miranda Campbell described Magra's teaching style as discussion-focused and engaging.
“I love how energetic and passionate he is about what he teaches,” said. “He manages to make (history) come alive, which is not the easiest task.”
Magra makes history come alive through storytelling and finding the connections the present has to the past, Campbell said.
“His spontaneous anecdotes are some of my favorite things about his classes,” Campbell said. “He is a great storyteller, always connecting historical events and ideas to the present.”
Even now, Campbell said she is interested in history, and part of the reason is from Magra's own enthusiasm.
“When you sit in one of his lectures, you can’t help but get excited,” Campbell said. “It’s infectious, the way he teaches. I can honestly say that now, after having so many classes with him, I am genuinely interested in U.S. history and colonial history.”
Tomlin felt that Magra’s work in researching historical events and connecting them to the present is especially important in modern times.
“The modern world asks us to continuously define and redefine who we are, our values, our beliefs and what we want from the future — collectively and individually,” Tomlin said. “It is difficult to do any of those things without the context and insight that the study of the past provides.”
Magra attributed his excitement about history and dedication to students to his mentor Marcus Rediker, a distinguished professor at the University of Pittsburgh where Magra received his doctoral degree.
“He (Magra) really does care about you as an individual student and wants so badly for everyone to do well and learn as much as possible,” Campbell said. “I know that if I need his help, he will do his level best to help me out.”
Tomlin also said Magra's knowledge, hard work and commitment to students has positively influenced his own academic career.
“He has made me better at every single component of my academic training,” Tomlin said. “He is an especially prolific writer and researcher, and this sets an impressive example for his students. No one works harder than he does, and reminding myself of his work ethic motivates me.”
And for Magra, teaching is more than a job or duty: It is a passion, and he said teaching these courses is among his favorite things to do.
“I love UT; I love my job. I would do it if they didn't pay me to do it,” Magra said. “I felt at home here as soon as I came here.”