After a fifty-one-year tenure at Bowdoin, DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Professor of Government Christian Potholm ’62 retired from the College at the end of last semester. A prolific scholar in the field of warfare, as well as both African and Maine politics, Potholm’s teaching career at Bowdoin started in 1970, just as the College first admitted women, and concluded during a tumultuous era for the college caused by a global pandemic.
During the eight years between his graduation and his return to the College, Potholm obtained three advanced degrees from Tufts University and taught at Dartmouth College and Vassar College. His teaching started with African politics, a subject on which he has authored numerous books and later shifted to Maine politics during his tenure at Bowdoin. He also managed William Cohen’s ’62 campaigns for both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate in the 1970s.
“I had some firsthand information on how political campaigns really worked, so I enjoyed teaching that, and I think there was a lot of student interest,” Potholm said. “And then, [teaching] war has pretty much been my constant.”
Potholm said that the sheer array of Bowdoin’s current course options dwarf the offerings during his time at the College, which he credited to the expanding perspectives of Bowdoin’s curriculum. Potholm attributed these changes in part to the College trending toward admitting more international students and hiring more female professors and administrators.
“I wish I could come back to Bowdoin now and take four years of courses here,” Potholm said. “I think the wide range of courses [is] so much more interesting and challenging in terms of perspectives.”
President Clayton Rose reflected on the tenure of a beloved colleague.
“Chris’s amazing impact on the … College is impossible to properly capture in words. The College is better because of Chris and it will not be the same here without him,” Rose wrote in an email to the Orient.
Potholm said that he would particularly miss intellectually challenging his students, drawing not only from his expertise within the government discipline, but also his experiences in life.
“I think my mission for [my teaching] years was to make sure that students [realized] that they didn’t know everything,” Potholm said. “I like the idea of bringing new material. I like the idea of stimulating students to go off and think about what I was saying.”
Referencing a quote from Kenneth C.M. Sills, President of the College during the early 1900s, Potholm said he wanted his teaching to enliven—not just instruct—especially in fields like African politics, to which students tended to have little exposure prior to Bowdoin.
Chair of the Government and Legal Studies Department and Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government Andrew Rudalevige highlighted the diversity of subfields within the government discipline Potholm has taught and praised his unique subset of skills.
“[Potholm] was a fount of institutional wisdom for newer professors, and always kept an open door,” Rudalevige said. “Academia these days is much more specialized. Chris was hired originally to teach comparative politics—[but] by his retirement, [he] taught everything from a first year writing seminar on ‘Women at War’ to a hugely popular course on Maine politics. He taught in so many concentrations that for a while I think it was possible to ‘major in Potholm.’”
Having retired to his home in Harpswell, Potholm plans to continue writing and researching. His ongoing research project on women during wartime consists of some 600 profiles of women warriors across different societies and types of warfare.
“At 18 years old, you think you know everything. Well, you don’t,” Potholm said. “When you’re eighty-one, you think you know everything, but you don’t. That’s the essence of learning.”