When John Pohlmann began his career as a history professor more than a half century ago, the world was a starkly different place.
President John Kennedy had been assassinated, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed, and students would be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War if they dropped out of school.
Pohlmann has been witness to these and a myriad of pivotal moments in history and society, which has given him a different perspective than most teachers.
“College was supposed to be a time where your values were challenged, where you cut your ties from high school, and where your mind was opened to new adventures,” Pohlmann says. “And at no time was that more so than in the ’60s and early ’70s. Youthful idealism was pervasive.”
After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Occidental College, Pohlmann began working on his doctoral degree at UCLA. His career as an adjunct professor began in 1964, when he returned from his honeymoon to complete his second year of a doctoral program in history.
On his desk was a note from his mentor stating that Cal State Long Beach needed a teacher for an upper-division California history course, and the position was his if he wanted the job. Despite not having taught a course on the subject, he accepted the post and the rest is history.
As his career flourished, Pohlmann zig-zagged across the region to his part-time gigs. He has taught at over a dozen institutions, including Cal State Northridge, UCLA, Loyola Marymount University, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Long Beach and Huntington Beach Adult School.
Pohlmann landed at Cal Poly Pomona in 1979. “The history department when I arrived was absolutely superlative,” Pohlmann recalls. “I think Cal Poly Pomona is one of the best schools in the CSU system, and it has been a wonderful privilege to be able to teach here.”
Pohlmann estimates he’s taught well over 5,000 students. He finds humor in the fact that he has taught for more than half a century without gaining tenure.
Over the years, benefits for Pohlmann and other part-timers have improved. He says that one of the most significant benefits is the ability to teach a variety of courses, ranging from California history to the life of Andrew Jackson to the American West.
“I even taught a class in civil engineering at Cal State Long Beach,” he says. “It was called Engineering and Civilization, and designed as a ‘consciousness raiser.’ The students didn’t learn a lot of technical engineering, but we built Roman roads, speculated about how the pyramids were constructed, and talked about the California aqueducts. I have a genuine respect for civil engineers now, and I suspect I learned a lot more than my students.”
Pohlmann says his most memorable class was a course he taught was in 1973 that was called “The ’60s.” At the time, the infamous Watergate scandal was unfolding. “It was great fun, partly because it was autobiography for both students and professor. Best teaching experience I’ve ever had.”
Another change in the culture of teaching, Pohlmann says, has been the interaction between students and professors.
“When I first came here, there was a lot that went on outside of the classroom. We would meet at a professor’s home every couple months and talk about our research. Students were invited. We would drink a few beers and no one would care how old you were.”
There have been other significant changes in the education system as well. According to Pohlmann, students have changed their views about attending college.
He recalls dropping off one of his students at the bus stop and asked her the inevitable question, “What do you want out of life?” The student’s reply: “Money.”
Pohlmann says that he was shocked by the response.
“Back in the ’60s, people didn’t worry about money. I didn’t worry about money. Today you have to pay rent, insurance, and gas. It’s a lot tougher than it used to be.”
After a rewarding teaching career, Pohlmann retried at the end of spring quarter. The department held a retirement party for him and two other professors to honor and celebrate their time at Cal Poly Pomona. He says he is looking forward to retirement and is planning his “bucket list.”
“Besides reading, conversation and travel, I’m a serious bicyclist, an avid gardener, and a decent cook who has aspirations at becoming a fair to middling chef,” Pohlmann says. “I’ve also amassed a wine cellar which my wife tells me I’ll never live long enough to drink, but I’m planning to give it my best shot.”