Hockey might be the reason Mark Conliffe became a Russian language and literature professor.
As a 9 year old in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Conliffe was glued to the television screen as Team Canada battled the Soviet Union during the 1972 Summit Series.
“In between periods of those games, they would profile players on the Soviet hockey team: how they trained, the cities they lived in, what they did with their families on the weekends,” he says.
“I had never had this type of real access to life in Russia — and I was hooked.”
From that day forward, Conliffe’s interest in Russia continued to grow, and he went on to earn a doctorate from the prestigious Slavic languages and literature program at the University of Toronto.
Today Conliffe is one of Willamette’s most beloved professors by both faculty and students — receiving both the Jerry E. Hudson Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Mortar Board Professor of the Year awards in 2012.
“At Willamette, I am surrounded by great teachers and students who are also wonderfully interesting people with interesting ideas and stories,” Conliffe says.
“The energy that comes from learning and sharing with other people — it’s contagious.”
Creating a Learning Environment
Students may wonder, what makes some courses more enjoyable than others?
For Conliffe, the answer lies in the classroom environment.
“My work with students isn’t so much about presenting material as it is about creating an atmosphere that allows students to feel comfortable in wrestling with that material,” he says.
In many of Conliffe’s literature courses, students come from a broad range of majors and levels — generating a sense of camaraderie in the class as students exchange perspectives.
“Having students from a variety of backgrounds creates a marvelously rich learning environment,” he says. “The upper class students appreciate their role in helping to facilitate conversation, and the first- and second-year students quite naturally take part and gain confidence, thanks to the support of the older students.”
Whether they are participating in a class discussion or writing an essay, students know Conliffe expects their best efforts.
“I always knew that I couldn't hand in a second-rate essay to professor Conliffe,” says Jill Schneeman ’12. “He would know it wasn't my best and I would get a grade that reflected that.”
By recognizing his students’ strengths and weaknesses, Eric Swinn ’06 says Conliffe helps them succeed beyond their own expectations.
“Professor Conliffe knows each student's individual ability level and pushes them to attain it,” Swinn says. “He not only respected and helped me realize my personal goals, but he introduced goals I never even knew I had.”
Beyond the Classroom
Students know they can count on Conliffe to support them — even when their personal goals and challenges aren’t school-related.
“Professor Conliffe is the definition of a caring professor who does not believe his responsibility to his students ends when he leaves the classroom,” says Schneeman, who is pursuing a master’s in Russian language and literature at Taurida National University V.I. Vernadskovo in Simferopol, Ukraine.
“In my four years at Willamette, Conliffe was my Russian professor, my advisor, my psychologist at times — always willing to lend an ear— and he even helped me look for jobs and find a direction for my life after graduation.”
When Schneeman and Sarah Worthing ’12 studied abroad during their junior year, Conliffe traveled to the Ukraine to pick them up.
“Not that many people can say they've gone on bunker tours and to mosques with their professor, enjoyed a day of shopping with him in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or shared a meal with him in an underground cafe in the center of Prague,” Schneeman says. “It felt like we were traveling with a good friend, and a knowledgeable one at that.”
Swinn — who now works as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Department of State — says Conliffe’s support gave him the confidence to present at a student literary conference.
“Professor Conliffe actually took a weekend trip to the University of Portland to be at the conference, in the audience, to provide moral support.” Swinn says. “I was more nervous then than for any presentation I have had since, but I was encouraged by his presence to keep thinking and speaking.”
Even as graduates, Schneeman and Swinn remain in contact with Conliffe via email and Skype — seeking his guidance on everything from graduate school, to careers, to life in general.
By providing this kind of support both inside and outside the classroom, Conliffe says he hopes to help students prepare for a lifetime of learning.
“As a professor, I get to share in discovery and new understanding — those, ‘Ah ha!’ moments,” he says.
“To have been a part of conditioning those moments — that is the most rewarding part of my job.”
• Story by Katie Huber ’13, politics major