Faculty friendships mix work and play

By The Beacon | February 20, 2014 1:16am
Steve Kolmes and Russell Butkus joint-teach ENV 400, integrating seminar in environmental science. Students enjoy their bantering humor in the classroom. Photo by Parker Shoaff

McKena Miyashiro and Kate Stringer |

While their friendships may not have been formed by a 12x12 dorm room or a shared mini-fridge,  professors on campus have also created closely knit bonds with one another. Through joint-taught classes, shared lunch tables or collaborative papers, professors have found kindred spirits in their shared collegiate universe.

Matthew Baasten, graduate school dean, associate provost and associate professor and Robert Duff, professor

For 30 years, Robert Duff and Matthew Baasten used to walk around campus together after lunch. As they passed by Waldschmidt Hall, they’d point at the circular office turrets swelling out of the administration building and say that for at least one year, they’d work in one of those rooms.

“He’s jealous because I now have a turret office,” Baasten facetiously accused Duff, while sitting next to him in Baasten’s Waldshmidt office.

“There’s a couple rooms in here that you can see but there’s a hidden room in here that has a jacuzzi, but he won’t show me it,” Duff replied.

Baasten and Duff’s friendship began at a lunch table in 1981, when Baasten began working at UP. For 30 years they’ve gathered a collection of stories through their joint-taught ‘Marriage: Social Ethics and Dimensions’ class, traveling Europe through the University, redesigning the core curriculum and guest lecturing each other’s classes, stories they recount with a sibling-like raillery.

“The standard joke that Bob (Duff) always tells is that he kept on inviting me back, but that I kept on taking good notes and not asking him back,” Baasten said of the guest lectures they used to do for each other’s classes.

“He was taking notes and he was giving my lecture himself. It was a blatant exploitation,” Duff  responded in mock-outrage.

That’s just the beginning of the stories they recount from their 30-year friendship.

“My funniest bad story about Bob,” Baasten begins, turning to Duff. “Do you know which one I’m going to tell?”

“This was a joke!” Duff protests, already aware of the story.

Baasten and Duff were driving students to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Germany during their time teaching in Salzburg. As Baasten drove, Duff and his wife Vivian, now deceased, were both attempting to navigate.

“At one point, Vivian takes the map and says, ‘I’m going to direct!’ and Bob gave the famous line, ‘Yes dear,’” Baasten said.

“It was a joke!” Duff said, laughing. “The students broke out laughing and Matt (Baasten) broke out laughing because we’re teaching the marriage class and talking about relationships.”

Students come in large numbers to Duff and Baasten’s marriage class, about 80 students per semester. Senior Tori Pinto is in their class and testifies to the connection Duff and Baasten share in the classroom.

“They’re pretty adorable,” Pinto said. “When Dr. Duff is giving his lectures, Dr. Baasten will take notes for him. Dr. Duff goes fast sometimes so sometimes Baasten will say ‘Hang on’.”

Baasten believes their joint-teaching works because of the strong friendship they built decades before. Duff agrees, adding that an important part of teaching is to communicate enjoyment between teachers to the students.

While their bantering tales are endless, their friendship is also composed of what Baasten calls tender moments.

Duff said that Baasten is sensitive about course evaluations, so Duff reads them first to warn Baasten if there’s any negative evaluations.

“If (Baasten) just catches( the evaluation) right off, it could be forever damaging,” Duff said.

Baasten rolled his eyes at this. However, he recounted the winter break that one of his parents passed away, and Duff sent him an email about the evaluations, ensuring Baasten they were all fine. Baasten, who knew that Duff would always tell him when one of them got burned on an evaluation, suspected Duff was lying.

“That was a tender moment for me,” Baasten said. “I just wrote him back going, ‘Come on Bob, tell me the truth, now I know they’re really bad!’”

After 42 years at UP, Duff will retire at the end of next semester, making fall 2014 the last time Baasten and Duff will teach the marriage class. They may not be able to walk around campus after lunch together, but Baasten points out that they don’t have a deficit in experiences together.

“When you do things together you create memories that never go away,” he said.

Karen Eifler, co-director of Garaventa Center and education professor and Father Charles Gordon, co-director of Garaventa Center and theology professor

Karen Eifler and  Charles Gordon may be the only ones who can say that yellow goggle-eyed minions and the Garaventa Center have  strengthened their friendship.

Eifler first met Gordon after sending him an email introducing herself and asking whether Gordon ever thought about the possibility of putting on a film series. Though Gordon never considered this possibility, he enjoyed the idea and both decided to give the film series a try seven years ago.

Eifler and Gordon currently run a series of "Bringing Eyes of Faith to Film" that takes a look at popular culture through a Catholic theological lens.

"I think we bet each other time and time again that there is no movie that we can't do our thing with," Eifler said.

"We love Pixar movies. We want to look at popular culture and see what elements of grade and transcendence there is," Gordon added.

Eifler and Gordon enjoy watching movies together with the sort of lens that they have developed. While Eifler and Gordon both love to watch old classic movies with their favorites standing as “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep” and “The Third Men.” For their series of "Bringing Eyes of Faith to Film," however, Eifler and Gordon both realized that students wouldn't be interested in watching these types of movies.

Eifler and Gordon’s friendship has also been strengthened by the Garaventa Center.

"One of the first things I noticed is how much they enjoy each other and they just have a connection that allows them to complete each other’s sentences and thoughts," said Jamie Powell, program manager of the Garaventa Center.

In a nutshell, Eifler describes her friendship with Gordon as yeast: A quiet little thing that allows greatness to happen if one allows it to grow and do its work.

"We don't always agree on things but we always respect each other. And this is sometimes rare in the world, with the world so polarized,” Eifler said. “We share a lot of common core beliefs but we also have different beliefs."

Eifler and Gordon's friendship, like most, is based on listening reflectively and respecting each other.

"My motto in life would be there's more going on than you realize. And if Dr. Eifler had a motto, it would probably have something to do with really seeing other people … being really present to other people and hearing them," Gordon said. "I lead into the world brain first and what I appreciate most in a new person is really creative and exciting ideas that resonate with the way I think. I think that's the way it's been in this friendship collaboration with Dr. Eifler."


Russell Butkus, associate professor of theology and Steven Kolmes, Molter Chair in Science and professor

Rarely is a classroom environment similar to that of a sitcom, but professors Butkus and Kolmes, who are described as bantering and interacting like “a married couple,” make their joint-taught courses on environmental science and theology engaging.

“I think they’re both fantastic. I’ve only had them in classes together. And they’re both extremely awesome and hilarious,” senior Sarah Letendre said. “And I think what makes them so great are their interactions. People joke that they’re like a married couple, I guess? They kind of banter and throw jokes around the room and it’s hilarious and it makes class way more amusing.”

Kolmes first came to the University of Portland 18 years ago with the understanding of administration that he would start an environmental science program. After a series of meetings with faculty over lunch, Kolmes met Butkus and invited him to oversee the B.A. track of environmental ethics and policy.

Kolmes appreciates learning from the collaboration between himself and Butkus.

"If you have someone who is constantly challenging you, your courses don't get stale,” Kolmes said. “He's (Butkus) is always bugging me about the material I'm presenting and the opposite is true."

Currently, Butkus and Kolmes are working on compiling a paper on epigenetic processes for the Catholic Theology Society meeting in June 2015. Since 1995, Butkus and Kolmes have written numerous articles and books together, receiving grants and awards from different interdisciplinary associations in the United States. Butkus and Kolmes have also worked together on writing a chapter for the American Fisheries Society and a textbook used in the Theology and Ecological Perspectives class, to name a few of their many collaborations.

"Our interests overlap at points where there are environmental problems that have social and ethical issues associated with them," Kolmes said.

However, Butkus and Kolmes have different perspectives on creating change for current social issues such as climate change.

"What you need to print is that he thinks the glass is always half empty and from my perspective, the glass is always half full,” Butkus said. “Climate change is going to be really bad if we don't do anything about it, but on the other end, you need to balance that with hope and what can be done. You need to be able to arm your students with option for action."

Aside from teaching the capstone course for environmental studies majors, Butkus and Kolmes team-teach theology in ecological perspectives. This joint-taught course allows students to complete two core requirements: science and upper division theology.

"Team teaching is a lot more difficult than doing it by yourself. You need to choreograph everything," Butkus said.

"We don't need to do that so much anymore and after 18 years we have a good feel for it," Kolmes replied.