Director of Undergraduate Laboratories and Associate Teaching Professor
Juggler and Professional Entertainer
My official title is Director of Undergraduate Laboratories in Physics and Astronomy, but my job description has changed over the years as we’ve moved to more interactive engagement classes with studios rather than labs. Our introductory physics courses are now taught in a lecture-studio format, where students attend a lecture and then do follow-up coursework in a hands-on studio environment. My background is in physics education research (PER), which involves studying how people learn and how people teach — and how we can do a better job of matching those two things. It’s exciting to be a part of that process.
When I teach classes, I usually introduce myself on the first day by juggling as a metaphor, because learning physics is like everything else — you have to get in the game, and you have to practice. It takes three things to learn this skill (or most anything else in life!): practice, patience and perseverance. I started juggling in middle school. A friend of our family had recently learned to juggle and came to visit, and this inspired me to spend the next week trying to juggle three balls. Now I can teach most people in about an hour.
Juggling tends to attract people who are mathematically or science-minded. There seems to be a natural connection between this particular performing art and a math-science propensity. There’s even a special mathematical language called “siteswap” notation that can be used to describe different juggling patterns.
I started performing professionally when I was in high school, so I now have over 30 years of experience as a professional entertainer, although in recent years I mostly juggle work and family obligations! I got pretty serious about juggling in college; it actually helped me to pay for college as I performed for a variety of different events and activities. I’ve juggled balls, rings, clubs, knives, torches and even a bowling ball. I also do stilt-walking, plate-spinning, balloon sculpture and skill toys like Diabolo (Chinese yo-yo), Devil sticks and Kendama.
In 1994 I had the opportunity to be an “extra with talent” in a Hollywood movie called The Road to Wellville. This was filmed in Wilmington, N.C., and it was about Dr. Kellogg of Kellogg’s Cornflakes and his health sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, at the turn of the century. The scene we were filming for this movie was supposed to be a summer party scene, but it was filmed in January and it was quite cold during the two days of filming. John Cusack and Anthony Hopkins were in the movie, along with Matthew Broderick and Dana Carvey. It was a great experience. So much time is spent filming a scene for such a small amount of screen time!
I’ve also juggled in a plane, a train and a car (as a passenger, not while driving). All those are fine, as long as you’re moving with constant velocity (no acceleration). I’ve also juggled while skiing downhill (on a gentle slope). I even did it once while ski diving! It wasn’t during the free fall part, but once the parachute deployed. I had three golf balls with me and juggled them successfully for several seconds until I dropped one, and then I realized I should have thought about that hazard ahead of time. Fortunately it landed in an empty field.
I’ve performed at venues ranging from Durham Bulls baseball games to festivals to elementary schools to grand openings to auto expos. I’ve also performed internationally —in Russia, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Puerto Rico and Honduras. I enjoy sharing my enthusiasm for juggling and teaching others. It’s a great opportunity to teach a skill that can improve self-esteem and left brain-right brain coordination. There are both physical and mental benefits.
I think that juggling has actually helped me to become a better teacher. Like many scientists, I am naturally introverted, but juggling and performing for audiences has helped me to be more confident and engaging. As I have taught others how to juggle, it’s fun to see that youthful enthusiasm in people who didn’t think they could do it. I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of this hobby, and miraculously, it has paid for itself.
Duane Deardorff will use juggling to explain the laws of physics at the UNC Science Expo on April 22 at 11:05 a.m. on the main stage. More info on the Expo.
Artists After Hours is an occasional feature in which we interview faculty, staff and students who pursue artistic avocations in areas not directly related to their day job and studies. Profiles are archived at our Carolina’s Human Heart website, celebratehumanities.unc.edu. Know someone we should feature? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.