Keeping the Balls in the Air

Antonios Varelas, Assistant Professor
Behavioral and Social Sciences


A few semesters back I attended a wonderful CTL on Tour professional development workshop about having “fun” in the classroom, led by Professors James Kennis and Eunice Flemister. It was 90 minutes of energy and laughs, and of course, interesting exercises to be used in the classroom. But among the more interesting things that I learned at that session was that our Prof. Kennis can juggle! He stood at the front of the room, and let his bean bags fly as if he was doing nothing more difficult than walking down the hallway. It was very impressive. And a lot of fun. He demonstrated his technique, and gave us a quick tutorial that began with tossing one bag and then slowly adding another and another until there were three up in the air. He then invited us to give it a go, and as you can imagine the couple of volunteers who tried were not very good, but no one cared. We were having a blast.

That workshop has always stuck with me, but it was not until recently that I truly appreciated why. This past fall, just like many of us, I found myself once again engaged in the annual ritual of preparing my portfolio for reappointment. I generally think of, and approach the portfolio as three separate documents – teaching, service, and research/professional progress – all rolled into one. If completed the way I intended, these three distinct parts should all come together into one cohesive piece. It was during this most recent period of portfolio preparation that the connection to the workshop finally occurred to me. Teaching. Service. Research. These are the balls we are juggling. The balls we have become so adept at keeping in the air.

I am wondering how many of us appreciate this performance we put on day after day, term after term, year after year. And how did we learn to do this in the first place? Reflecting back on my journey, I would say that it was important to go slow. We see so many of our colleagues engaged in a seemingly countless number of wonderful and exciting endeavors that we often want to dive right in ourselves. And we sometimes feel pressure to do it all from day one. But like Prof. Kennis’s demonstration, starting with one ball is probably best. For many of us, that first ball is our teaching. Getting settled into a routine that revolves around our classes and students is the most important place to start. Only once we are established in the classroom we can then explore other ways to engage and participate in the life of the college.

This other work includes our service to the institution outside of the classroom. Service opportunities are extensive if we appreciate that they include efforts not only inside our department, college and university, but also within the community at large. Looking back, I would say that to keep this second ball up in the air, it is most important to be selective when deciding where to focus our service efforts. While it is not uncommon to be assigned administrative tasks that we may not be terribly excited about, ultimately choosing what other activities to participate in will prove the most rewarding personally and professionally in the long run. Become involved in service activities that interest you and take advantage of your unique skill set. Participate in service activities that you are passionate about and will result in something you can be proud of. It is the product of the effort, and not volume of activities, that will be noticed and have the biggest impact.

The other way we participate in our college outside of the classroom is through our professional development as researchers. This is the third ball we get up in the air, and for many of us it can feel like a chainsaw. Looking back, I would now suggest that the key to becoming a productive researcher is time. Regardless of the type of research you are engaged in, finding and dedicating time to this, and only this activity, is central to being successful. Whether you carve out 90 minutes a day, or an entire afternoon each week, as long as that period is dedicated to your research, and nothing else, significant progress will be made.

I am grateful to Professors Kennis and Flemister for sharing their passion and creativity in a workshop that I will not soon forget. And while I may still not be able to juggle like Prof. Kennis, I think many of us are managing an even more impressive act of keeping our balls in the air. And we are also having a blast!


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Eugenio María de Hostos Community College
500 Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York 10451