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Justin M. Nolan Focuses on the Importance of Learning and Education in 2020



Justin M. Nolan

Justin M. Nolan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas. He is a graduate of Westminster College in Missouri, where he pursued his interests in cultural anthropology and mathematical biology. Upon successful completion of his undergraduate degree, Nolan attended graduate school at the University of Missouri with a focus on ethnobiology, the study the relations between human beings and the living (plant and animal) world.  Nolan achieved his MA in 1996 and his Ph.D. in Anthropology four years later.

Nolan’s first teaching position was with the University of Missouri, before being hired by the University of Arkansas, where he has now worked for more than eighteen years. Justin M. Nolan is respected amongst his peers for his work in anthropology and his devotion to the University of Arkansas. His research in social ecology and ethnobiology includes traditional medicine and its recent incorporation in medical tourism, as well as the conservation of North American food traditions. Nolan has worked alongside the Cherokee Nation’s Department of Education to follow through with its mission of cultural conservation and language preservation in Northeast Oklahoma. He has numerous publications, including his book Wild Harvest in the Heartland: Ethnobotany in Missouri’s Little Dixie (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) and forty-five articles and book chapters. 


What made you decide to go into education?

I have always been interested in pursuing a teaching career. Despite my partiality towards education, I was highly influenced by my mentors and the role they played in guiding me through my academic career. Having access to the wisdom of advisors was crucial in helping me along. I want to be able to do the same for the next generation of students by inspiring them to collect many mentors for their own growth and development.


What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Watching my students develop intellectually and gain the confidence to apply the skills I have taught them is immensely rewarding. I regard students as the greatest asset to our disciplines, as they are quite naturally our futures.  Students with the wherewithal to ask questions during lectures or propose ideas that go above and beyond the coursework are those whose presence inspires me continually.  I have also received a few unexpected ‘thank you’ notes from past students who have acknowledged my contribution to their education. These students have applied their skills to secure their careers, and it is rewarding knowing I played a part in helping them realize their goals and ambitions.


What made you go into anthropology? 

We humans are fascinating creatures. I am but one scholar enthralled by examining the values, beliefs, priorities, and behaviors of humans, past and present, with the hopes of better understanding humankind on specific cultural levels, and comprehensively as well. Conventional wisdom tells us to ‘follow your bliss, choose a vocation you love, and the rest will follow.’ This is an oversimplification of course, as it’s never this simple. The culture of graduate school immersed me so completely into anthropology that eventually, the discussion and elaboration of key concepts in classroom settings became second nature, essentially. I put lots of stock of the healthy exchange of perspectives and points of view.  I believe I established a career in this field because my passion led me here, but especially because my own peers and mentors supported me greatly by way of their own commitment to the discipline.


Was there ever a time you doubted yourself as an educator? 

When I first started my career as an educator, I had doubts as to whether or not I would be an effective teacher. I went from years of research and writing papers for my MA and Ph.D. to standing in front of a lecture hall full of students.  Some may underestimate what it takes to be an educator. Being highly knowledgeable in any discipline does not mean that one is automatically well equipped to teach a course on it. Over the years, I have been required to adapt my teaching style to meet the needs and preferences and familiarities of my students. Now, I consistently ask for feedback to ensure I am utilizing the types of materials students find most beneficial. For instance, if I have an abundance of visual learners in my classroom or program, I will try to account for this by adding more diagrams, illustrations, and timelines into my lecture material to make it more engaging, meaningful, and memorable.


How do you self-motivate?

I like to engage with other scholars in social environments and through academic conferences, to discuss the on-going research that is being accomplished in our field. Listening and participating in discussions with others helps motivate me to constantly reconsider my own research, especially during situations where my investigations have led me into murky waters. Predictably, if you constantly surround yourself with positive and productive people, their habits will be inculcated into your own. In turn, when my students sense that I am enthusiastic about a topic, they are more likely to be excited about it.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

Unfortunately, I had to turn down a joint research project with a colleague whose work I admire. In the past, I have over-extended myself by taking on more responsibilities than I could handle at one time. I tend to conduct better research and prepare more thoughtful lectures when I focus solely on a few tasks at hand. At the same time, I think it’s important for everyone to give themselves enough time to relax and recharge, to break away from their computers; this may not be possible if you overcommit yourself.


What do you think it is that makes you successful?

I believe my passion for anthropology and my optimistic outlook have led me to where I am today. I have dedicated my life to this field because it creates an overwhelming sense of satisfaction to be able to immerse myself in the subject through research and teaching key methodologies to students. I am also generally positive and encouraging by nature, which helps me persevere even when times are tough.


What has been your most satisfying moment in your career?

I would say one of the greatest highlights of my career was the publication of my book, Wild Harvest in the Heartland: Ethnobotany in Missouri’s Little Dixie. It feels gratifying to have produced something that was well received by my colleagues and other scholars in the field.


What does the future hold for you? What are you most excited about?

At the moment, I am interested in focusing on my role as a professor and helping foster my students’ intellectual development. I teach a variety of courses from cultural anthropology, ecological anthropology, to medical anthropology and food cultures of the world.  I am always interested in taking on new courses to advance the careers of students in the field.  I am most excited about writing my next book, which is taking shape already



What is one piece of advice you have never forgotten?

A close relative of mine always says, ‘believe you can, and you’re halfway there.’ It’s a quote by Theodore Roosevelt. Through this advice, I have learned that self-confidence is key to unlocking one’s true potential.


Key Learnings:

  • Welcome and encourage feedback from others to help you identify areas for growth and improvement. Try not to take criticism personally and embrace professional growth!
  • Choose a career path you are passionate about so that your job doesn’t feel like work while seeking the guidance and support of mentors.
  • Surrounding yourself with positive, productive people can help bring out the best in you.
  • If you don’t believe in yourself, how do you expect others to? Having confidence in yourself is the key to unlocking your potential

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