Justin Nolan

Read as much and as often as you can, and be aware of new academic works in related disciplines and how they may articulate with your own interests.


Professor Justin Nolan was born and raised in El Dorado, Arkansas, a town he describes as an ethnically and culturally diverse place very close to the Louisiana border. He attributes his hometown experience as his inspiration for his early interest in human cultural variation, and anthropology overall.

He attended Westminster College in Missouri, where he developed two concurrent, seemingly unconnected interests in cultural anthropology and mathematical biology. Near the end of his undergraduate education, his advisor introduced him to an emerging field called ethnobiology, comprised of anthropology, zoology, botany, taxonomy, population ecology, and archaeology. So Nolan went on to graduate school at the University of Missouri where ethnobiology was thriving. Under the tutelage of Dr. Deborah Pearsall and Dr. Mike Robbins, he received his MA in 1996 and PhD in Anthropology in 2000.

Two years after graduation and teaching at the University of Missouri, the University of Arkansas hired Nolan, and he has been teaching there for the past 17 years.

Nolan’s most recent publications have appeared in Field Methods, an academic journal that publishes papers on methods applied to all social sciences. He was the chair of his department for two years, is a past president of Society of Ethnobiology, and is presently co-editing a book series called Contributions in Ethnobiology with his close colleague and fellow anthropologist, Dr. Marsha Quinlan, at Washington State University.

Justin Nolan is currently an associate professor for the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

It came from my astonishment at how talented and effective instructors can be at changing lives. By having incredibly dedicated mentors, I became aware of the power of creative teaching styles and specialized student advisement near the end of high school, and then throughout college and graduate school. My admiration and appreciation of the dedicated educators are me made me want to be a part of their mission to help people achieve their goals. My mentors activated my impulse to become an educator.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

My day typically starts with teaching a morning class, holding office hours, then teaching an afternoon class, and advising students afterwards. My way of being productive is to stay on campus in the evening hours when I can get my best writing done. When I’m physically present in the academic environment, my workflow is more robust and my productivity is higher.

How do you bring ideas to life?

By constantly scribbling things down. I always carry a little leather notebook in my front pocket or my jacket pocket. If an idea hits me, I tend to scribble it and then a couple of days later I’ll go through my little book of ideas and see if anything is actually worthwhile of extending. If so I’ll pursue or advance it, maybe in terms of a precis or prospectus for a project or a concept for the basis of a journal article. Alternatively, I’ll bounce it off colleagues to see if they believe it worthy of pursuing, and to gain some perspective in case I want to develop and submit a proposal to a funding agency for support.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I think there is a real trend in developing methodologies right now, in the social sciences at least. There’s a trend to explore highly visual, multi-dimensional, and dynamic approaches to data analysis and presentation for scholars studying relationships between humans and the components in their environments. Those modes of analysis excite me because they are multi-disciplinary, hypothesis-driven, and because they can serve to promote conservation while educating and resonating with the public.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

One habit is frequent engagement with students and my colleagues, and frequent attendance at academic conferences. This helps to keep me productive and inspired. I also love to read the newest books published in the field, whenever I get a chance. I will jump at any opportunity to review articles or edit a book manuscript. Even if it’s a book that is not publishable, for whatever reason, I find it rewarding to get to read as many manuscripts as possible. As an academic, it’s just a tremendous learning experience. I enjoy chances to expand my horizons whenever possible.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would probably tell a younger Justin Nolan to put my emphasis on teaching first and then research second. I would warn him about the dangers of academic over-commitment, and I’d also encourage him to be as adaptive, flexible, and capable as possible of adjusting his teaching techniques so that he’s more effective in the classroom.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I believe that each and every academic discipline or department, spanning history, geography, geology, sociology, biology, analytical chemistry, nutrition, pharmacology, genetics — that is, all academic units in any college or university — can and should articulate and interrelate with each other whenever and however possible.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I’m constantly, almost to the point of redundancy, reminding the students of my expectations of them and my availability to them, so they’re keen to explore and exchange ideas and perspectives as often as possible. I try to continually remind students to communicate with me (and each other) as often as they can, so that I can best advise them in accordance with their interests and academic pursuits. I can then identify what strengths and predilections students have to develop their academic goals more effectively.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

If indeed I could be considered successful, I would say that my involvement in the development of methods in anthropology with Dr. Mike Robbins, my mentor, has been crucial. By advancing new methods of data analysis, or by refining existing ones, we become better, more effective and productive contributors to our academic disciplines. By keeping a focus on methods and techniques, whether it be observation, data collection, or visual documentation, we are able to think about our research from new, creative perspectives.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I think I’ve had a tendency to bite off more than I can chew, and on too many occasions I’ve failed by over-committing myself to more obligations than I can accomplish effectively. Another shortcoming I’ve realized is a component of my teaching process. My students have remarked that I often rush through key concepts and complex lecture materials too quickly. I’ve tried to overcome this by being cognizant of my pace of teaching, by structuring lecture materials accordingly, and by asking questions continuously of my students, and by keeping as much open, comfortable classroom dialogue going as possible. Subsequently, if there are issues or concerns among students regarding my lecture delivery, I’m now more immediately aware of what I can improve on.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Every human language spoken across the world guides, or at the very least influences, how humans think about and relate to one another, and the world around them. Through language documentation, we have a better chance of protecting cultural diversity, knowledge systems, and ecological diversity. My research has supported the well-known notion in anthropology called linguistic relativity–that specific human thought processes, world-views and modes of cognition are implicit, sometimes even hidden within the structure, grammar, and vocabularies of different languages. Linguistic relativity, of course, isn’t my idea by any stretch. It was first proffered nearly a century ago by leading anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

But my idea is something of an extension of this hypothesis, and was co-developed by key colleagues including Dr. Rick Stepp at the University of Florida, and Dr. Mike Robbins at the University of Missouri, was spawned by linguistic relativity. To illustrate, consider how rapidly human languages are dying out across the world (there are fewer than 5,000 still spoken across the globe today, and many are going extinct at an alarming rate). Accordingly, there is a tremendous urgency to safeguard valuable, abstract human knowledge systems, by documenting as much about human languages as we can. I believe the implications for discovering how people think, and what they know and understand about their own plant and animal resources, are exciting and challenging for any scholar or applied social scientist interested in promoting and protecting human bio-cultural diversity.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

That would be a handheld GPS unit I finally purchased. It has helped me identify, relocate, and return to various parts of the Ozarks where I’m doing some field research on plant communities, ecosystems and watersheds. I’ve needed to be able to have a solid geographic reference point, and it has been a wise purchase.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

There’s a fantastic software program called Visual Anthropac. It allows one to visualize patterns in data collected once a field study has been conducted so that you can truly examine, comprehend, and extend one’s research directions more effectively. Visual Anthropac helps one actually understand what’s happening in terms of data trends, and how people are thinking about, recognizing, categorizing and conceptualizing their worlds.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Raw and the Cooked by Claude Lévi-Strauss. I believe this book has the capacity to open minds and inspire creative ways of thinking, whether you’re an academic or not.

What is your favorite quote?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever really has.” – Margaret Mead

Key Learnings:

● Always have a little notebook on you so you can scribble any ideas you come up with for later. Make notes on anything that you find inspiring!
● Read as much and as often as you can, and be aware of new academic works in related disciplines and how they may articulate with your own interests.
● Strive to maintain an appropriate pace while teaching; in other words, “keep one foot in the audience” to keep students engaged and connected in the classroom.
● Don’t overcommit or extend yourself beyond your capacity to deliver. Sometimes less is more.