Faculty Interview: Lee Nabb, Morehead State University

After a four-year tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force as a security specialist, Dr Nabb attended Southern Illinois University, where he received a B.A. in Religious Studies with a minor in Classical Civilizations. He went on to study religion for one more year in Temple University’s Doctoral program in Religion, before changing paths and entering Northern Illinois University’s Adult and Continuing Education program, where he received a M.S. Ed. After this degree, he entered law school at Syracuse University and earned a J.D. Immediately after acquiring a license to practice law in New York, he moved to the Chicago suburbs and landed a job at International Environmental Services, a boutique consulting firm dealing with large-scale environmental contamination and workplace safety issues (mostly Superfund Site liability). Dr. Nabb worked that job for three years – receiving a license to practice law in Illinois along the way – before returning to school at the University of Wyoming, where he received a Ph.D. in Adult and Post-secondary Education. He worked at that institution for another year as a fixed-term instructor before acquiring a tenure track position in Adult and Higher Education at Morehead State University (MSU). He has been at MSU ever since, expanding and coordinating its programs in that field, which have included, among other things, and in collaboration with my esteemed colleagues, the creation of more than 15 new courses, substantial revisions of the MA and Ed. S. degree programs and the creation of an Adult and Higher Education specialization in the Educational Leadership Ed.D. program.

You are currently an Associate Professor of Foundational and Graduate Studies in Education at Morehead State University, where you specialize in authoritative social systems, among other subjects. Can you explain what are authoritative social systems and why this should be a subject of interest to teachers?

I suppose I may have coined the phrase authoritative systems. Authorities are entities that have the recognized power to manage, control or change various aspects of social life. Systems are the organized methods, plans and procedures by which things are done. So authoritative systems are the methods, plans and procedures used by authorities to manage, control or change society. In the U.S., the legal and political systems are paramount examples. Understanding at least the fundamental operation of these systems is important, not just for teachers, but for all citizens. One reason is so people understand that such systems were created by humans; so, by their very nature, they are limited and imperfect. Another is that authoritative systems are simply tools, being operated by those who know how use them. The final reason I’ll mention here is that, by understanding these systems, people can understand how to use them to advocate for their own interests instead of letting others make all the decisions.

Now I’ll elaborate a bit on each reason. Understanding that authoritative systems are imperfect is the first step in understanding that change can, indeed must, occur in such systems for the continual well-being and improvement of society. This understanding naturally leads to the question of how and when the systems, or their products, should be changed, which further leads to question of who should be able to change them, and, finally, the realization that ordinary citizens can and should play an active role in the maintenance of society through their authoritative systems. In fact, citizens can be much more active, and have much more power, in the utilization of authoritative systems for social change than they are often led to believe, which many argue is no accident. We go to great lengths to aggrandize the appearance and perceptions of our systems so that the great majority of society will continue to abide by them. After all, for such systems to function, they must be accepted and followed by those under their purviews. However, unmonitored, this action alone could be a major factor in the production hegemony on various levels. I’ll leave people to speculate and inquire for themselves whether the manifestation of this unhealthy byproduct is intentional or accidental.

Moving to the second reason above, authoritative systems are tools. Tools generally are made to serve the interests of those who create them and use them. History shows that these systems, in the case of the US, have served those in power and higher classes. Although the systems and the results they produce have improved over time, they are still imperfect and of human origin, which means they are still susceptible to containing and producing inequities. Moreover, those for whom a particular system is working well (i.e., those who are receiving the most benefits and suffering the least sacrifice or harm) are far less likely to question that system; and those who are running that system tend to run it according to the interests of which they are aware – most obvious among these interests are their own.

Addressing the final reason I mention above, all is not lost. Authoritative systems as tools can be used for equitable social change and maintenance. This kind of change requires those for whom the systems are not working well to get involved in those systems; and getting involved in their workings requires knowledge of the systems themselves and how they operate. People do not realize the power they already have as average citizens. That is, they can already do much in the way of advocacy; they just need to act. They don’t act because they don’t know the power they have. They don’t know the power they have because they don’t know the systems. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting such advocacy is easy. It is, however, doable. Knowing the authoritative systems, though, is necessary.

Adult educators should know more about these systems so they can navigate them to enhance the efficacy of their own practice. For instance, knowing copyright laws (or lack thereof) can help them decide how to manage informational resources in their classrooms (the list of other examples can get fairly lengthy). Also, adult educators who know the systems can teach their students how to advocate for themselves in those systems to improve their own lives. Teaching such knowledge is relevant to, and easily incorporated into, most content areas. Moreover, adult education is about social justice and change. Knowing how authoritative systems work is essential in making such change efficaciously. Adult educators must know the systems so they can transfer that knowledge to the people and communities that need to advocate for equitable social change.

You also have a special focus on social justice, which is an issue currently being discussed in every quarter of US society. What role should teachers be playing in this national conversation and how do you prepare them to fulfill that role?

I’ve already treated this partially in the answer to question one. But I’m glad to have the opportunity to elaborate. As I mentioned, social justice is an important part of adult education. More than ever, the topic is at the fore. I believe what we are witnessing is the manifestation of a chronic issue. As laws become ever more prevalent in our lives, our collective knowledge of them – the systems that create and maintain them – is waning. Decades ago, adult educators were much more involved in the social change taking place. Now, as a field (small pockets excepted), adult education seems inactive, almost detached from social ills and issues taking place. In fact, the field has been so ineffectual in matters where authoritative systems are at work, the changes such systems are making have reached the field, and not in good ways. Adult education as a field of study is under attack and at risk of diminishing in effect exponentially. The remedy is simple – not easy, but simple. Adult educators at all levels must get involved in the authoritative systems and begin advocating for the field, and for those who need help and guidance in our communities. By doing so, they then set procedural and substantial examples for all adult citizens to learn from and follow. I should mention that in addition to adult educators acting individually, they need to form organized (interest) groups that can wield the power of numbers.

Your professional credentials include licenses to practice law in Illinois and New York. Has your legal training influenced your perspective on education in any way?

Yes it has. I think readers can gather just how from my answers to questions one and two. However, as I suppose professors are prone to do, I’ll elaborate a bit more. Long ago, I was in a doctoral program in religious studies at an east coast university, the campus of which was located in an economically deprived area of inner city Philadelphia. I lived on campus, so I was continuously exposed to all manner of social ills. I had other reasons for switch tracks to adult education, but among the most significant was that I couldn’t reconcile going into a high-rise classroom and office building to think lofty, abstract thoughts about existence and transcendence while so much wrong was happening right below me. I left the religious studies program and found adult education. During my master’s degree program, I realized that efforts for social change were being hampered by a lack of knowledge of the authoritative systems by which such change could most effectively occur. So, after I graduated, I went to law school. After law school, I worked for a few years in the field before going back to get my Ph.D. in Adult and Post-secondary education and entering the professoriate. Now I incorporate knowledge about authoritative systems into my classes, and have had the opportunity to create programs where students can get as much knowledge as they want about authoritative systems and how to use them.

You’ve produced a number of scholarly contributions on the intersection of online learning, adult education, and diversity, specifically focusing on international ESL students. What have been the major conclusions of your research and how might educators be able to apply these insights in their practice?

The most obvious contribution of our research in international ESL is the importance of culturally responsive teaching. Culturally responsive teaching is being sensitive to the cultural characteristics that might otherwise keep international students from participating in learning experiences and learning effectively. I suppose, in other words, it’s about having enough respect for international students to learn about their cultures and how cultural differences might adversely affect learning, and taking measures to prevent unpleasant learning experiences and unwanted outcomes. Practiced educators in this regard can expand and enhance the learning of all students in a particular class – native and international.

We’re hoping to use these interviews to give a sense of individuality and character to the online EdD programs featured on Teach.com. What’s something unique about this EdD program or Morehead’s education college you can share with us?

Our EDD in Educational Leadership program has numerous features that make it unique. It has three specializations from which students can choose – Adult and Higher Education, Educational Technology, and P-12 Administration. In any of these specializations, students have the ability to choose or craft their own 12-hour (four course) emphasis. The program is designed using a cohort model with the ability to finish in three years. Notwithstanding, knowing that life gets in the way sometimes, students have ten years to finish the program – they need not stick to the cohort design. The program requires all students to come to campus for a few days each summer. Other than this, the entire program, including capstone completion, can be done at a distance. Indeed, our multicultural faculty has designed the Adult and Higher Education specialization to have national appeal and relevance, with prefabricated emphases in Adult Education, Higher Education, Community College, Global Adult and Higher Education, and ESL as well as Legal and/or Policy studies in Adult and/or Higher Education.

Thanks Lee!