The Spiegel-Batnitzky family had plenty to celebrate last semester. Both Adina Batnitzky, PhD, and her spouse, Avi Spiegel, PhD, JD were invited to join the USD faculty as assistant professors of sociology and political science, respectively. Just days after they came aboard, Spiegel's research in Middle East politics made him a sought-after media contact for ongoing coverage of the Arab Spring. He was featured on HuffingtonPost.com, Al Jazeera and many other news outlets. We caught up with this enthusiastic and service-minded couple to discuss their research, careers and family life.
Why did you want to come to USD?
AVI: USD is a place that allows us to pursue our complementary commitments to both research and teaching. We were attracted to the small class sizes and the strong commitment to a liberal arts education. Both provide a tremendous opportunity to engage students and have a real impact inside and outside the classroom.
ADINA: Being at USD means being on a campus that is stunning, serene and intellectually stimulating—and one that is engaged with the global community. It doesn't get better than that! Plus, many universities talk the talk about being family friendly, but USD walks the walk. In fact, our whole family comes to work together everyday—our daughter, Lilia, is a student in the Duckling Class at USD's Manchester Child Development Center.
Can you each tell us a little about your field?
ADINA: My research and professional experiences have all revolved around the intersection of gender, health and labor in a global/transnational context. My publications have included work on women's health and household labor in Morocco; on the built environment and obesity in India; and on embodied labor in London's globalized service sector.
My interdisciplinary graduate training at Brown University in the Department of Sociology led me to a postdoctoral fellowship in the School of Geography at Oxford University. There I examined the role of migrant workers in the UK's service sector economy focusing on issues of gender. I continued this research as a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin in the Department of Geography and the Environment. I am now embarking on a new project on health and ethnicity that takes a fresh look at health disparities in the Arab-American community.
AVI: My teaching and research centers around the comparative and international politics of the Middle East and North Africa. I am particularly interested, broadly speaking, in the relationships among religion, law and politics. How has political Islam transformed over the last half century? How do legal and illegal Islamist movements mobilize their supporters? Why do young people join certain Islamist movements over others? I rely on my extensive fieldwork, conducted in Arabic among young political activists in the Arab World, to make novel arguments about the future of political Islam. I am now completing a book on the next Islamist generation, based on this original research.
My graduate study was both international and interdisciplinary. I trained in religious studies at Harvard University, and in Middle East politics at Oxford University, where I earned my doctorate from St. Antony's College. Prior to Oxford, I completed a law degree from NYU, where I focused on international and comparative law, human rights and the relationship between law and religion.
"Being at USD means being on a campus that is stunning, serene and intellectually stimulating—and one that is engaged with the global community. It doesn't get better than that!"
Do the two of you work together on scholarly research? Can we look forward to any team-taught courses?
AVI: We spend a lot of time formulating intricate bedtime stories for our 3-year-old daughter, and probably even more time figuring out what to eat for dinner every night. But we also make time to do research together! Our work has always benefited from lively discussions and debates with each other. We have been by each other's side through each stage of our careers—from graduate school, to postdoctoral fellowships, and now as assistant professors.
ADINA: It is definitely our goal to continue to work together in the coming years. We have a co-authored article in preparation on religion and society in Tunisia. We're also hoping to offer an honors team-taught course soon on "Law and Society in the Middle East." The class will look at the intersection of law and politics in the development of the modern Middle East, drawing on my interests in comparative social change and Avi's background in law and politics.
Tell us about your teaching styles. What can undergraduates expect from your respective classes?
ADINA: My style is interactive and student-centered. I don't encourage rote memorization, but rather the emphasis is on developing critical thinking skills. I hope that students leave the classroom with a deep understanding of the material and the ability to apply the concepts to different contexts—whether it's health care reform or the global politics of obesity. I also enjoy integrating my own research into the classroom and giving the students a taste of career options post-graduation.
AVI: I am also highly interactive. I draw from the personal tutorial system that is famous at Oxford and a bit from the best of the Socratic method that is practiced at law school. I enjoy engaging students, working together to think critically about approaching the political challenges of the modern Middle East. I want my students to be able to address the problems of our day, by debating, by questioning and by re-considering any preconceptions they may have had. I want them to be able to stump the Secretary of State if she were to walk into class—and I am confident, after being here for a semester, that they could!
"Our work has always benefited from lively discussions and debates with each other. We have been by each other's side through each stage of our careers—from graduate school, to postdoctoral fellowships, and now as assistant professors."
I understand you both served in the Peace Corps and your host country was Morocco. Tell us about that experience. Is that where you met?
ADINA: Morocco has long played an important role in our lives. We both conducted doctoral research there for our dissertations. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I spent two years also immersed in Moroccan culture, but my experience was largely urban. I was based at a university teaching English to engineers and scientists, and was involved in maternal and child health education projects in nearby villages and towns.
AVI: During my Peace Corps service, I lived for two years in a small village as a youth development volunteer, working on issues of civic engagement, community activism, and access to education. I spent every day working alongside Moroccans, learning about Islam, conversing in Arabic, experiencing local rituals and traditions. I later returned to the country as a Fulbright scholar. Indeed, both of our experiences as Peace Corps volunteers were hugely significant to our careers and our lives. But we didn't meet in the Peace Corps! We actually met in Jerusalem in January 1997. We were both studying abroad during our junior year of college (I was coming from Georgetown and Adina was at Barnard College, Columbia University).
ADINA: I tell my students that there is no better way to learn about a country than to serve in the Peace Corps in it. There is also, by the way, no better way to learn a language (in our case, Arabic) than to live somewhere where English is not spoken. We had no choice but to become fluent.
AVI: I have long been a staunch proponent of the Peace Corps. In fact, I am going to make it my personal goal to get USD into the list of Top Peace Corps Producing Colleges! The Peace Corps is the perfect representation of this university, with its dedication to the public good and its strong commitment to international service.
What advice do you have for undergraduates who are thinking about becoming professors?
AVI: If you love reading and writing and teaching and investigating puzzles about the way the world works, then this job might be for you. We've had to do a lot of thinking about careers this year. 2010 was the hardest year of our lives. Adina suffered a near fatal subarachnoid hemorrhage, an event that set off months of intense suffering and profound uncertainty. She persevered through multiple surgeries in various cities throughout the country. And she beat the odds! Today, we feel so blessed that Adina has made such a miraculous recovery, and so fortunate to be able to spend our days doing something we love.
ADINA: One lesson, out of very many, that we learned from all this is: do something you are passionate about. Every day matters, and life is simply too short to spend it doing something you are ambivalent about. So follow your heart!
- Anne Malinoski '11