Name: Natalie Khazaal
Department: Arabic Program, School of Modern Languages
Title: Assistant Professor of Arabic and Arab Culture
Hometown: Burgas, Bulgaria
Degree(s): Ph.D. Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California Los Angeles; M.A./B.A. Arab Studies, Sofia University
Who had the greatest influence on your education and/or career path?
My parents. My mom spent time with me when I started school, teaching me how to study and do well in class and buying me interesting books to read. Both my mom and dad having master’s degrees in electrical engineering served as an inspiration for my own intellectual development. My sixth-grade math teacher also instilled a sense of self-confidence when she would turn to me to ask about the answer to any question other students didn’t know how to answer. Not surprisingly, I did very well in math and physics and even considered doing a degree in that.
What’s the goal of your research? What do you hope to change with it?
My research is about the intersection between the most disenfranchised groups, specifically what media and language can tell us about them and their struggles. One of these groups is Arab atheists and how they struggle for acknowledgment and equal rights. I hope to contribute to normalizing the group, both as a subject of research and as part of Arab society, which isn’t as religious as many believe.
My latest co-edited book is about the two most disenfranchised, disempowered groups on the planet — first, non-human animals affected by humans, and second, human refugees/migrants and how we have failed both. With such work, I hope to contribute to bending the arc of history toward justice for these groups and for the planet.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
When I do research, I enjoy walking in the neighborhood and thinking about the issues I study, trying to form new ideas, and debating those that don’t work. I also enjoy working on second drafts after the most difficult task of putting thoughts on paper has been completed, and I can focus on how I should present them to my audience. Now that some of my work is out there and people occasionally reach out for interviews, I see how I can contribute to justice even more by getting the word out about injustices to broader audiences and hopefully making a difference for the groups that I study.
Why did you decide to teach at Georgia Tech, and what's the best part about working here?
I loved the faculty team I met when I interviewed for the job. I’ve worked at several other universities before, and the faculty team at Georgia Tech’s School of Modern Languages was the absolute best that I’ve met. That was a big incentive, so never underestimate how a good team of colleagues can be the best selling point! Georgia Tech is also one of the best technical schools in the world, and I love hard sciences like physics, math, engineering. I feel lucky and enjoy working with the bright and dedicated students here — they have been so cheerful and really do their homework.
What moment in Modern Languages/at Georgia Tech stands out as the most memorable?
The opportunity it presented for adopting a new Arabic book and curriculum. For a long time, I’ve been in places where I had to teach a book that I didn’t believe was effective, even though it was the default choice in most U.S. schools. For many years, I’ve wanted to change to a better one and the trust the Modern Languages team and administration had in me helped me achieve this. My colleague, Dr. Ahmed Ahmed, and I have tested the new curriculum for a year now, and I’m so happy how much more effective it is and how much more the students themselves like it and benefit from it.
What’s your favorite course to teach and why?
I have a soft spot for intermediate Arabic students and feel a lot of satisfaction seeing them grow more confident in their skills. They still like to play and be funny with the language, yet we speak as equals and communicate serious ideas. I also love teaching a course on globalization, culture, and the Middle East, because it presents an opportunity to talk about the most burning issues of our time, including minorities, refugees, the health of democracy, and the future of the planet.
Do you have any advice for Modern Languages students at Georgia Tech?
To speak up more often in class and have more confidence in their own contribution! For their project in my globalization class, two of my students created a student chapter for a refugee non-governmental organization. Their passion inspired me to write my book, Like an Animal: Critical Animal Studies Approaches to Borders, Displacement, and Othering. Students are such an inspiration to faculty when they do things they are truly passionate about.
When you're not working, what do you like to do?
I like oil painting and other art projects. I’ve painted portraits for some of my friends and family, and if you’re eager, you might be next. I also like fermenting foods because it’s like doing new experiments every time — you never know what you’ll end up with. My favorite so far is fermenting leafy greens like chard and collards and kale.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?
I probably would be an engineer or have a plant nursery.
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