This year Hamilton welcomed eight new tenure-track faculty members. Student writers from the Communications office recently interviewed these newest members of the faculty to find out why they chose Hamilton and what they think after their first semester on the Hill. Here’s Lynn Kim’s ’21 interview with Usman Hamid, instructor of Asian studies (some answers edited for brevity).
Why did you choose teaching?
I think it comes from a place of always wanting to learn. I didn’t think I was going to become a teacher, but my own love of learning led me to it. I remember taking a few classes where my mind was expanded, and the idea that one can do that for someone else — it was very attractive and I was drawn to it. I loved history, I loved talking about history with people, so that was how I ended up teaching.
B.A. and M.A., McGill University
Ph.D., University of Toronto
What were some of those life-changing classes?
One of the first ones was a class on early Islamic history. I had grown up in Pakistan, where you receive a narrative of Islamic history, of the Islamic past, and I remember taking that class and I found it so compelling. Both the professor who was teaching it — she was an amazing inspiration — and that class really opened my eyes and expanded my worldview. Then I took another class on “reading the premodern text” with a professor of European medieval literature and history. Just the fact that, after taking her class, I would read my own material so differently, it was really wonderful. It wasn’t just the data that I’d learned, but the new lenses that I’d been given.
Where have you previously studied and worked?
I grew up in Pakistan but moved to Canada for my secondary education. [As an] undergraduate at McGill, I started out as a business student, did my first degree in marketing, but kind of always enjoyed history and religion. As I started taking more electives in this field, I realized that this was what I really wanted to do. So I did my undergraduate in marketing and Middle Eastern/Islamic studies. And then I went into Euroslamic studies at McGill for my master’s. After that I went for my Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. I taught [there] for about four years. That was a really great experience and sort of cemented for me that I wanted to teach. I’d been teaching at the University of Toronto until I came here.
What attracted you to Hamilton?
There were a few things that attracted me to Hamilton and then a few things I fell in love with after I came. Hamilton has a strong commitment to undergraduate learning — that was something that really appealed to me. I take the idea of scholar-teacher seriously. I really enjoy connecting with undergraduates and teaching, so that drew me to Hamilton. It’s a strong liberal arts college, and in addition, its strong program in Asian studies really attracted me. It’s an institution that is very supportive. And after I came here, I have to say, [I discovered that] the quality of students is quite excellent, so I enjoy teaching because of that. Everyone is very collegial, and you really do get a sense of it being a community here, and that’s something that is very appealing coming from a big university.
Has there been anything that has surprised you?
Yeah, people aren’t joking about the “Hamily.” It’s sincere.
What do you like most about your students?
There’s both genuine curiosity and a willingness to think critically and take on more, to go above what is the bare minimum requirement. That’s something I really enjoy. I also appreciate — and this isn’t something that affects me as a teacher, but they have commitments outside the classroom, so whether that’s working with local communities or working more broadly on social issues, I find it very admirable and respect that.
After I came here, I have to say, [I discovered that] the quality of students is quite excellent, so I enjoy teaching because of that. Everyone is very collegial, and you really do get a sense of it being a community here, and that’s something that is very appealing coming from a big university.
Do you have any experiences from Hamilton that stick out to you?
There was a faculty member at Hamilton, Agha Shahid Ali, who was a very accomplished poet and also a translator of Urdu poetry, and discovering his personal archives in Burke Library’s Special Collections was a moment that was very impactful.
Could you talk a bit about your research?
I’m a historian of Islam in premodern or early modern South Asia. My focus is thinking about religion through material culture. I look at the ways in which religious materiality impacted or shaped devotion to the Prophet Muhammad in South Asia. In my dissertation work, I looked at relics of the Prophet Muhammad as they circulated from the Middle East to South Asia, and how this engendered new forms of devotion, ritual practices, and the creation of local sacred space.
What is one of your favorite places on campus?
I have a few. I would say [Café] Opus 1, the Root Glen, and the Wellin [Museum]. The Root Glen is incredibly beautiful and calming; I think we are very lucky to have it — we could all take a nature break. Opus 1 — not only is the food excellent, but it’s really a meeting space for students and faculty. The Wellin — coming in and seeing the first exhibition, Tightrope, I was like, “Wow, this is really fantastic,” and to have it right on campus; we’re really privileged.