Working together: Interview with Maheen Zaman

Miles Christopher, Staff Writer 

The following is an interview with Professor Maheen Zaman who is an Assistant Professor of the History Department. He’s been at Augsburg since the fall of 2014. He was previously a teaching assistant at Columbia University where he received his Ph.D. He teaches courses in global history, Islamic history, and some specialty courses like Islamic America and Asian American identities. 

MC: Why did you choose to go and work in the higher education field?

MZ: I was a pre-med student like a lot of good South Asian immigrants of a certain class. And I was a biochem major and a philosophy major. I became a philosophy major for two reasons. One, I had a lot of questions about the world, religion, all these kinds of things, but I didn’t have the language to articulate those questions, let alone have answers. And I took a class on philosophy over one summer, and I learned that this is where you sharpen your analytical skills by grasping complex languages. And also, philosophy classes in my university fulfilled a lot of what you would call ‘LAF requirements.’ Philosophy of science, philosophy of math, logic, just one after the other. I was a bio-chem major for three years – four years – and remember the day that I switched; I’m not gonna go to medical school, I want to go to higher ed. 

But before that decision, I had, you know, these experiences in high school and college where I fell in love with history, philosophy, anthropology, all kinds of courses in humanities. And I wasn’t expected to pursue those things at all, but in my junior year, when the 9/11 terrorist attack happened, I was dramatically affected by that, and I decided from then on that I wanted something…that would contribute to the world in more significant ways than just being an ordinary doctor. Because I wasn’t going to be any special doctor; I would have just been a regular passable person. I said, okay, but this other field I want to be part of a conversation, a discussion and some sort of organized manner where I affect some good in the world, and I thought education would be the venue because I am four generations, deep of college professors now. My great-grandfather and one of my grandfathers from the other side, many of my aunts and uncles, and now me.


MC: Were there any other educational barriers that you faced? Do you think there are any that you can see in the Augsburg population as a whole now?

MZ: Although I have a couple of generations of people in universities and colleges, they’re in the British system, in South Asia and Bangladesh. So when we got to America, my parents did not know how to navigate the particular collegiate system here and did not know what grad study looked like, but in terms of financial barriers? No, I didn’t have any of that, I haven’t had since fourth grade. It was challenging to relate to students at Augsburg when I first got here. The amount of outside of school hours students spend working, as full-time employees and students sometimes. It’s mind-boggling they can do two at the same time. I worked only a couple hours of time for pocket change so I could buy fun food. Ten hours, twelve hours, twenty hours, thirty hours? That’s unimaginable, and that seems to the biggest barrier for students that I see. They work, that’s time from their studies and other things taken away by the responsibilities – financial responsibilities and responsibilities toward their family. So, there’s a huge dissimilarity between my experience and the average Augsburg student’s experience.

MC: Do you have any advice, in-or beyond your field that you think could be helpful for students?

MZ: In my Islamic American class, we take students to visit an organization in Queens, New York called DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving). They are a political education and movement organization, and they have this mantra, ‘Be an organizer, not an activist.’ So, I tell that to students too, learn to organize and become organizers. Put the community along with the self, whereas the notion of activism… it prioritizes the self, and the self’s expression over the community and those things will fizzle out and they also repulse the general population, like the great ‘Awakening’ as some people call it. We’re seeing that in the Democratic primary as well, the ‘wokest’ candidates have all fallen by the wayside. It’s who can actually get things done and organized.