Meet the Professor: Tahseen Shams

February 25, 2019 by Kate Paik

The Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto has a diverse faculty of professors who have a wide range of experiences. While they share backgrounds in sociology and its intersecting disciplines, each faculty member has individual experiences that have shaped their academic careers. In this series, we interview faculty at the St. George campus to acknowledge and share these stories, and get to know the influences behind their journeys.

Professor Tahseen Shams is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research interests involve the intersections of international migration, globalization, race/ethnicity, nationalism and religion, in order to understand how these topics affect immigrant groups. In this interview, she discusses the benefits and influences behind her career in sociology.

What led you to pursue a career in sociology?

This is a funny story! I was a college sophomore, majoring in neuroscience. I was required to take Intro to Sociology as one of the degree requirements. It was huge class and we were all packed in the room like canned sardines. The professor began her lecture with C Wright Mills’ concept of “the sociological imagination,” and the rest was history! I was always interested in history and sociology growing up. But, the idea that my biography and the society’s history are connected—that I live in society as much as society lives in me—was a life-changing way to look at the world. There was no going back after that. I often liken this experience to the moment in the movie The Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo the red and blue pills and Neo decides to take the red pill and enter the Matrix. I decided then that I wanted to keep exploring the world sociologically and changed my major to sociology the day after.

How did you narrow down your areas of research and ultimately decide your field?

My research interests stem from my personal story as a first-generation Bangladeshi American. My family and I had immigrated to the United States when I was a teenager. We settled in a small college town in Mississippi, which is overwhelmingly white, conservative, and Christian. My family and I were noticeably the only non-white and non-black folks for miles around. But my interactions in the first few weeks made me realize that my difference from most of the population there ran deeper than the color of my skin and my accent. It was also that I was raised Muslim and that we were now in post-9/11 America. I wanted to know if there were others like me in Mississippi and what their experiences were like. So, I launched an ethnographic research project during my senior year of college for my honours thesis. The findings of this year-long project led to a publication, the only one on Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants in Mississippi. While doing research for that undergraduate project, I fell in love with the literature on immigrant identities, race/ethnicity, and nationalism. I carried these passions with me to UCLA where I focused primarily on international migration.

What is one piece of advice you would give to students taking your classes?

I want my students to fall in love with sociology much like I did when I was an undergrad. I want my students to focus on the big picture rather than minute details. I want them to think about the ways in which the big concepts and ideas in sociology shape the world around them. And if they challenge these ideas and their own beliefs in the process, that would make me very happy indeed!