In conversation with Dr Shama Dossa

By US Desk
Fri, 08, 18

Dr. Shama Dossa is a community development practitioner, researcher and academic...


Dr. Shama Dossa is a community development practitioner, researcher and academic. Having done her PhD in Adult Education and Community Development, Dr. Dossa has over 10 years of teaching experience at international and leading national universities, and has been Associate Professor in the Social Development and Policy Program at Habib University (HU) since August 2017. Dr. Shama Dossa is the new Assistant Dean School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Habib University.

She is currently pursuing a post graduate certification in Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

What’s your vision with reference to your department/ university?

Habib University has been conceived as a preeminent institution of higher learning. It is dedicated to enriching the lives of its students, and engaging society through teaching, research and service. We have a core set of values articulated through the word Yohsin. The word Yohsin - derived from Arabic - encompasses five major paradigms: striving for excellence; appreciating esthetics (beauty); nurturing passion; respecting others; and serving the communities in which we reside. It is seen to incorporate a worldview where the worth of a person is measured not just in terms of the depth of their technical knowledge or skills, but by their interaction with nature and society at large. At the university we strive to inculcate these values.

Why did you choose to head the department of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS)?

I think this is a really interesting opportunity. As a social scientist and a Pakistani, I feel really passionate about this project and contributing to the field, which is why I returned to Pakistan. The Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities have been seriously neglected in the country and this is one of the few spaces where we have the opportunity to shift the narrative in the context of our country and our city, Karachi, but they also have a regional and global impact.

In addition, I think having women in leadership is important and we need to take the space to support equity and social justice in institutions. I am optimistic about the space and systems that can be created to make this possible.

In Pakistani context, we see students and teachers use these terms interchangeably. How would you differentiate between arts, humanities, and social sciences?

Yes, this is not uncommon because there are so many interlinkages, but there are disciplinary categorizations and boundaries that help explain the difference. For example, Humanities includes Philosophy, Law, History and Languages. Humanities, for me, is really about the study of ‘what makes us human?’ At HU, we are just starting a minor in Comparative Liberal Studies that covers Philosophy, History and Religious Studies. We also have a Comparative Literature Program. Social Sciences include disciplines such as Anthropology, Sociology, Political Sciences, Economics, etc.

At HU, we have a programme in Social Development and Policy that looks at both the theoretical and applied aspect of the Social Sciences – what we call an interdisciplinary approach. In terms of the Arts, you have multiple areas from performing arts like theatre and dance to visual arts like photography and film as well as mixed media sculpture, painting, illustration and design to literary tradition of storytelling and creative writing. However, I use storytelling and theatre as a social scientist to talk about my research and borrow from philosophy to describe by research lens – so you see the three sort of fit together and I can borrow from all three.

What’s the scope of these fields?

I think in Pakistan since there has been such a focus on specific professions like medicine engineering and business administration, there is room to expand and work in these disciplines as they are not saturated. Our students are able to work with a design degree for a design lab in a bank; or initiate a startup on culture and tourism; or decide to go for graduate studies in Muslim Cultures or Journalism or World History; or work as a programme manager for an NGO; or take the CSS exam and work for the government or pursue a career in research – so many exciting possibilities.

What facilities are available for the students at your department?

Students can take practical or theoretical courses – we have labs and film studios – they go on field visits and practicums and can also take transfer credits and summer abroad programmes at universities like Stanford and Berkley. We also have a multidisciplinary design space called the ‘playground’ which offers a unique opportunity to students. The playground is a community space, and a university-wide ecosystem, designed for creative collaborative work that helps transform the teaching and learning experience at Habib.

Through workshops, pop-ups and projects, students are able to learn, and apply their learning, across disciplines and media – from sewing to 3D printing, photography to film, board games to phone apps, wood work to metal work, and beyond. We also offer a startup incubation hub.

What does your department offer to students in terms of placement/career-counselling?

Many students do internships in summer and the career services office manages placements. In addition, Social Development and Policy Students have to do a six-week practicum which gives them exposure to the field. Our graduates have interned at design houses, international organizations, local community based organizations, government departments, policy think tanks and research groups.

How do you assess and maintain the performance of your department?

We have a robust appraisal system and a number of support systems including the office of Academic Performance and Writing Centre to support students. We also have financial aid and work study programme and faculty advising for students along with a well-resourced library and library staff. Faculty are constantly innovating in the classroom and can get grants to experiment and design new courses – for example, I just got funding for a new course on food security where the university is funding the construction of a bio-filtration plant in collaboration with Orangi Pilot Project and giving us space to set up an experimental plot for organic farming in our urban forest.

How do you deal with underachieving students?

Well, I guess for me it has to do with finding out what the root cause of the issue is. We have students who come from many backgrounds and the emotional and psychological elements become really important. We usually chat and see what solutions we can come up with together. Sometimes it is about time management and then I discuss these issues with the office of academic performance. My one pet peeve, though, is students who don’t meet deadlines with a good reason. The university does have workshops and advising sessions for students put on academic probation, so there is an early warning system. I think as an institution this is very important; we do not want to set up a student to fail.

How do you improve the quality of teaching and the learning process? For example, what would you do if a senior member of your team was falling down in some area of practice, or refusing to implement a department policy?

I think understanding people and open communication is the best way to address faculty performance concerns. It is also important to address situations early and not wait for them to fester. I try to be as open and as fair as I can – I am still learning and will continue to learn.

What do you think the biggest challenges that this department/university faces?

As a new University, everyone here is taking a chance on an interesting and innovative project. We have only been open four years and so people are still waiting to see how things turn out. This is a challenge both for student enrolment and faculty recruitment. We are still developing systems and policies, so a lot of extra work is involved. In addition, Pakistan has a constant issue with brain drain and we need to always attract the most interesting and innovative minds. Plus, we are largely a teaching university and many academics are not motivated to teach. So, finding the right mix of faculty is essential, but I do think we have a lot to offer as the first liberal arts university in Pakistan.

Is there any exchange programme/affiliation with the foreign universities of AHSS specifically? How do you assist students in getting scholarships, locally and internationally?

We have a study abroad programme with our partner universities in the United States. The university does offer partial scholarships for these programmes and a competitive process to get selected. Over eighty percent of our students receive some form of financial assistance either in the form of scholarships, loans or work study.

Does AHSS participate in community services?

We have a number of student clubs and students at the university can join them and take on service projects. We also have MoUs and research partnerships with community groups and field based courses and thesis projects that address local community concerns.

Name one thing about your department/ university that most people don’t know.

I think people may not have heard about the Playground and the space it offers for innovation – this is really cutting edge work and we have a lot of workshops open for the wider community to attend. Also, we have a number of public lectures that people outside the university can attend – just check our website and register – we host so many interesting and innovative discussions and talks and they are all free.

List three misconceptions that people often have about your department.

Many students coming to university hear about our liberal arts core but do not really understand what that means. The core is intended to give students insights and perspectives offered by humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and quantitative reasoning. These courses are categorized under seven forms of thought/action: Historical and Social Thought, Philosophical Thought, Writing and Expression, Natural Scientific Method and Analysis, Quantitative Reasoning and, Formal Reasoning and Creative Practice.

Your favourite research topics?

I have always been interested in the link between theory and practice in community development or what Paulo Freire calls praxis. Most of my research focuses in some way or the other on this topic. At present I am working on a research study focusing on Disaster Management and Gender Based Violence in Pakistan. I tend to use Action Research and Qualitative research methodologies.

Would you rather be liked or respected?

I guess respected – sometimes you have to take difficult decisions as an academic administrator which may not necessarily make everyone happy, but people can respect you for making the process fair and transparent.

How would your students describe you?

I am lucky to be seen by students as someone who is approachable and also pushes them to excel

Best compliment you’ve ever received?

Haha – we just had a radio show on campus and I was called “badass” – I like being seen as “badass!”

How do you handle criticism?

With self-reflection and calm

What do you worry about, and why?

Usually the political climate; the state of governance and injustice; if we have enough customers for the week at the restaurant I run with my brother and sister in Mozambique; did I remember to bring my cloth shopping bag, so I don’t have to take plastic …safety of friends working in conflict zones… random thoughts…

What are the titles of the last three books you have read?

I love fiction!

Americanaha by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaantje, and

All the Light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr.