Aisha Jamal: Classrooms and Big Screens

Aisha Jamal

An assistant professor of German language at Trent University and accomplished filmmaker, Aisha Jamal (BA ’02) completed a double major in international relations and German during her undergraduate degree at UBC.

Aisha’s research focuses on German filmmakers of immigrant background, exploring issues of belonging, ethnic identity and nationhood – themes which draw heavily from her background in international relations.

A filmmaker herself, she produced and directed her first documentary entitled Dolls and Bombs in 2008, featuring Afghan children talking about what it was like to grow up in a country at war. Later, she directed Stories from Little Kabul, on the everyday lives of Afghan-Americans in Fremont, California – home to the largest community of Afghans in North America.

In her day-to-day life as a professor, Aisha spends most of her time preparing for classes, teaching, marking, and organizing talks. Through connecting with hundreds of students, she also reflects on her own time as an undergraduate.

“In many ways, UBC never left me,” she commented. “Even in my teaching, I often think about some of my favourite professors at UBC, and it really helps. There was one that really stood out in particular, in German, and once in a while I’ll reflect on his teaching and think about how his passion and knowledge have informed what I do.”

While Aisha acknowledges that an increased focus on the economy has shifted the dialogue around universities as a career training ground, she is confident that the arts and humanities have a valuable role to play in all disciplines, even shaping the foundations for business and science.

“The arts and humanities really inform everything.  As a professor, I often hear this discussion about what the use of these languages is,” she said. “Even if you’re going to go into business, German is a business language, so you can’t just get rid of that as a discipline, or fail to see the value in it.”

Aisha believes that what students can do with their major becomes clearer to them over time. As a student, and later as a professor, she has seen countless examples of creative applications of degrees, and encourages students to explore and pursue their interests.

“I have a friend who did a degree in sociology, and she now runs a business concentrating on photography for NGOs [non-governmental organizations],” she said. “People like working with her because she has a background that allows her to understand different kinds of social structures.”

Aisha also advises students to go beyond their comfort zone, and be open to studying things that they may not already have a background in. As a student, she was apprehensive about registering for an 18th century literature course, but it was the only one that fit her schedule. She ended up enjoying it far more than any of her other courses that semester.

“It taught me a really big lesson about being open to doing something that I wasn’t necessarily already comfortable with,” said Aisha. “As a student, don’t feel like you have to come fully formed to university with everything already in your head – you’re there to learn.”

Aisha is currently working on Bridge Club, a short documentary about a senior citizen bridge club in Peterborough, Ontario that has been meeting for about 40 years. With the help of an Ontario Arts Council grant, she is collaborating with Sarah Shamash, also a UBC Arts alumna, on Telling Traces, which will be launched this summer.