Cultivating the Moral Imagination With 2021 ASMCUE Plenary Speaker Mays Imad

April 29, 2021

Dr. Mays Imad
Dr. Mays Imad
Have you wondered how to better guide your students through traumatic times? Attendees at ASM’s 2021 Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE) will explore the theme “Re-Examining Our Relationships with Our Students, Colleagues and Ourselves” with Dr. Mays Imad, the closing plenary speaker. Imad is a professor in the department of Life and Physical Sciences at Pima Community College, and is currently researching how stress, trauma, resilience and self-advocacy can impact students' learning experience. She sat down with us to share her story and how she envisions developing better relationships with students. 

Radical Hospitality in Practice 

"I'm an immigrant, and I had to learn to speak English in my sophomore year in high school, and even when you learn to speak English, you are always playing catch-up because there are nuances and cultural references and thing you didn't get in the first 14 years.” Her memories of feeling like an outsider and being excluded served as formative experiences that help her to identify with her students today. “There’s the language factor, then there’s the stranger to the land factor. When I walk into any place, I have those 2 lenses.” 

By connecting with her students and working to understand their commitment to success, Imad is better able to create a space for students to flourish to their potential. “Certainly, when you are a student, we are trying to shape our identities and find out who we are, there is this element of belonging, or lack thereof. Add to that the fact that I came from a country (Iraq) that suffered multiple wars, and [was] part of the embargo. There was always this identifying with those who are marginalized and at a disadvantage. Those are just some of the layers that contributed to then me first being a student, and trying to fit in and trying to convince myself that I am capable academically, that I belong academically. Fast forward to when I became a teacher and I began to see myself in my students. Their struggles, their aspirations, their work ethics, this raw desire to learn and succeed. I think I understood my struggle even more. It’s personal, and it’s informed by working with students who are first generation, refugees and immigrants, and any educator who works in that environment will have a unique and a formed understanding of how to teach STEM.” Imad calls creating this kind of space “radical hospitality.”  

To Imad, radical hospitality means “I need to be comfortable with me, a human that has contradictions and struggles and is trying to understand. Then there is the relationship with others, who are really, if you think about it, they are mirrors for us. When I think about radical hospitality with respect to the classroom, I think the students are there and we welcome all of them. I welcome the aspect of you that fits in the class, and I also welcome the aspect of you that is struggling, that is resisting, that has contradictions. 

When I convey to you that I welcome all of your aspects, that allows for safety to be fostered. You can then have the courage to try to fail to get back up to investigate the world within an outside." One of her primary tenants is to welcome all students into the classroom as her equals. Imad says, in her experience, students are better prepared to navigate the challenges they face when treated as peers. There are some messages you can use to create radical hospitality, such as “You matter, you are more than a number and I will advocate for you.”  

Imad recommends not only welcoming students as peers, but also empowering them to set future goals. “I don’t see enough about speaking with students, using language that gets them [to envision] their future,” she says. “Not just imagination or hypotheticals, but taking ownership of their future.” She asks students: “What kind of doctor do you want be? Describe it. What kind of grant will you write? How will it be unique?” and “Tell me about something that moved you and make it part of a personal statement.” Using this technique helps students feel engaged in building their academic careers and empowered to take ownership of their future. Thinking about the future and what could happen is a large part of having an imagination, but the moral imagination takes it a bit further.  The moral imagination includes thinking, “what are the consequences of what I do now, and how can what I do now play a role in forging a better world, not just for me, but my fellow human beings, and the environment.” 

[When] cultivating the moral imagination, solving the problems in the world is part of this story. How can we build a world that allows people to thrive, that allows the environment to thrive. That moral imagination allows us to see a connection between me and the water crisis somewhere, and my local community trying to thrive.” 

Humanize the Classroom 

This process of radical hospitality humanizes classrooms. Imad asks: “What makes us feel like we are in the presence of a human, and not a machine? Emotions and thoughts that we can identify with. Stories are really powerful. Stories connect, stories inspire. By including stories and reflection in student’s education, educators incorporate dimensions of the humanities that have been left out of STEM, like beauty. These basic mechanisms don’t just allow people to live, they allow people to fly and they inspire students to pursue innovation and discovery. By providing students with a safe, welcoming and inclusive space to share their story and connect to their work, educators assist them in growing and developing as professionals, researchers and scientists; and help them connect with their work and feel inspired to learn.” 

Imad is dedicated to inspiring students to learn, because her mentor's investment in her helped her cultivate a sense of belonging and acceptance in academia. "I had an elementary school teacher who made a brave choice, during a time of war, to go and visit students individually to deliver educational materials,” she recalls. “This teacher looked upon us as equals and talked to us. She offered us an opportunity to rise up and meet her there, and this motivated me to do the same.” Imad finds that when she offers students the same opportunities, they rise to the challenge and take more responsibility for their learning experiences. 

Cultivating the Moral Imagination  

At 2021 ASMCUE, Imad plans to speak on how cultivating the moral imagination will help us to become more successful students, mentors and/or educators. By cultivating the moral imagination, students are ready to tackle difficult problems and contribute to democratic society. Furthermore, this approach helps to build a world that allows people and the environment to thrive. To tackle the social issues that are a part of STEM education, science must collaborate with other disciplines—ethics, philosophy and the arts—and bring those components into undergraduate education. Imad leans on other disciplines in her vision of cultivating the moral imagination, and by doing this, students are provided with a "holistic education, so when they encounter problems, they look to solve them, in the most beautiful, efficient and equitable way.” 

Mays Imad will be a plenary speaker at ASMCUE July 1, 2021, 5:30pm Eastern Time. 

Author: John Buchner, Ph.D.

John Buchner, Ph.D.
John Buchner, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park.