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Tattoos in the Academic Setting: A Student’s View

December 16th, 2015 · No Comments · Uncategorized

In high school, I had an English teacher named Mr. Heyl. He was one of the best teachers in the English department. On the first day of class, he put a Jay-Z song on the SmartBoard and gave a lesson on the rhetorical devices Jay-Z used in his lyrics. Throughout the year in Mr. Heyl’s class, we learned that he was an avid lover of U2 and Springsteen, was a Shakespeare fanatic, and had a sleeve of tattoos adorning his left arm. The tattoos ranged from quotes from famous novels, including Wuthering Heights and 1984, to various figures in popular culture, including Bono. As the year progressed, we looked forward to hearing Mr. Heyl’s stories about his tattoos and what inspired them. This was especially interesting when we were reading the novels that his tattoos were based on, and we had the opportunity to hear what it was about the book that he felt connected to and which parts of the book he drew inspiration from. Mr. Heyl’s tattoos acted as an icebreaker and invitation for conversation. His tattoos broke down the wall between teacher and student, and also acted as a method for teaching.

Tattoos provide a way for students and teachers to connect on a more personal level, while still being professional. Tattoos in the academic setting can allow for teachers to be seen by the academy as more than just grant money and evaluation scores. Tattoos allow them to feel like an individual in a system that lacks individuality. There is, however, a well-documented stigma in society against tattoos. In a study conducted by Benjamin A. Martin and Chris S. Dula, it was indicated that some students have negative attitudes towards people with tattoos. Using the Martin Stigma Against Tattoos Survey (MSATS), attitudes towards people with tattoos were evaluated. The 17-item measure consisted of biased statements about people with tattoos, and participants responded using a 6-point Likert scale that was anchored by “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree” (Martin, 2010). The results of this survey indicated that stereotypes about tattoos and people with tattoos – that they are unsuccessful in school, have poor decision making skills, usually obtain body modifications while intoxicated – are still prevalent in society today (Martin, 2010). In a similar study conducted by Dr. David B. Wiseman, four photographs of the same woman were shown to student participants. In three of the photographs, the woman was depicted with tattoos on her arms. When these three photographs were compared with the tattoo-less image, they were rated lower on their perceived level of organization, ability to manage the classroom, convey material effectively, and sympathize with students, and they were rated more poorly as a teacher (Wiseman, 2010).

While some students view tattoos negatively, others view teachers more positively in some aspects. In the same study conducted by Dr. David B. Wiseman, the woman who was depicted with the tattoos was rated more highly as a motivator, more imaginative in regards to her assignments, and was more recommended to other students (Wiseman, 2010). Professors with tattoos may be viewed as more creative because of their ink and the stories behind them, and may be more recommended because students view them as more human than professors without tattoos. Professor David J. Leonard, an associate professor at Washington State University, has numerous tattoos adorning his body, as do at least six other professors in his department. In his article, “The Inked Academic Body”, Professor Leonard argues that tattoos challenge the stereotypes associated with professors – “tweed jackets [and] bookworm glasses”. They act as a way to humanize professors and make them more relatable (Leonard, 2012). In his experiences, students gravitate towards professors with tattoos because of their relatability. Professor Leonard asserts that “ink transcends race, class, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, ideology, and even sports loyalties” (Leonard, 2012). This is another way in which the barrier between student and teacher is broken down. Tattoos encourage people to see past the surface and communicate with those they might not typically converse with. Not only do tattoos act as a means for communication, but they also act as a method of teaching (Leonard, 2012). Using Mr. Heyl as an example, students can learn about both their teachers’ lives and the courses they teach (depending on the tattoos).

Tattoos in the academic setting do not only change how students view teachers, but also how the academy views them. In the eyes of the university, teachers are often reduced to simply grant money and numbers on evaluation scores, but “tattoos offer a space to disentangle … individual selves from the bureaucratic and corporate university” (Leonard, 2012). Tattoos act as a way for professors to show that they are more than just numbers. They are individuals who are “more performative, more political, more human” (Leonard, 2012). In a system that lacks individuality, tattoos provide teachers with a way to truly be seen by their students, co-workers, and the academic administration as an individual instead of a number or stiff figure in a tweed jacket.
Tattoos in the academic setting is a controversial topic, as there are studies and surveys that indicate a negative stigma associated with tattoos; however, there are many positives that come with tattoos. Students view professors with tattoos as more imaginative and motivational than their inkless counterparts (Wiseman, 2010). Professors with tattoos are also more highly recommended by students than those without tattoos (Wiseman, 2010). Professors with tattoos, like Professor Leonard, have noted that students are drawn to their tattoos because they break down barriers between teacher and student. Tattoos allow for the stereotypes often associated with professors to be challenged, and allow for the academy to view professors as more than just numbers – whether it be grant money or evaluation scores (Leonard, 2012).

Having a teacher with tattoos, like Mr. Heyl, was an interesting and incredible experience. In high school, Mr. Heyl was the teacher that we felt we could go to with our problems because he always had a life lesson (in the form of a tattoo) that could relate to us and help us. To his students, Mr. Heyl seemed more human than the other teachers who seemed to be there only to test our memorization skills. Mr. Heyl not only taught us about rhetorical devices and well-known novels, but he also gave us wonderful life lessons and advice to take with us into the future. He helped us learn from his past experiences, stories, and tattoos. My year in Mr. Heyl’s class and his untraditional teaching style have greatly influenced who I am today, and I firmly believe that if it were not for his tattoos and using them as a method of instruction, not only would I be different, but so would my classmates. Mr. Heyl successfully changed our predisposed perceptions of teachers with tattoos for the better. His life lessons are something that each of us took with us after we left his classroom and as we move to the future.

Works Cited:
Leonard, David J. “The Inked Academic Body.” Chronicle of Higher Education. (2012): B2. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Martin, Benjamin A., and Chris S. Dula. “More than Skin Deep: Perceptions of, and Stigma Against, Tattoos.” College Student Journal 44.1 (2010): 200-206. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Wiseman, David B. “Perceptions of a Tattooed College Instructor.” Psychological Reports. 106.3 (2010): 845-850. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2015


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