Bringing the Safety Pin to the Classroom

How this JMS Professor is Creating a Safe Space for Students to Voice their Opinions

Vyshali Manivannan shows off her safety pin tattoo as she holds office hours.

By Safaa Khan

On Tuesday November 8, 2016 – election day – Professor Vyshali Manivannan cancelled all of her classes. “My classes often have recent or first-time voters, and I want to give them the day to experience and celebrate their newfound civic responsibility—in addition to making it easier to simply get out there and vote,” she explained.

As a Ph.D. candidate and instructor for the Journalism and Media Studies program, she understands the need for guidance and well thought-out discussions intended help students grow. While her courses usually consist of slide shows, class discussions, and projects, they are vastly different than most lecture-style courses as they are meant to get students thinking about social and ethical issues within the consumerism and media world.

“I have always believed that teaching is not about learning by rote, or being assessed based on the regurgitation of facts, but about active, embodied learning—not learning what to think but how to think, and how to internalize new habits of critical inquiry, thought process, and writing. It’s like my father, who was a physics professor, used to say: that good teaching isn’t about being ‘a sage on the stage’ but being ‘a guide on the side,” said Manivannan.

The role of an educator is intensifying and becoming more and more personal, she says. Professors like her are utilizing current events as teaching elements, and are allowing students to question today’s political and social climate to create real-life case studies. “I personally have never pretended that the world is separate from the classroom, or that we check our bodies at the door when we enter academia. I’m deeply affected by the social and political climate, and I expect my students are, too. Learning is more than just a cerebral activity, and the world takes a toll on the body and therefore the mind. In all my classes, I find I am teaching more than just one subject; I am encouraging my students to develop and (most importantly) be able to clearly, logically articulate a political consciousness, no matter what their political leanings.”

Following the results of Brexit, a new movement spread throughout the United Kingdom in which people wore safety pins. As a sign of solidarity, the safety pins were meant to let people from minority and marginalized groups know that the wearers stood by them as allies. After the United States 2016 Presidential election, people in the U.S. hopped on this bandwagon as well.

Professor Manivannan came into class the following week and told her students about the movement and how she’d decided to participate: she had a safety pin tattooed on her collar bone.

“I think I needed, for myself, a signifier that I belonged to a collective that did not want this, that was willing to stand up against it and unite to protect the vulnerable and disenfranchised. I wanted something that would permanently signify to those in need that I am willing to stand up for them.”

Being so distraught by the negative repercussions of the election results, she saw the need for an outlet that would allow students to talk it out. “My attitude as a professor is that if something needs to be addressed, it will be, and we’ll catch up on course material later. In this particular climate, where profoundly disheartening news breaks every morning, I make time in my classes for students to voice what they’ve seen, articulate how they feel, and discuss ways of resisting or speaking back. My classes are already about dissecting, challenging, and articulating problems with or reasons to support the dominant ideology, so spending class time going over the news doesn’t seem too far off from my underlying course objectives.”

Her tattoo is a symbol of both the movement and the spirit of her classroom: a safe space for students to question societal issues, come to realizations, and simply present their thoughts to the rest of the class.

“Despite being in a large lecture hall, I felt really comfortable raising my hand and sharing my thoughts, even on controversial issues,” says  JMS student Shazia Mansuri. Professor Manivannan never chose a side but always pushed us to challenge our ideas further and think critically about our opinions. It was really meaningful to be part of a classroom environment where everyone felt comfortable sharing their own lived experiences, because they were vital to the class curriculum.”

The safety pin movement quieted but Vyashali has no regrets about her tattoo. “It shows others that I will stand up for them. If I ever had any doubts, the tearful impromptu discussions I had with strangers on the subway, who saw the safety pin tattoo and flashed me a thumbs-up or commiserated with me or hugged it out before getting off at their stop—that sense that I was not alone in my convictions made it worth it.”