There has been an unfortunate uproar around a class exercise that was attempted by Dr. Deandre Poole. He teaches Multi-Cultural Communication at Florida Atlantic University and to make the role of symbols concrete, he asked students to write JESUS on a piece of paper, put the paper on the ground, and then step on it.
The assumption behind the exercise is that most students won’t step on the paper and thus pointing out that symbols can be as meaningful to humans as the thing they represent. It was interesting exercise and comes from a standard textbook, which has been used for over 30 years. At FAU, Junior Ryan Rotela did not wait to reason for the exercise, but instead refused to participate (in even the future discussions apparently), and went to the media saying the Professor required all the students to “stomp” on Jesus. Fox News was outraged. Death threats followed. Poole has been put on administrative leave.
Jim Neuilipe, the author of textbook, has come forward and puts it all in to context for Inside Higher Ed.
Among those shocked by the uproar is Jim Neuliep, a professor of communication and media studies at St. Norbert College, in Wisconsin. He wrote the textbook involved — Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach — and its instructor’s guide. In an interview Wednesday, Neuliep said that he wasn’t in the classroom at Florida Atlantic and so doesn’t know exactly what happened there. But he said that the criticism of the exercise is wrong, that the lesson serves to demonstrate an important point in communication — and that it is not anti-religious.
And one thing he wants to stress is that the exercise never calls for anyone to “stomp” on Jesus, as the headlines from Florida have suggested.
Here is the text in which the instructor’s guide describes the exercise:
“This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings. Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”
Neuliep noted a few points in the exercise that he said were important. First, he noted that he used the word “step,” not “stomp.” Most important, he said, is that the exercise is done with the expectation that most students won’t step on the paper. And Neuliep said he has used the exercise in his own class, that hardly anyone steps on the paper, and that this is in fact the point.
One of the “most distinguishing features” of humans (compared to other animals) is the way they view symbols, some of which are quite powerful, he said. That’s the message of the exercise. When the students hesitate to step on the word “Jesus,” they understand that a piece of paper has meaning to them because of the word, which helps them understand the force of symbols, he added.
At St. Norbert, Neuliep said he has been doing the exercise for 30 years — without any complaints. He said that the discussion that follows tends to involve students “talking about how important Jesus is to them, and they defend why they won’t step on it. It reaffirms their faith.” And at the same time, he said, they learn about symbols.
Neuliep noted that a common question that has come up in commentary about the exercise — such as in this Fox News article — is why the exercise doesn’t call for students to write “Mohammed” on a piece of paper and to step on that. Neuliep said that the exercise was designed for us in the United States, where a majority of students wouldn’t have the reaction to “Mohammed” that they do to “Jesus.” If teaching the course in another country, he said, he might make the point with a different word, but for the exercise to work, the word needs to have real meaning to most students.
“If I asked them to write my name on the paper, they would step on it,” he said.
This is the state of learning in America. If you talk about critical ideas in a thoughtful way and you get put on administrative leave. The misunderstanding of science and of social science is outrageous. The Fox News style attacks on education are hurting this country. We need to support creative teachers and stop the misplaced outrage that goes on particularly from the far right and from religious conservatives.
Our ability to teach students to think, reason, and step on piece of paper (or not), is too important to ignore.