But the textbook author who came up with the idea of asking students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then step on it says the activity was never intended to denigrate Christianity and usually bolsters the faith of his own students.
“I don’t know what happened at FAU,” said James Neuliep, a professor of communication and media studies at St. Norbert College, a 2,200-student Catholic school near Green Bay, Wis.
“In my classroom, when I use it, it’s done respectfully. The students walk away having reaffirmed their faith. It’s not an attack, it’s a reaffirmation,” Neuliep said.
Neuliep wrote the textbook “Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach” and an accompanying instructor’s manual that includes the exercise that ignited the firestorm at FAU. He said the text has been used by hundreds of colleges.
“This exercise is a bit sensitive,” the manual says, “but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.”
The manual says the teacher should have students write “Jesus” on a piece of paper, then put the paper on the floor and “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.”
When FAU instructor Deandre Poole conducted the exercise in an intercultural communications class on FAU’s Davie campus on March 4, student Ryan Rotela said he raised objections. Rotela said Poole brushed off his concerns in class.
When he tried to talk to Poole about it afterward, Rotela said the instructor told him to leave the classroom.
Poole, who is also vice chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, has not responded to requests to offer his version of what happened.
Rotela complained to Poole’s supervisor about the exercise and, a few days later, received a letter from an FAU associate dean telling him he had been charged with threatening his instructor. The letter told Rotela not to attend Poole’s class or contact students in the class until the matter was resolved.
Rotela then went to WPEC Channel 12 in West Palm Beach, which aired a report on Rotela’s complaint last week. FAU gave the TV station a statement defending the exercise.
But when the story began drawing more attention, FAU reversed course — apologizing for any offense the “Jesus” exercise caused, removing it from its curriculum and dropping the charge against Rotela.
Neuliep said the exercise has been part of the instructor’s manual for at least 10 years and he’s never heard of it causing any controversy until the case at FAU.
While Rotela said his class was asked to “stomp” on the paper with “Jesus” written on it, Neuliep emphasized that “nowhere does it say in the exercise to ‘stomp’ on this, it just doesn’t.” Neuliep said he hasn’t spoken to anyone at FAU and doesn’t know how the lesson was handled in Poole’s classroom.
The point of the exercise, Neuliep said, is to teach students about the power of words and symbols.
Neuliep used the word “cat” as an example. The word carries a specific meaning to a person who speaks English, but not to a Spanish speaker, who uses the word “gato.” In that sense, Neuliep said, the letters used to symbolize a cat are arbitrary and differ between cultures.
“They’re arbitrarily selected and learned. There’s no natural connection between a symbol and its referent,” Neuliep said. “However, and here’s the point, symbols clearly take on meaning. They’re unbelievably meaningful.”
He added: “At a Christian school, where I’m at, Jesus is an unbelievably powerful symbol. For students to recognize the power of symbols, that’s what drove the exercise. Not to attack the symbol — quite the opposite, to appreciate the symbol.”
In his own classes, Neuliep said, most students won’t step on the paper with “Jesus” written on it. When he asks them why, he said they typically give answers such as “Jesus is important” or “I love Jesus.” “Students, they get it. … They walk away understanding the importance of symbols,” Neuliep said.
Students are asked to write “Jesus” rather than the name of another religious figure “because we’re in the United States and this is probably the most important symbol. … It wouldn’t make sense to use somebody else’s religious prominent figure,” Neuliep said.
Neuliep said that if the exercise is conducted properly, students should not feel coerced to step on the paper.
“I would never, nor have I ever, forced a student to do this. That is not the point,” Neuliep said. “In fact, the point is knowing that they won’t do it. I accept that and then ask them, ‘Why won’t you do this?’ Then they reaffirm their faith.”