Three weeks ago, Florida Atlantic University student Ryan Rotela was suspended from his Intercultural Communication class for refusing to step on a piece of paper with the word “Jesus” on it. It’s sort of an odd story, so we’re going to go through it and try to get to the bottom of what really happened.
According to Rotela himself, this is how the story went down:
His professor, Dr. Deandre Poole, asked all of the students to take out a piece of paper and write “JESUS” in big letters.
Poole then asked the students to put the paper on the floor and stomp on it.
Rotela, a devout Mormon, was offended by the suggestion and refused to do it:
That’s when I picked up the paper from the floor and put it right back on the table… I said to the professor “With all due respect to your authority as a professor, I just do not believe what you told us to do was appropriate. I believe it was unprofessional and I was deeply offended by what you told me to do.”
… From that point on, I knew I had to do something about it, because I am not going to be sitting in a class having my religious rights desecrated.
A couple of days later, Rotella sought out Dr. Poole’s supervisor, Noemi Marin, to discuss his concerns. He has since been suspended from that class, and Marin told him not to go back.
That’s Rotela’s side of the story. (I have reached out to Dr. Poole to find out his side, but have yet to hear back. I’ll post an update if I do.)
If the story happened this exact way — a student felt personally offended by a class activity and was subsequently suspended because he spoke up — then I would agree, this is some grade-A baloney. But the key word here is “If.”
I’m no super-sleuth, but it just doesn’t pass the smell test for me…
I know I’m biased (because I would do a jig over the word “Jesus” without a second thought), and I don’t deny that, but I really don’t think that this story panned out exactly the way that we’ve been told by many many many media outlets.
So let’s dig a bit deeper.
First of all, the lesson came from the teacher’s edition of the textbook Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 5th Edition. Here is the part of the teacher’s guide that accompanies this lesson:
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.
Aha! So the point of the exercise was precisely to elicit Rotela’s exact reaction. It was expected that students would have a hard time stepping on the paper.
And I don’t want to call the student a liar, but I am doubtful that he said the “with all due respect” speech to his professor, mostly because humans don’t really speak like that, especially when they are in any kind of heightened emotional state.
It also seems that we’re not getting the complete story:
It is important to note, however, that there has been no direct finding of what exactly transpired in the classroom during that exercise. As such, it is unclear and unknown at this time whether these charges stemmed purely from Mr. Rotela’s refusal to participate in the exercise and/or his disclosure to the media of the events, or instead from other actions of Mr. Rotela.
So his suspension may have been due to any number of reasons going well beyond the reaction he had to the lesson. It’s unclear what went down until we hear from the professor and that hasn’t happened yet.
But that hasn’t stopped Florida Governor Rick Scott from putting in his own two cents (because I’m sure nothing else important is happening in Florida and maybe he needs to be doing some dry-runs for the 2016 elections, amirite?!). He released this letter to University System Chancellor Frank Brogan:
I am deeply disappointed in the recent actions of Florida Atlantic University (FAU) faculty [sic] that raises significant questions over students [sic] rights and the lessons being taught in our classroom [sic].
As we enter the week memorializing the events of Christ’s passion, this incident gave me great concern over the lessons we are teaching our students. Initial news reports said that Ryan Rotela, a student at the school, was suspended from class because he refused to participate in the activity. I am told that these reports are disputed by the university and that FAU has apologized for the activity.
Whether the student was reprimanded or whether an apology was given is in many ways inconsequentional [sic] to the larger issue of a professor’s poor judgement [sic]. The professor’s lesson was offensive, and even intolerant, to Christians and those of all faiths who deserve to be respected as Americans entitled to religious freedom.
Our public higher educational institutions are designed to shape the minds of Florida’s future leaders. We should provide educational leadership that is respectful of religious freedom of all people. Florida’s parents and students deserve nothing less.
I am requesting a report of the incident, how it was handled and a statement of the university’s policies to ensure this type of “lesson” will not occur again.
I DO NOT GET HOW THIS HAS GOTTEN SO OUT OF HAND!
What am I missing?!
And why is a government official stepping into college classrooms and saying which specific lessons they can and cannot use?!
Remember how a government official reacted when Jessica Ahlquist tried to stand up for her religious freedoms? (Hint: Her mayor was not super supportive.)
Regardless, the university apologized to everyone. Though, to be fair, it is something of a not-pology, more of a “we’re sorry if you were offended” type of thing:
“We sincerely apologize for any offense this has caused. Florida Atlantic University respects all religions and welcomes people of all faiths, backgrounds and beliefs… Contrary to some media reports, no students were forced to take part in the exercise; the instructor told all of the students in the class that they could choose whether or not to participate… While we do not comment on personnel matters, and while student privacy laws prevent us from commenting on any specific student at the University, we can confirm that no student has been expelled, suspended or disciplined by the University as a result of any activity that took place during this class… This exercise will not be used again…”
And this, my friends, is why I can never go into PR.
Because this is the statement that I would have released:
Maybe you guys need to stop being such big babies. This was an exercise to get the students to think about why it was so difficult to step on something as seemingly arbitrary as a word on paper. Did you consider that it could make students more empathetic? Like “Gee whiz, if i feel so strongly about Jesus, maybe someone feels the same way about Allah or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster!”? And “Why do I feel so uncomfortable about stepping on paper“?
I think you all need to take a deep breath and a step back from yourselves and think long and hard about why it is that everyone flies off the handle when someone does anything that challenges your values even slightly. What, do you think Jesus would send the student to Hell because a professor suggested that he put his foot on a piece of paper that the student had written “Jesus” on?
If you don’t like the way our professors teach, don’t go here. Don’t send your kids here. We’re in the business of opening their minds and that means coming face-to-face with ideas you’re uncomfortable with. Now stop acting acting like crazy people.
At any rate, where does all of this leave us?
Well, we’re witnessing what happens when Christians experience persecution (whether real or perceived), but that’s nothing new — Look at the DOMA or reproductive rights cases to see Christians complaining that their rights are somehow being infringed upon.
The problem here is that the reaction has gone viral before we know the whole story. This exercise was not anti-Christian, nor was it an innately bad or offensive exercise. The expectation was that most students wouldn’t want to jump on the word “Jesus,” just as very few people would want to stomp on their mother’s name written on paper. Symbols are powerful. That point should have been obvious.
I want to reiterate this: If the student did get suspended for refusing to “stomp on Jesus,” then the professor is most definitely in the wrong. But we don’t know if that is the case, and I think it’s a good lesson to all of us — believers and non-believers — to let the whole story be told before we jump to conclusions or cry wolf.