"It was a normal class," recalled Deandre Poole, in recalling an exercise that upended his academic career.
He had used the classroom activity before, and wasn't particularly worried about it. "I followed the directions from the instructor's guide," he said. The course at Florida Atlantic University was in intercultural communications, and the exercise involves having students write "Jesus" on a piece of paper, and then asking them to step on it. When they hesitate, the instructor has an opening to discuss symbols and their meaning.
In the last two weeks, that activity -- though recommended in the instructor's guide to a popular textbook  -- has led to numerous press reports saying that Poole told his students to "stomp on Jesus," to criticism of the class from pundits nationwide and the governor of Florida, to a pledge by Florida Atlantic never to allow the exercise to be used again, to petitions seeking Poole's firing  (he's on a one-year contract, off the tenure track) and to death threats so numerous that the university on Friday announced that Poole has been placed on paid leave because his safety could not be assured on campus.
During the last two weeks, Poole said, he had been told by the university not to discuss the case, and he hasn't. But on Sunday night, he responded to a request from Inside Higher Ed and gave his first interview. "It's time for me to speak up," he said.
First off, Poole wants people to know that he never told anyone to "stomp on Jesus," to quote the headline widely used in articles criticizing him. He said he asked people to step on the piece of paper.
Poole said that, as best he could tell, only one student in the course had an objection. That student -- whom Poole did not name in the interview, but who has come forward in local news reports saying he was suspended for objecting to the exercise -- refused to participate and then said repeatedly, Poole said, "How dare you disrespect someone's religion?"
After class, the student came up to him, and made that statement again, this time hitting his balled fist into his other hand and saying that "he wanted to hit me." While the student did not do so, Poole said he was alarmed and notified campus security and filed a report on the student.
That action, he said, not the student's objection to the exercise, is why the student briefly faced disciplinary action. (Poole's account of course differs from that of the student. Here's a local news article  with the student's perspective. When Inside Higher Ed interviewed the student's lawyer  last week about reports that a threat was made, the lawyer strongly denied this, and said that charge was a pretext to punish the student for objecting to the exercise.)
Much of the critical commentary about Poole has suggested that he is anti-Christian. In fact, he said, he has been connected to churches all of his life, has served as a Sunday school teacher, and understands the power of the word "Jesus" on a piece of paper because he cares deeply about Jesus.
“I am very religious,” he said. "I see how the name Jesus is symbolic. For people like myself, Jesus is my lord and savior. It's how I identify myself as a Christian."
He noted that the idea behind the exercise isn't that students will actually step on Jesus, but that most will pause and that their discomfort sets off the discussion. He said he saw at least one student who did step on the paper, and talked about not feeling much of a connection to Jesus. But he said most didn't, and that was fine with him. No students, he said, were forced to do anything.
Hate Mail and Death Threats
The past two weeks, Poole said, have been extremely stressful. "I wake up in the morning not knowing what the day is going to bring."
He said he has received hate mail and death threats, some of them coming in forms particularly hurtful to an African American. "One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree," he said.
Reporters knock on his door, and he has had some days that he did not feel safe at his home and so stayed elsewhere. "My safety has been in question. There are churches that want to march against me. There are people calling on the university to fire me."
"And it's all for doing my job. I was doing my job."
The university placed Poole on paid leave on Friday, citing safety concerns, and assigned other instructors to take over all of his courses. The university said that Poole will not be on campus, "to prevent further disruption to the day-to-day operations" of the institution.
A Defense of Instruction That May Offend
A statement released Sunday by the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida said that the university erred in banning a classroom practice because some had been offended. "Although it is never the intention of a faculty member to offend his/her students, at times controversial material might unintentionally do so. As a result, we then use the classroom to discuss the controversy in a forthright and honest manner. But offense alone never justifies immediate censorship of the material and/or the pedagogy. Galileo offended critics by claiming the earth was not the center of the solar system. Some groups continue to be offended by evolutionary theory. Offense, although to be avoided, sometimes accompanies the advancement of knowledge," said the statement.
"We find it outrageous that critics of Dr. Poole immediately condemn his exercise without fully knowing the facts. When the university administration unilaterally claims that such an assignment will not be taught again without the consultation of the faculty member involved as well as the faculty at large, they shred the principles of academic freedom that legitimate the existence of the university and guide genuine scholarly inquiry," it added. "It is time to defend academic freedom through the maelstrom of uninformed attacks since the controversy will eventually pass but the institution will remain. And the type of institution that remains will largely depend upon whether the core principles of academic freedom are preserved or not." (The union at FAU is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.)
Florida Atlantic did not respond to a request for comment on the statement.
Asked if he thought Florida Atlantic's response to the controversy had defended his academic freedom, Poole said "No." He pointed specifically to the university barring the use of an exercise for no reason other than that it had offended some people. “I think as a matter of academic freedom, professors should have leeway in how they present materials to their students, especially in any intercultural classroom," he said.
Will He Teach Again at Florida Atlantic?
The faculty union statement also raised the question of whether Poole will be able to return to his classes next semester. He is working on a one-year contract, and many have speculated that the university won't fire him, but will simply not renew the contract of an instructor who has been vilified by so many people. The faculty union statement said that if Poole isn't rehired, a message will have been sent.
"If Dr. Poole is dismissed from his teaching position for this incident, more is lost than simply a stellar instructor who has routinely received high praise from his students and supervisors," said the faculty statement. "Also lost will be the good faith of the faculty who placed their trust in an administration to defend the academic freedom that defines the university. Lost will be freedom of speech in the classroom to 'present and discuss academic subjects, frankly and forthrightly, without fear of censorship,' as is enshrined in our collective bargaining agreement. Lost will be the future scholars who will no longer want to work at an institution whose credibility has been tarnished. Lost will be the current scholars who leave our institution for others that respect academic freedom."
Poole said he has no idea if the university will renew his contract. But asked if he would like to return, he doesn't hesitate to say that he would. "I love my students and I want to continue to make a difference in their lives."