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Florida politicians and conservative pundits have been expressing outrage for the last week about an exercise in which students in a course on intercultural communications at Florida Atlantic University were allegedly told to "stomp on Jesus" (in the form of a paper with "Jesus" written on it).
The university has condemned the exercise and said that it will never be used again. Florida's governor has denounced the activity and asked for state policies to prevent it from ever being repeated in the state's higher education system. The university has also pointed out repeatedly that the instructor who used the lesson didn't think it up, but got the idea from an instructor's manual to a popular textbook.
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.
Neuliep said he has been stunned by how the exercise has been described and criticized in Florida. "I don't know what happened at FAU, so I really can't talk about that. Do I think the exercise has been misrepresented? Yes. Do I think the intent of the exercise has been misrepresented? Yes. The press accounts have inaccurately portrayed it as an attempt to stomp on Jesus."
The National Communication Association referred questions about Neuliep's lesson to Jamey Piland, associate professor of communication at Trinity Washington University. She said that she hadn't used the exercise, but understood its goals. Further, she said that a momentary feeling of discomfort or hurt by a student could contribute to a positive learning experience through discussion. "Universities are a place for dialogue and civic engagement, for understanding about difference and critical thinking," she said. "If an assignment like this, which is to engage students in open dialogue, has offended a student or several students, then that's where the conversation should begin."