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The higher ed press has been abuzz lately with a story out of Florida Atlantic University, which began with a student claiming that he had been “suspended” for his refusal to take part in a classroom exercise. The student, a Mormon, was enrolled in a course in intercultural communication in which the professor “asked students in the class to write the word ‘Jesus’ on a piece of paper, fold it up, and step on it,” according to the student’s account .

When the story broke, the university’s public relations shop went into damage control—-especially after Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott denounced such goings-on at a public institution—-and said that no one had been suspended or otherwise punished for refusal to participate in the exercise, but that it would not be used again in any class on the campus.

But where did this “exercise” come from in the first place? Turns out it is in the instructor’s guide published as a companion to a leading textbook in the field, Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach , now in its fifth edition from Sage Publishing. The author is James Neuliep, a communication professor at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. Here is the relevant passage from the instructor’s guide—-the sort of book that will often include classroom exercises unmentioned in the student’s textbook precisely so that teachers can bring about an unexpected moment during class:

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.

Insider Higher Ed (where the text above can be found) picks up the story from here , talking to Neuliep, who relates 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.

Now, it may very well be that Jim Neuliep is a fabulous professor, who approaches this exercise himself with consummate sensitivity, as a way to ease his students into a fully aware confrontation with the nature of the sacred and the profane. But everything about the exercise—-if it should ever be done at all, a question to which I will return—-will depend on the pedagogical skill, the interpersonal sensitivity, and not least the motives of the instructor.

Look again at the barebones sketch of the exercise in the instructor’s guide. The instructor will “have” students write “JESUS” on a piece of paper. It is not folded, as in the initial reports out of Florida, but placed face up on the floor—-that is, students are “asked” to put it there in this fashion. Then they are “asked” to think about “it” for a moment—-the “it” presumably being the meaning of the name “JESUS.” Then they are “instructed” to step on it. The guide goes on, “Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper.”

All this “having” students do this, “asking” them to do that, and “instructing” them to do the other thing, as anyone knows with as much experience teaching college students as Professor Neuliep has (and I have over thirty years’ experience myself), is going to result, some of the time, in compliance—-sometimes immediate compliance, even from inwardly squeamish students. If a fairly anti-Christian professor—-and we know there are such creatures—-is stern and insistent enough, even given to badgering students or saying it’s “required” of them, more will do it. Much depends on how complaisant students are, and how imperious professors are. Things may be all warm and fuzzy in Neuliep’s classroom, but he cannot vouchsafe that the same conditions prevail elsewhere. This suggested exercise is an open invitation to the abuse of Christian students, whether Professor Neuliep intends it as such or not.

And that brings us to whether this exercise should ever  be employed even in the friendliest atmosphere with the “coolest” professor. Neuliep says that in his own experience most of the students won’t step on the paper. That means that evidently some of them will . And that means that a communication professor—-at a Catholic college—-is directly instructing his students to blaspheme the name of Jesus—-and sometimes he’s getting exactly that result. In short, he is telling his faithful students to sin, and some will do it, out of weakness, or respect for his authority, or even thoughtless curiosity about where he is going with this.

A fair description, in fact, of what this exercise expects of Christian students is a renunciation of the faith. Am I reading too much symbolic communication into the act? I don’t think so, and the charge that I am would sound strange coming from the professor of communication whose whole point in this exercise is to be “edgy” and push students to see the power of symbols and symbolic acts.

It’s not a happy thought, that a leading textbook in intercultural communication is accompanied by an instructor’s guide that suggests having students undertake an act of symbolic communication of a kind that early Christian saints went to their deaths as martyrs rather than commit. I think Professor Neuliep would be well advised to knock it off, and to take this out of future editions of his instructor’s guide.

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