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.