Insidehighered.com has an update on the controversy at Florida Atlantic University. The story quickly summarizes the event at the center of the affair, that is, having students write “Jesus” on a piece of paper put it on the floor, then asking them to step on it. The exercise isn’t the instructor’s invention. It comes out of a popular textbook entitled Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, which insidehighered.com covered in a related story a few days before.
In the latter piece, the author of the textbook explains the reason for the exercise: to have students understand the power of symbols, in his words in the book, “to drive home that point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.” This is an example of critical thinking pedagogy, one of whose aims is to bring implicit convictions to light and test them.
In the latest piece, we get the teacher’s perspective, including his allegation that the student was disciplined not for refusing the exercise but for threatening the instructor after class. (The teacher, Deandre Poole, is a one-year lecturer, not a regular faculty member.) He insists that he didn’t force anyone to step on the paper, and indeed, never expected most of the students to do so. The exercise focused, in fact, on people’s resistance to step on Jesus’ name, not on their proceeding to do so.
Poole reports receiving death threats and hate mail in the last week, and one hopes that the authorities have been notified and are tracing the perpetrators. He has been placed on leave by the school, which cites safety concerns, and we should repeat that instead of demanding Poole’s job and his head, critics should have argued against the exercise and left it at that.
Still, the response of the United Faculty of Florida doesn’t seem to realize that there is a problem with this kind of pedagogy. It released a statement deploring the response to the incident, raising all-too-predictable concerns about censorship and academic freedom, with even the clichéd allusion to Galileo. The statement indirectly characterizes the stepping exercise as “controversial material [that] might unintentionally” offend students, and such offense sometimes is necessary to “the advancement of knowledge.”
But asking students rub the soles of their shoes on the name of what some of them believe is their savior isn’t just a matter of introducing controversial material into the classroom. In this case, the teacher asks them to cooperate in a blasphemy. If a teacher assigns French philosophes or New Atheists who regard Christianity as the greatest abomination of Western civilization, students have no grounds to object. Christian students can pursue their studies without having to adopt the position of the anti-Christians, and if they say, “I don’t want to read this book,” the teacher can grade them accordingly. We recognize a difference, however, between making someone read a book and making someone actively desecrate a faith. The textbook and Poole both maintain that they don’t insist on having students go through with it, but at the moment they give the command, students don’t know that.
This is the duplicitous position that critical thinking pedagogy sometimes assumes. It places students in a position to challenge their own beliefs, to think about their assumptions, and the like, but to get them there it now and then fabricates activities like this one that push students over the ethical line. (Think of the exercises in the University of Delaware’s residential life curriculum.) When called on their coercions, teachers draw back and say, “We only wanted them to become critical thinkers, to think about their values and beliefs, not necessarily to violate them.” This exercise does solicit a violation, though, and the inability to draw the line between the study of controversial, offensive materials and participation in them is, to say the least, troubling.