A Crash Course in Symbolism

A Florida professor's efforts to teach intercultural communication has him under fire from conservatives.

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(The Root) -- These days, Deandre Poole spends more time than he'd like at home, staring at a computer screen, grading assignments and answering student questions for a communications course at Florida Atlantic University. "Teaching online is a new experience," he told me Friday, on the phone from his home in South Florida. "It's very different than face-to-face interaction. I'm a people person."

This spring the 33-year-old Florida native was yanked out of the state university's classroom for his own safety after getting death threats and promises he'd be "swinging by a tree." It was just part of the fallout after a student angrily confronted him about a classroom exercise this February. By March there were breathless television reports about the student's complaint, furious letters from Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio and a mob of fired-up conservative Christians on the Internet. In May, Florida Atlantic University's president resigned, citing fallout over this and other incidents.        

As with the prematurely fired Obama administration official Shirley Sherrod, Poole's predicament shows that when institutions face media and political heat, increasingly the rule is: Act first, investigate later. It's bad enough when the click-seeking media inflame anti-intellectual attitudes, such as when a Fox anchor berated a California scholar, Reza Aslan, for writing a book on Jesus when he is Muslim. But it is even more dangerous when politicians brazenly use ideology and not facts to police public education. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels sought to ban books written by the historian Howard Zinn. In Texas, public schools are still teaching creationism.

"People from different cultures attached different meanings to different symbols," said Poole, who holds a Ph.D. in communication and culture from Howard University. "I think most people realize the attention that I've gotten has been political in nature."

The trouble began in February when Poole used a textbook exercise developed 30 years ago by a professor at a Catholic university to teach about intercultural communication and the power of symbols. He asked the students to write the letters J-E-S-U-S on a piece of paper. He asked them to put them on the floor. And then asked them to step on the paper.

"Only about two students in the class actually did it," said Poole, who is a Christian. The rest of the class didn't, and they had a conversation about why, depending on your point of view, it was more than just ink on a page. One abstaining student was Ryan Rotela, who became a devout Mormon while in prison. Rotela loudly refused to participate in the exercise while repeatedly addressing Poole as "brother" over Poole's objections. Rotela became so agitated that Poole decided to end the class early.

Rotela stayed after class and continued to confront Poole, balling up his fists, threatening violence and demanding that Poole never do the exercise again, according to a lengthy faculty-senate investigation corroborated by another student who also stayed after class.

Poole told the student to leave, alerted campus security and wrote an incident report about the threats. "I did not feel comfortable with him back in the classroom," Poole said. "These days, you've got to take these things seriously."

When Rotela got a letter from the university informing him that he was being investigated for the threats to Poole in March, he contacted WPEC Channel 12 news, which ran with the story of his supposed persecution. Several local news outlets went on air with false reports of the student being punished for refusing to do the "Jesus Stomp." Lawyers with the conservative Christian Texas-based Liberty Institute swooped in, met with the university president and demanded that the university fire Poole.  

FAU President Mary Jane Saunders did not contact Poole directly before approving a message from the university apologizing for Poole's exercise and vowing to ban the exercise in the future, and promising that the student would not be punished.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM