The textbook publisher behind what has been labeled the "stomp on Jesus" lesson taught by a Florida Atlantic University professor said that the idea behind the exercise has been misrepresented by the media.
"We are aware of the controversy over the use of a suggested exercise in the Instructor's Manual for Neuliep's Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach at Florida Atlantic University," a spokesperson from SAGE Publications told The Christian Post in an email on Tuesday.
"While we are not able to comment on this specific case, we do believe that some of the coverage has misrepresented the purpose of the exercise – which has been used by the author in his classes for over 30 years – to help students understand the often powerful meaning to people of symbols and to stimulate respectful discussion around this," the spokesperson continued.
The Florida Atlantic University professor incited uproar when he had his students write the name "Jesus" on a piece of paper and then step on it. A Mormon student who refused to participate in the exercise because he said it offended his religious convictions was suspended by the university. But Professor Deandre Poole said the suspension was not for refusing the exercise, but for threatening the professor.
Poole explained that the student, who later came forward to local news agencies and broke the story, asked the professor after the class "How dare you disrespect someone's religion?" and hit his balled fists into his other hand, saying that he wanted to hit the professor. Although the student did not carry out his threats, Poole notified campus security and filed a report.
Poole has been placed on administrative leave for safety reasons.
The professor has described himself as a committed Christian but following media and public uproar over his lesson he revealed that he is getting racial death threats over the incident.
"I am very religious," he said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. "I see how the name Jesus is symbolic. For people like myself, Jesus is my lord and savior. It's how I identify myself as a Christian."
Many Christians have expressed support for the Mormon student and criticized the exercise. But Poole, who is black, revealed that some have gone too far with threats.
"One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree," Poole said, sharing that he has received a flood of hate mail. "My safety has been in question. There are churches that want to march against me. There are people calling on the university to fire me.
"And it's all for doing my job. I was doing my job."
Jim Neuliep, professor of communication and media studies at St. Norbert College, in Wisconsin, who wrote the textbook in which the controversial lesson plan is included, told Inside Higher Ed that he did not intend for the instructions to come off as anti-religious.
What is more, the word "stomp" is never used, and the entire point of the exercise is to explore the reasons behind students being hesitant to step on the piece of paper.
"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 told Inside Higher Ed. "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."
Although FAU placed Poole on administrative leave, they criticized those wishing to judge him without knowing all the facts.
"We find it outrageous that critics of Dr. Poole immediately condemn his exercise without fully knowing the facts. When the university administration unilaterally claims that such an assignment will not be taught again without the consultation of the faculty member involved as well as the faculty at large, they shred the principles of academic freedom that legitimate the existence of the university and guide genuine scholarly inquiry," the university said in a statement.