Image source: WPEC-TV
The Florida professor who made nationwide headlines with reports of his "stomp on Jesus" classroom assignment said the activity was straight out of an instructor's manual and meant to start a discussion about the meaning of symbols.
Florida Atlantic University professor Deandre Poole, who was placed on administrative leave last week, told Inside Higher Ed he never actually told anyone to "stomp" on Jesus, as was widely reported. He said students were told to write "Jesus" on a piece of paper and step on the paper. Poole said he'd used the exercise before in his intercultural communications class.
"I followed the directions from the instructor's guide," Poole told Inside Higher Ed this week in his first interview since the controversy erupted -- the result, he said, of the university telling him not to discuss the situation.
Poole said as far as he could tell, just one student in the class had an objection and refused to participate. He said the student asked repeatedly, "How dare you disrespect someone's religion?"
Poole didn't name the student, but junior Ryan Rotela was the one who came forward to news organizations and said he was suspended for not participating in the activity. Florida Atlantic University reversed course on punishing Rotela, but Poole said that's not the reason why he was disciplined: he told Inside Higher Ed the student went up to him after class, punching his fist into his other hand and saying "he wanted to hit me." Alarmed, Poole said he notified campus police and filed a report.
As for the accusations that he is anti-Christian, Poole said he's been involved in church all his life, has taught Sunday school and understands the importance of the word "Jesus" on a piece of paper.
“I am very religious,” he said. "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."
He said he's received hate mail and death threats in the two weeks since the story broke, including one referring specifically to his being black.
"One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree," Poole said. "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."
Poole's administrative leave was announced last week; he said he doesn't know whether he will return to the university, but would like to go back to work to keep teaching his students.
He said he does not think Florida Atlantic University defended his academic freedom in responding to the situation.
“I think as a matter of academic freedom, professors should have leeway in how they present materials to their students, especially in any intercultural classroom," he said.