While it may cost him his job, possibly, and his peace of mind, certainly, FAU Professor Deandre Poole's late February classroom exercise has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, indisputably.
Not since Gainesville pastor Terry Jones in 2010 got the Muslim world in an uproar by threatening to build a bonfire of Korans has the power of symbols to offend and cloud the mind been more conclusively proven, to the shame of the offended and their institutions.
That power was the point of Dr. Poole's instruction. And now he's in the crossfire for teaching it too well.
As all the world learned this week, Poole on that fateful February night had students in his communications class write the word "Jesus" on pieces of paper, place them on the floor and step on them. The exercise was drawn from a widely-used textbook whose author is a prominent scholar at a devoutly Norbertine, highly regarded Catholic liberal arts college. (Poole is himself, according to those who know him, a devout Christian.)
Offensive? The exercise is without force if the instruction does not offend. That's the whole point -- to learn the power of symbols through the emotional impact of seeing them degraded. Experience is the best teacher.
Most of what else happened that night is unclear (despite the certitude with which Poole has been denounced). Just one participant, the only known offended student in the class, Ryan Rotela, has publicly described it -- almost one month after the fact.
According to Rotela, as broadcast on local television news on the morning of March 21, he found the exercise objectionable and refused to step on the paper. (Rotela said Poole used the word "stomp." It does not appear in the textbook.) Rotela claimed he respectfully told Poole the exercise was inappropriate, unprofessional and deeply offensive.
According to CBS12 reporter Al Pefley, Rotela said Poole "showed no remorse."
"From that point on I knew I had to do something about it," Rotela then told the camera. "Because I'm not going to be sitting in a class having my religious rights desecrated."
According to the following day's Palm Beach Post:
Rotela said Poole brushed him off when he tried to object to doing the exercise.
After the class, Rotela said, he expressed his concerns to Poole and said he would tell Poole's supervisor and the media about the incident. He said Poole told him to leave the classroom.
(The Post reported that Rotela said the class was held March 4, but that would have been during Spring Break.)
At no time in the television interview or the Post account does Rotela say, nor is he reported as saying, that Poole forced him to participate in the exercise or reprimanded him for not doing so.
If matters had stopped there, there might be no story. However, at some later point FAU officials became involved, launching an investigation.
According to the CBS12 report, two days after the classroom incident, Rotela went to Poole's supervisor to (as the station put it) "discuss his concerns. Ryan says since the incident he has been suspended from the class" and "told not to go back." Cut to Rotela, who tells the camera "I'm being punished." Cause, effect, detail -- all lacking.
The Post account is more informative:
After complaining to Poole's supervisor at FAU's main campus in Boca Raton, Rotela said he met with a hearing officer who questioned his account in a "hostile" way and accused Rotela of threatening Poole. Rotela received a letter dated March 8 telling him he had been charged with violating FAU's code of conduct. The letter tells him not to attend Poole's class or contact any students involved until the matter is resolved.
Rotela says he didn't threaten Poole and doesn't think his words could have been interpreted that way.
At this point, the rightwing blogosphere picked up the story. And ran with it. Predictably, they cried religious persecution, denouncing "leftist control of universities." According to the website of the Liberty Institute, a right-wing Christian legal foundation that intervened on Rotela's behalf, Rotela was "brought up on academic charges and suspended" "out of retaliation."
If true, that -- not a classroom exercise he freely opted out of -- would have infringed on Rotela's rights. (The exercise may well have offended him, but there is no constitutional right to go through life unoffended.)
There are, however, two big caveats: 1) FAU has never disclosed any information about the investigation that led to Rotela's suspension (which can only be done by school administration, not Poole) and 2) Poole's side of the story has yet to be heard.
When the story first broke, school officials offered a sedate defense of academic freedom.
In less than 48 hours, however, as Rotela's version of events was picked up and amplified in sensational healdlines, the school beat a hasty retreat. By Friday evening the school offered a public apology and struck the communications exercise from the curriculum. On Monday, the Liberty Institute claimed the school rescinded Rotela's suspension after "a closed-door meeting" with Liberty's lawyers.
If the investigation of Rotela has been concluded, why have its details not been released? What was the basis for the initial charges that (as reported by the Post) Rotela had violated FAU's code regarding "Acts of verbal, written (including electronic communications) or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person"?
FAU maintains federal law forbids it to disclose information about the investigation.
New Times has been unable to contact Poole by phone or email or through intermediaries. FAU officials have so far failed to respond to public records requests regarding their communications with him or permission to interview him. As he is untenured, employed by the school on year-to-year basis, his colleagues assume his job is hostage to his silence.
Numerous sources have told us he is under a gag order from FAU, set in place initially, ostensibly, to protect Rotela's privacy while the classroom encounter was under investigation. Why the gag order remains in place now the investigation is complete -- and Rotela apparently absolved and in the school's good graces -- is unclear.
In the interim, Poole's silence is filled by the hysterical blare of right wing media, a misinformed public and grandstanding politicians -- an electronic lynch mob. (The sensitivities of the faithful have never been a sound compass in the storms of intellectual dispute.
"That Galileo fellow!" the elders of the church surely cried. "Can so distasteful a doctrine have any truth?")
In the latest turn, Gov. Rick Scott has joined the parade, leaning on state university chancellor Frank Brogan to investigate.
But why wait for the results of the investigation? Sentence first; verdict afterwards: For Scott, the chief issue is that Poole's lesson (about the power of symbols) was "offensive, even intolerant."
Poole's friends fear for his physical safety. (FAU has ordered the remainder of his classes be conducted solely online.) FAU faculty union president Chris Robe reports that Poole has received death threats.
Poole's situation underscores the cowardice of FAU leadership, hanging him out to dry for a situation that only spun out of control because administration mishandled it. We see no evidence Poole did anything improper.
The school seems to have decided that academic freedom and free inquiry are less important than public approval, and like Robe says, "That's crazy." So a portion of a lesson in a college class was considered offensive by someone? "There are still people offended by the teaching of evolution," Robe says. "That can't be the criteria."
Let us then repeat Poole's lesson: The investment of emotion in language and symbols can blind us to the difference between symbols and reality. This blindness empowers the world's swindlers and demagogues; seeing the difference defangs them.
The great French surrealist Rene Magritte is best known for a painting of a pipe floating in space. Toward the bottom of the painting is the statement (in French) "This is not a pipe." It is a great and puzzling work of art.
Likewise, this is not the word made flesh; it's only an image. Similarly, you can't eat "food" or drink "water." And if you can't understand that -- understand the difference between words and reality -- you should learn it. And FAU should teach it.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.