The Big Sneeze

By Drew Miller

Deep within a 4,604 word syllabus are three sentences that have subsequently entangled the College of Coastal Georgia in a mire of national controversy and public debate. 

Dr. Leon Gardner, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at College of Coastal Georgia has received grievance from political pundits, the blogosphere, social media, and other disgruntled citizens over his request that students refrain from saying ‘bless you,’ after a classmate sneezes. 

Is it an attack on individual rights and free speech? Is it an attack on religion in the classroom? Or is it an attack on those afflicted with the common cold?

The “Behavioral Deduction” section of his Introductory Physics syllabus provides a six point list of situations that result in grade deduction, “bless you included.”  For each occurrence, 1 percent of the final grade may be deducted from the student.  

Other instances that would result in a grade deduction include being late for class, talking to other students while class is in session, interrupting the professor, cell phone use, sharpening one’s pencil in the middle of class, and the now hot topic of blessing another student after they sneeze.

From the syllabus: “6. Saying ‘bless you.’ We are taught that it is polite to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. However, if you say this while I am talking, it is NOT polite, it is very rude!”
While the fallout from the public and pundits alike has focused on the infringement of free speech and religion, student opinions of the issue vary greatly.

“I’m not personally involved with the situation, but I understand Gardner’s position,” said Tyler Sands, a junior in the American Studies program. “Ultimately, it boils down to one thing: it is his classroom and those within should adhere to his rules. 

“Bottom line, he is just trying to teach,” Sands continued. “He could have chosen different words considering people automatically get defensive when religion gets brought into what is thought to be a secular curriculum. Yet, I don’t think it was his intention to cause an uproar. He was simply laying groundwork and rules. He doesn’t want his time to be wasted, nor anyone else’s.”

Other grumbles around campus have been heard, rebuking Gardner’s rule.

One sophomore offered,“I get that he doesn’t want time to be wasted, but I feel that the words were deliberate, and poke a jab at religion in the classroom,” the student said. “I am not a student of his, but find the notion kind of disrespectful.”

One alternative amendment to Gardner’s syllabus was recommended by junior Hunter Yanagiya, “Perhaps he should have chosen the word ‘Gesundheit.’ ”
College of Coastal Georgia released an official statement to the media regarding the syllabus in August after the news went viral.

“The professor’s intent was to explain that disruptive behavior is not allowed in the classroom,” the release stated. “The professor, who used other examples such as turning off cell phones prior to class and not arriving late, has removed the example and stated that no student has been disciplined or expelled from his class based on that example. The college is conducting a full review.”

After word got out about the syllabus - first in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and later on Fox News - the College’s Office of Advancement began fielding calls from disgruntled citizens. Many callers were unaware that the list was created to make a point against disruptive behavior, without the intent of evoking a religious debate or taking a stance on religion in the classroom. 

The student website The College Fix states that the situation “…is ridiculous. It’s common courtesy to say this after someone sneezes. These educators are taking things way too far.” 

From our quaint little seaside town of Brunswick to national news sources such as The Washington Post, and CBS, many news stories have printed that Gardner has enforced a ban on saying “bless you” in class.

However, the syllabus stated otherwise prior to Gardner’s removal of the controversial topic. Students may indeed bless one another after a sneeze, but subsequently will suffer the consequences.

The web is inundated with news stories about Gardner’s syllabus. Facts of the situation get muddled with opinion and the true nature of the professor’s intent is blurred in the steam of hot air generated by the misinformed.

This issue serves as a prime example of how the media can spin and pervert a topic of interest, fanning the flames of discontent sparked by those attempting to create a problem out of something that was never intended to become just that: a problem.