UNCC religion professor wins top teaching award for ‘spellbinding’ work

Joanne Robinson’s work called ‘spellbinding’

11/04/2012 12:00 AM

10/31/2012 6:36 PM

UNC Charlotte student Asoodeh Tehrani never knew she would have an interest in studying religion until she took a freshman class with Joanne Robinson.

Now the junior is majoring in religious studies, along with psychology.

Tehrani said she thanks Robinson for that choice. That’s why she, along with many others, nominated the professor to win the Bank of America Award for Teaching Excellence, the university’s highest teaching honor.

This month, Robinson, 46, accepted the award. She has taught religious studies at UNCC since 1996, and her beginnings with the topic were much like Tehrani’s: Robinson took an introductory class at Connecticut College with an excellent professor.

“I had no idea you could actually study religion,” she said. “I got hooked and have been studying it ever since.”

Robinson liked it so much that she double-majored in religious studies and art history. She went on to earn her master of theological studies degree at Harvard University, and then her doctorate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago.

In her tenure at UNCC, Robinson has taught a variety of religious studies classes, from the philosophy of religion to medieval and reformation Christianity. She has written numerous papers, book reviews and other academic contributions. She published a book in 2001 about Marguerite Porete, a 14th-century French author who was burned at the stake as a heretic.

But teaching college students about religious culture and history is Robinson’s real passion.

“Religion is one of those things you’re not supposed to talk about, and in the classroom, I have license to talk about it,” she said. “It’s endlessly fun and interesting to me.”

James Tabor, chairman of the religious studies department, initially nominated Robinson for the award.

He called her lectures “spellbinding” and said there’s a characteristic buzz from the crowd of students who gather when she’s at her office.

“Her office hours are just a sort of jamboree of intellectual exchanges and people working on this or working on that,” he said.

Tabor said he remembers Robinson’s practice lecture when she interviewed with the department before she was hired in 1996.

“People were just knocked out,” he said. “They were just speechless, like, ‘Wow, we have got to get this woman!’ ”

Tabor said Robinson has also pioneered online courses and is a part of the Charlotte Teachers Institute, which gives seminars to teachers of grades K-12 about how to address certain topics in the classroom.

“You can imagine religion is really popular,” Tabor said, adding that Robinson talks about “what’s an intellectually and constitutionally responsible way of approaching questions that involve religion. That’s something major I think she’s done right here in our Charlotte community.”

Robinson declined to comment on her own religious beliefs and said neutrality is best in the classroom.

“She’s never biased,” Tehrani said. “I don’t even know what religion she is.”

Robinson, her husband and two sons, ages 8 and 11, live in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood. She said she has learned a lot about the learning process since both of her sons have attended Montessori school.

“I really like that approach. … It’s not about spitting back content on tests,” she said.

Her entry-level classes are typically lecture-based with lots of visual examples, while her upper-level classes are more discussion-oriented, even Socratic.

“I pitch questions back to them,” she said. “It’s a very interactive discussion.”

Robinson recently received a grant to design a course about an “enduring question.” She’s chosen “What is order?” as the topic of her course, which she’ll teach this spring. Next year, she and her family will move to England for a year while she directs a study-abroad program.

Mary Hamner, a religious studies graduate student, said Robinson deserves the award.

“She’s fun, she’s funny and she has a knack for maintaining classroom decorum and guiding classroom conversation without being stifling,” Hamner said.

Robinson will receive $2,000, $250 in library funding, a Charlotte 49ers Gold Card, a pair of men’s basketball season tickets and a nomination for the UNC Board of Governors’ Award for Excellence in Teaching, the UNC systemwide award, which has a $7,500 stipend.

“It’s humbling and exciting, more than anything, for me,” Robinson said of the award. “I haven’t done anything to make it happen. I’ve just done what made sense through the years, and, lo and behold, I’ve gotten recognized for it.”

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