December 12 2017

An Interview with Joanne Maguire Robinson, the 2016 AAR Excellence in Teaching Award Winner


The Teaching and Learning Committee is pleased to announce Joanne Maguire Robinson is the recipient of the 2016 Excellence in Teaching Award. Robinson is Associate Professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Robinson will make remarks and engage questions and answers during the Special Topics Forum at this year's Annual Meeting in San Antonio, TX. (Editor's note: Nominations for the 2017 Excellence in Teaching Awards are welcome through October 15, 2016).

Joanne Maguire Robinson (BA, Connecticut College in Religious Studies and Art History, summa cum laude; MTS, Harvard University; and PhD, University of Chicago) joined the UNC-Charlotte faculty in 1996. Dr. Robinson teaches courses in history of Christianity, medieval and reformation Christianity, philosophy of religion, and “religious experience.” Her first book, Nobility and Annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s ‘Mirror of Simple Souls,’ was published by SUNY Press in 2001. She is currently revising a manuscript titled The Poetics of Waiting: Managing Delay in Christian Traditions.

Dr. Robinson was recently interviewed by the AAR's Teaching and Learning Committee chair, Lerone Martin.

Lerone Martin: When did you know you were gifted/called to the vocation of teaching?

Joanne Robinson: I am very wary of laying claim to some extramundane “call” to teaching as my “vocation,” as both terms connote a particular theological understanding of external, supernatural influence. I loved learning, as most children do, and I never outgrew my love for school. Like many academics, I was a disciplined student who followed the rules and embraced with few questions the structure and process of school.

That said, in my teaching now I try to push back against the negative, stultifying effects of what John Taylor Gatto calls “schooling.” I do this on behalf of my state university students so that they can learn to do it themselves. I want students to question everything, not least what schools ask of them and why. I am still drawn to the range of possibilities inherent in even the most traditional classroom interactions; even when I feel that I’ve seen it and heard it all before, I know that many of these ideas are new to my students. I tend toward an idealism (albeit one that can decrease incrementally over the course of a semester) that keeps me hoping that effective teaching can change lives for the better.

Simply put, I did not come to teaching from a call from without but rather from a mix of hard work, fortunate circumstances, and a passion for questioning and discovery.

Lerone Martin: How would you describe your “teaching life”?

Joanne Robinson: I am tempted to say inspiring, although I also fully recognize the drudgery of reading too many revisions of one paper or of dealing with plagiarism. Teaching has been where much of my energy has gone for the past twenty years, and after a day in the classroom I am thoroughly exhausted. Teaching is also, however, what gives my work life its deepest meaning. There are few things I love more than designing a new course or tweaking a past course to work better the next time around. And I appreciate all of the evidence, however cliché, of students’ progress: the moment a student comes to a new level of understanding; the first generation college student who realizes she can go on to graduate school; the struggling student who produces a lucid argument actually drawn from the sources; and a group’s energetic and civil discussion of a very difficult topic. Above all, however, I think the best word to describe my teaching life is “fun.”

Lerone Martin: Is there a word or a phrase that captures your pedagogy? How or why?

Joanne Robinson: Creativity. My creative energies come to the fore in designing each class and in the classroom space itself, and I hope that comes across to the students and helps them feel more comfortable taking chances. There can be little deep learning within one’s comfort zone, so I like to stretch students’ ways of imagining worlds through varied types of assignments. This comes out most in the course I designed with the help of an Enduring Questions grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The course centers on order, classification, and borders, and students explore some expected topics (such as taxonomies of the natural world, organization of knowledge in libraries, and construction of social categories) and some they choose as a class (often music genres, human relationships, and sports and games). Students organize the course itself and they produce a course website as a final group project.

Years of carefully observing my talented (and less talented) teachers in college and graduate school helped me think about how to integrate different approaches to material without losing sight of what matters. So I expect students to surprise me, and I aim to surprise them in some generative way each class period.

Lerone Martin: Do you use any special skills or exercises to help students with their writing?

Joanne Robinson: I admit to spending too many years tirelessly commenting on the little things: fragments, dangling participles, and misplaced commas. I felt that I was doing something meaningful by painstakingly “helping” students see how their (mis)use of formal elements shaped the way I understood their writing. I continued that practice well beyond any utility for me or my students, and I only changed my ways after doing research that led me to Richard Haswell’s “Minimal Marking.” Research shows that too much help is no help at all, so now I guide students to make the majority of corrections on their own. That was, after all, how I learned to write: simple comments in the margins (such as “ugh” or “awk”) that prompted me to figure out on my own what went wrong and how to fix it. As the years go on, I act more as guide than as savant.

Lerone Martin: Are you currently undergoing/undertaking/exploring any changes in your teaching?

Joanne Robinson: I became chair of our department in 2014 and thus have a reduced teaching load so I can spend my time facilitating the work of my department. I will be coteaching a large course on creationism in the spring, with a colleague in Anthropology whose model for pedagogy in introductory courses is “I talk. They listen.” So my newest challenge will be finding a balance between that mode and the one in which I am more comfortable, where the controversy itself takes the stage and students wrestle with argument and evidence. My colleague’s pedagogy is easiest in a tiered auditorium classroom, but I like the challenge of facilitating meaningful discussion through solo assignments geared to enhancing small group work guided by teaching assistants. So that is my next exploration: how to make the most out of pedagogical whiplash in a co-taught course.

Lerone Martin: What, do you believe, has been your most effective tool in reaching students?

Joanne Robinson: Listening carefully and responding meaningfully, in person and on the page.

Lerone Martin: What, do you believe, is your major contribution to the profession of teaching?

Joanne Robinson: That is impossible for me to answer. From my view, my biggest impact has been in individual classrooms on particular students. I am one voice among many in any classroom, doing my best for the students with whom I share space and a semester. To make a claim larger than that would take away from the amazing work done in so many classrooms on all levels of education.

Lerone Martin: What, if any, advice do you give all your students and/or junior faculty just beginning their teaching careers?

Joanne Robinson: For students, I would advise them above all to read the syllabus closely at the very beginning of the semester.

For junior faculty, I would advise them to design, teach, fine-tune, repeat. When I first came to UNC-Charlotte, I was assigned to teach three courses, two of which were the same introductory course scheduled back-to-back. There is no better way to understand the dynamics of particular classrooms and the consequences of pedagogical decisions than to play those out twice in a row and then across multiple semesters. Much of my best teaching has developed based on an ability to “read the room” and to change with the world around me. Early career faculty should teach a few courses again and again to be able to focus on their research, and creativity in designing new courses will come from that foundation.