If you’re going to take a class with Rodger Payne, be ready for the jokes.
And, his students will tell you, be ready to make connections you hadn’t considered before, to engage in discussions that will provoke new ways of thinking, and to expand your perspective about all your courses, not just those in Payne’s home Department of Religious Studies, where he’s professor and chair.
Payne, who was voted by his colleagues as the Distinguished Teacher of the Year for 2019-20, originally didn’t intend to go to college, much less teach at one. He decided to attend UNC Charlotte after growing tired of his work as a photographer, and chose to pursue religious studies based on a book he’d been reading about Christian history that he found particularly interesting.
“Little did I know that that rather unreflective moment would lead to a career,” Payne said, laughing. “I just fell in love with it.”
He founded the Religious Studies Department at UNC Asheville when he came to campus in 2007. After serving on the faculties of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Virginia and Louisiana State University, Payne was drawn to UNC Asheville’s focus on the liberal arts and sciences, and the opportunity to set up the Religious Studies Department.
“Religious studies at state universities are only about 50-60 years old,” Payne said. “When state universities began opening up religious studies departments most of them just borrowed the model that was already existing primarily in Christian affiliated colleges… What I had in mind was to get away from that model and to really focus on the study of religion.”
That meant focusing studies on not only Western monotheisms, but on southeast Asian religions and indigenous religions, and making courses as comparative as possible, Payne said.
“Rather than just offering a course on, say, Hinduism, we would offer a course on religions of south Asia,” he explained. “We would look at Hinduism, we’d look at the growth of Buddhism, Jainism, even Islam and Christianity in South Asia. The idea was to get away from the notion that religions are all these discrete things and to look at them more in a comparative way to really learn what their similarities and differences were.”
Senior Derek Whisnant took Payne’s Humanities 214 course as well as a religious studies course on death and the afterlife. “Course discussions were always stimulating, and Dr. Payne works to engage meaningfully with students’ contributions which both makes for a productive class and a rewarding classroom environment for the students,” Whisnant said. “Dr. Payne expects quality work and purposeful engagement from his students, and certainly provides the same to them in return.”
“He always encouraged us to dig deeper into the topics that interested us, rather than being rigid about course plans,” said Charlie Williams, who graduated in 2020 with an English major. “He really fostered a classroom environment that was conducive to discussion and he really allowed us the freedom to guide the discussion to where we were most engaged, which made for a really enriched and superior learning experience than simply being lectured at.”
Carolyn Schweitz graduated in 2019 with a double major in religious studies and English, and took many classes with Payne throughout her time at UNC Asheville, as well as attending a study abroad trip led by Payne to Spain in 2017, serving as his peer mentor for his Religious Studies 178: Religious Diversity in Asheville course, and having him as her undergraduate research advisor.
“Dr. Payne’s classes pushed me to think in ways I never had to before. His courses were some of my most challenging, most thought provoking, and most engaging of my academic career,” Schweitz said. “Religious studies is such an interdisciplinary field that whatever lens you bring to the table, even if you’re a science major, you will bring something to the table and can learn from his courses. They will expand your perspective, make you question the world around you, and even benefit your personal growth as a thinker and student.”
“The key thing is that relationship in the classroom for me, and just enthusiasm for the topic,” Payne said. “I tell my students they don’t pay me to teach you here, I would do that for free, I get so much out of it. They pay me to grade your papers and go to meetings.”
Payne puts an emphasis on scholarly objectivity and critical thinking in his class discussions, encouraging his students to think deeply about their own religious traditions as well as other religious traditions that they are less familiar with. It’s a subject perfectly fit for the liberal arts, as well, Payne said. “We are the quintessential liberal arts degree because you’ll do a little bit of all of it as you work through our courses,” Payne said. “You’ll see religion from so many different angles and perspectives, and you’ll have an opportunity then to reflect critically in many different ways.”
Payne said it was deeply meaningful to him to be selected by his peers for the Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award, which was presented in a virtual faculty meeting at the end of the spring 2020 semester. “It’s a good thing that it had to be done online because it brought tears to my eyes,” Payne said.
His colleagues and students agree that it’s an award well-deserved.
“Dr. Payne changed my life,” Schweitz said. “That may sound dramatic, but I mean it with my whole heart.”