Sitting in his small office stocked wall-to-wall with bookshelves full of textbooks, journals and critical editions of medieval and early modern texts, University of Arizona professor Albrecht Classen was reading a letter from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Classen, a University Distinguished Professor in the German studies department, had recently learned that he was named one of the 2012 State Professors of the Year, an honor that has gone to some of the nation's most outstanding faculty members since 1981.
"It really is the ultimate reward," said Classen, also the undergraduate adviser for his department. "It's very competitive, and you don't know how many people there are going for it."
The Carnegie honor was one in a list of recent honors and awards Classen has received either for his teaching or for his contributions to his field.
The German Academic Exchange Service, a national agency based in Germany that supports international academic cooperation, named Classen one of the 29 DAAD Research Ambassadors for the 2012-13 academic year. As a DAAD Research Ambassador, Classen will serve as a liaison for the organization and also participate in a seminar to be held later in the year.
Also, Classen learned he had been named the recipient of the 2012 national American Association of Teachers of German, or AATG, Friend of German Award, an honor that goes to those who show exemplary leadership in the advocacy of Germany and German language education.
"He is a wonderful advocate of students being majors and minors of German studies, and he also helps them to realize how beneficial this can be for them," said Mary E. Wildner-Bassett, College of Humanities dean. "We are very appreciative of him. He's a great asset to our university."
Then Classen received word that he is now an honorary member of the Golden Key International Honor Society.
"It is very rare, if not utterly unique, that one person has been recognized for both sides of our talent with top awards for scholarship and teaching," said Wildner-Bassett, who shares a home department with Classen.
"The basis for the professoriate to create knowledge through research and scholarship and to pass it on through our teaching, and that is what he is being recognized for now," Wildner-Bassett said.
A prolific and profound career
Classen carries a docket full of publications and honors. He was even offered as a clue in an episode of "Jeopardy" earlier this year.
"He is very good about convincing students about the fascination of other times and places, which is a wonderful thing and what we are all about in the humanities, among other things," Wildner-Bassett said.
Most recently, Classen published two new books: a translation of letters written by Philip Segesser, a Swiss Jesuit missionary in Sonora, Mexico during the 18th century and "Rural Space in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age," a volume that is part of a long-standing series Classen has edited.
The translation of Segesser's letters offer a unique view into the life of a missionary during a time when personal letters were less common – and, at times barred – than were official logs and journals about logistical matters.
"He wrote very long sentences using antiquated words, and with the earlier transcriptions, we were guessing a lot," said Classen, who is about to publish a more detailed analysis of Segesser's writings and those by his contemporary German Jesuit missionaries in Sonora.
But in the process, a more intimate view of Segesser's life is offered in which, at different times, he describes wars between indigenous populations and settlers; he describes a time when he became very ill and how indigenous people were able to help him to become well again; also, he wrote to his mother asking for recipes and to his brother requesting tools.
"In my opinion, I got a goldmine. His letters are very insightful. Even for a psychologist, it is very interesting reading about a man who was very devout, very submissive and very religious," Classen said.
Having a stronger interpretation of Segesser's life, and those around him centuries ago, helps provide a clearer picture of the distant past, Classen said.
His second book, published this past summer, relates to rural space. Classen explains how rural populations conceived of the natural environment and what divisions existed between the peasant and aristocratic classes that was evident in the use of space. For his investigations, Classen relied upon literary and artistic works popular in the Middle Ages.
In particular, he found that the social class divisions were not as stark as expected. "Most social markers weren't so obvious," he said, adding that individuals of disparate social class often lived in close quarters.
He also found that the natural environment served as a conduit for "finding true love," as domestic spaces were more readily monitored and controlled, which greatly informs not only on the issue of space, but interpersonal interactions and the role of family life.
"We have lots of information available, but most medieval research is on the church, courts, the university or town," Classen said. "We can learn about humanity, how the nobles chose to entertain themselves and the role of relationships and gender norms, and thus we can create a paradigm shift in research for the next generation of people who will be studying the Middle Ages."
Recognition stems from impacts in teaching, research
For his contributions to the field and for his strengths in teaching, Classen has received numerous awards.
His recent honors and awards include: the Henry & Phyllis Koffler Prize for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity; the UA Honors College's Five Star Faculty Award; the Distinguished Faculty Service to the College of Humanities; AATG's Outstanding German Educator Award; the Distinguished Undergraduate Advising/Mentor Award; and the most prestigious Bundesverdienstkreuz am Band (Order of Merit) from the Federal Republic of Germany.
"Honestly, I think it's his enthusiasm and his love for his topics," Wildner-Bassett said about Classen's continued recognition. "His work is still exciting and interesting and fun to him, and he makes it relevant to people in the 21st century, even though he may be talking about a medieval poet."
Halil R. Fried, who now lives in Boston, recently thanked Classen for his mentoring throughout his undergraduate years, noting that much of what he was able to accomplish would not have been possible without Classen's support.
"I believe I will get a master's degree in elementary education," Fried said, noting that she taught a German class at Sam Hughes Elementary while still in Tucson.
Molly Gebler also decided to pursue German studies because of Classen, having met him during her sophomore year during a German class.
"No lie, after that first encounter I wanted to sign up," said Gebler, a UA senior majoring in German studies. "His energy was just amazing. He was ecstatic. And I don't think I have ever learned more in a class and, the funny thing is that medieval studies wasn't really my thing."
Or so she thought.
During a summer study abroad trip Classen led in Europe, Gebler said she engaged in one of the most profound academic discussions she has yet to experience in life – one around fundamental issues of religion.
"He almost teared up because we were all so excited about the topic," Gebler said.
Essentially, Classen was and has been teaching students how to apply medieval solutions to modern-day problems, especially related to construction of human relations, cultural interactions and artistic expression.
Likewise, he informs students about and involves them in activities in which they are encourage to think more critically about what they understand about the world and themselves.
Also, he demonstrates to his students and others something that many have said he does well: No matter where your academic, social or professional passions reside, make sure they drive your interactions and decisions in life.
"The reason why I was so enthralled with him is that what I have learned has gone so far beyond the classroom and applies to every aspect of our lives," Gebler said. "He's an amazing person, and I feel very fortunate to know him."