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Augsburg goes medieval
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Phillip Adamo teaches the Medieval Connections class at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
An interdisciplinary class on medieval history at Augsburg College is creating a memorable learning experience for a new class of freshmen. Forget stodgy lectures; think time travel.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Recreating the European Middle Ages in a Minneapolis classroom, circa 2004, isn't as hard as you might think.

History professor Phillip Adamo says the 30 freshmen in his Medieval Connections class are more than willing to play along.

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Image 10th century theater

"They're pretending to be students in a medieval class learning about medieval students in a university. And so there are all sorts of different layers to that," says Adamo.

The first layer, teach them enough Latin to sing "Gaudeamus Igitur," a student drinking song from the Middle Ages about living life in the moment.

Then there's the authenticity layer.

From the classroom, to the textbook, to the dress code, once a week for three hours, it's all 12th century, all the time.

Each student, and each of the five professors teaching this class, are required to show up in their academic graduation robes. It's the closest thing to what professors and students wore at a 12th century university.

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Image One textbook

And because the printing press hadn't yet been invented, there's just one student textbook. It's big, heavy, and chained to a lectern in the campus library.

Freshman Maria Power says there's no such thing as late-night textbook cramming in the dorms. She and her classmates must go to the book, and the rules of the class say those who consult it must be dressed in their academic robes.

"It was pretty embarrassing the first couple of times. But then it was just funny," Power says. "Like people walking by, looking at us. 'What are you doing? Why are you wearing that?' So it was pretty funny. And how the librarians always crack up and laugh the whole time."

Professor Adamo says the class philosophy is deliberately experiential, almost like performance art.

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Image Hourglass

Adamo believes blending European medieval social conventions with contemporary teaching methods elevates student learning.

"We've got them doing group activities. We've got people coming in, you know, surprise visits, by some guy playing a leper," says Adamo. "We had a guy come in who was a medieval swordsmith, and brought seven swords with him, so students could feel the sword. So it's a lot of hands-on stuff."

This day's topics are heresy and apocalypse. The class is timed -- with an hourglass, of course. Students file in, and peel their wrinkled black robes from their backpacks and throw them over their jeans and sneakers.

Freshmen Ted Arrindell and Maria Power say this Medieval Connections class succeeds in taking them to another place and time.

"You learn so much more when you don't think about that you're learning, and it doesn't seem like we're learning right now. But we definitely are, you know. The fact that they connect every aspect of medieval life together, like the music, the art, the swords, the soldiers," Power says.

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Image Ted Arrindell and Maria Power

"From religion to culture to science, to the ruling bodies and the way the kings ruled at the time. We studied courtly love and how that changed culture," Arrindell adds.

"Yeah, how men treated women, and how they fell in love," says Maria.

"And they do tie it to today," Arrindell says.

The end of the semester is coming up. In addition to an oral exam on a subject of their choice, students must take part in what they're calling a "medieval extravaganza." Some students will cook, others will act in a play written by a 10th century nun, or maybe they'll juggle or recite medieval poetry.

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