Phillip Adamo could see the panic in his students' faces.

The class from Augsburg College had just arrived for a week's stay at a remote 13th-century monastery in northern Scotland. Then it dawned on them.

No TV. No Internet. No texting mom five times a day.

Nothing to do but live like a monk. Which, for a medieval historian like Adamo, is almost as good as time traveling.

The idea of going to such lengths to channel the Middle Ages may seem frivolous to some, especially at today's college tuition rates. Yet Adamo has drawn national honors for the way he brings history to life for students at Augsburg, one of Minnesota's oldest liberal arts colleges. Just last fall, he was named Minnesota Professor of the Year by the prestigious Carnegie Foundation.

"He is a gifted and natural-born teacher; it's embedded in his DNA," says Amy Livingstone, a longtime friend and history professor at Wittenberg University in Ohio. Some of his techniques, she admits, may seem gimmicky, but there's no question that his enthusiasm is infectious.

"I originally went to Augsburg to run cross-country and do studio art," says Josh Davis, 28, a 2010 graduate from St. Paul. Once he met Adamo, he switched his major to medieval studies. And he put his degree right to work — making reproductions of medieval armor. If not for Adamo, he says with a laugh, "I don't think I'd be running my own armor business."

When liberal arts are often mocked as a waste of time and money, Adamo is one of their most gleeful defenders.

For the better part of 20 years, he has been inspiring students to study the past, not for its own sake, he says, but for what it can teach them about the present. To those who think that degrees in art or literature or history are useless in the real world, he argues, just the opposite is true.

"It gives the benefit of having a better life, a more interesting life, a better understanding of who you are as a human," he says. As the ancient philosophers put it, "what lasts is having meaning in your life," he points out. "And that, the liberal arts can deliver like nobody's business."

Adamo readily admits that may sound ironic coming from a guy like him, who had zero interest in college as a young man — and began his career in the circus.

History as a mirror

In class, Adamo brings a showmanship that has survived the nearly four decades since he traveled the country as a Ringling Bros. clown.

At 57, with untamed white hair and a Van Dyke beard, he looks like a mix of bachelor farmer and ivory tower in his favorite uniform: dark vest, wrinkled shirt, faded jeans and tennis shoes. The topic this afternoon is universities in the Middle Ages. He riffs, without notes, about how the Catholic Church started colleges to train priests, then merchants' sons, and ultimately gave rise to the "liberal arts" we know today.

"Even in the Middle Ages, people saw an education as a way to liberate themselves from the work their fathers did," he says.

He asks a student to read aloud from a letter written some 700 years ago. "I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way," a medieval student wrote his father. "… I respectfully beg your paternity that by the promptings of divine pity you may assist me."

Recognize that? Adamo asks. Today, it'd be a text message: "Send me some money!"

One of his goals, he admits, is to help students relate to the past on a gut level. If they can do that, he says, and see themselves in strangers from the distant past, they can learn something important about empathy in their own world.

Drawn to perform

Adamo remembers how crestfallen his own parents were when he announced he wasn't going to college. The eldest of five sons in San Antonio, Texas, he loved learning, but all he wanted to do was perform. He joined the Ringling Bros. right after high school. "It's fantastic making people laugh," he says. "And somehow, I got good at it."

So good that he ended up spending 6½ years performing as a clown through Europe. "I was making good money," he says. He remembers thinking: "I will do this forever." But eventually, he burned out. "I was exhausted by performing so much, and I started to think that I wasn't funny," he says. "That's a bad thing for a clown."

He returned to the United States and enrolled in college at age 29. On a whim, Adamo picked medieval studies as his major. For his senior project, he spent a summer in a monastery in upstate New York.

He cut his hair, donned a "junior monk habit" and lived in complete silence except for one night a week.

After that, he was hooked. He entered graduate school and immersed himself in the minutiae of an obscure French monastic order called the Caulites. His dissertation won a statewide award and eventually turned into a book, "New Monks in Old Habits."

'Less Me. More them.'

Adamo couldn't help but bring a touch of theatrics to Augsburg as a newly minted assistant professor in 2001.

For his signature class, Medieval Connections, he commissioned a handmade book that resembled an ancient papyrus Bible, and chained it to a wooden podium at the campus' Lindell Library. It was the only copy of the only textbook for class, and students were instructed to dress up in graduation robes and stand at the podium to read it.

Why? "If you think books are expensive now as a college student, they were really expensive in the Middle Ages," he says. "It's chained up because people would steal them. This was actually how [medieval] students would have to go and do their reading."

Occasionally, Adamo says, his 21st-century students would protest the inconvenience. What if someone else was already reading it? "I would say, 'Hmm … you could read together. Read aloud. And maybe a conversation could break out!' "

Ellery Davis, one of Adamo's former students, laughed about the textbook ritual. "It was just wonderful and annoying and fantastic," she said. "It was like you had to put on a different persona in order to be the scholar who was reading the manuscript."

On occasion, Adamo would have students crash his classroom dressed as lepers or medieval townsfolk, to fuel discussions about life in the Middle Ages. A medieval feast was the final class project.

Provost Karen Kaivola said Adamo "is able to take risks in the classroom and risk failing." That, she says, is valuable for a teacher.

"Some of his first great teachers were clowns," she wrote in nominating him for the Carnegie award. "We are fortunate Phil didn't choose the circus over academia."

For his part, Adamo downplays his circus past. The ability to perform, he explains, gets you only so far. "If you're a performer, you're a good lecturer. That doesn't mean you're a good teacher," he said. His focus has shifted from "what do I want to tell them" to how to help students learn for themselves. "That, I think, is what makes a good teacher."

As a reminder, he posted a sign in his office: "Less Me. More them."

Pilgrimage as class

Now, Adamo is preparing for his most ambitious historical adventure. And for that, he bought a treadmill.

Next year, he plans to walk 1,300 miles to retrace the 13th-century pilgrimage of the Caulites, who migrated from France to northern Scotland in 1230 and built the monastery, known as Pluscarden Abbey, which Adamo has visited with his students.

The Caulites vanished into history centuries ago; now Benedictine monks occupy the monastery, which is in dire need of repairs. Adamo, the world's leading expert on the Caulites, was invited to provide advice on re-enacting the pilgrimage, which will be held as a fundraising campaign.

Most volunteers are signing up for 100-mile segments. But Adamo is in it from start to finish. His plan is to turn the experience into an online course.

On the journey, Adamo will have one main job: to entertain fellow travelers with stories about those first pilgrims and the world they inhabited.

Who, he asks, could pass up an opportunity like that? "It's going to be so awesome."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384