Albrecht Classen is a professor with a passion, and it hasn't gone unnoticed by the judges of a prestigious award.

The University of Arizona professor of German studies was recently named Arizona's U.S. Professor of the Year for 2012, a prize given by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The award is intended to honor "the most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country," its website says.

For decades, the prize often has gone to an educator from the UA's larger sibling rival, Arizona State University in Tempe.

This year, it went to Classen in recognition of his proficiency in the classroom and positive relationships with students.

He has special expertise in medievalism in the European Middle Ages - a subject that might sound dry to some but to Classen is endlessly fascinating.

His students think so, too, judging by the numbers.

Hundreds typically sign up for his lectures, he says, and many go on to take medieval travel courses, which he calls "extremely exciting and life-changing."

Ask Classen why people study German and you may need to pull up a chair while he answers.

Germany is a top exporter, a leader in world politics, economics, architecture, literature, the arts and sciences, he said.

"German continues to be one of the most important languages in the world for countless reasons," he said.

The Professor of the Year prize is "very hard to win," said Classen, 56, who's been nominated several times in his 25 years at the UA. This is his first win.

Classen said when a letter recently came in the mail from the Carnegie Foundation, he expected nothing more than the usual polite missive telling him he hadn't won. When he learned otherwise, "I was stunned," he said.

Since ASU usually wins, he said, "this is particularly honorable for the U of A."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.