Joshua Fincher is a visiting assistant professor of classics. This interview was conducted and compiled by Tracy Wilson and has been edited for length and clarity.
What languages do you know? Speaking-wise, I only know German, French, and a little bit of Mandarin. I can read Biblical Hebrew, Sanskrit, Ugaritic, Avestan, Greek, and Latin. If you could tour the home of any ancient historical figure, who would you choose? Probably Seneca. Seneca was very rich, and he was also hypocritically Stoic. So, I think it would just be hilarious. What is the most unique gift you’ve ever given? I do a lot of creative stuff. Once, my friend sent me a picture of his friend and he wanted me to turn it into a painting of her in a Renaissance costume and in an enchanted looking forest with a well. And so, I did it. It was hilarious. It was on Reddit. What is one vivid memory you have from your childhood? My great-grandfather reading to me mythological stories from a mythology encyclopedia, which he actually gave to me before he died. As he was dying, he made sure to sign it. I would attribute that to why I’m into classics in the first place. He also had a huge library. The genesis of all the different things I’m interested in and knowledgeable about come from there and from him. I don’t believe in any of the myths, but I do believe that myths have information on how a culture contextualizes its origin. What is one dead language that you think shouldn’t have died? Aramaic. Aramaic was the most important language in the Ancient Near East. Its having died means that there’s a huge amount of literature that no one has access to. The Babylonian Talmud, which is important to Judaism, is written in Aramaic, and all of our Aramaic translations of the Bible are very important to understanding problematic words. From Egypt to Northern India, you could find Aramaic speakers. It’s a major world language that has no reason not to exist. Who is one person you’ve always looked up to? Both of my parents. The fact that they were 20 when they had me and made almost no money but could raise two kids like that is something you don’t understand until you’re older. Now I can ask them how much they were actually making and paying in rent, and I realize all of the things that they didn’t do because they spent that money on us. What’s the best piece of advice your parents ever gave you? Probably to do what I want. If I had been constrained by utilitarian ideas about education, or if my parents had focused on financial success rather than passions and interests, I probably wouldn’t have done classics. That was very impressive to me and shaped who I am. What ’80s movie character do you most identify with? Allie Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club.” She’s the one with the goth persona. I was kind of like that: very non-conformist. I was more popular than her in high school, but still very non-conformist. What is your favorite word? Res, in Latin. It’s un-translatable. Res is usually translated as “thing,” but in Latin it means anything in any context, so it has almost unlimited amounts of meanings. The vaguer the word is, the more I tend to like it because you can explore it more. What is one experience that changed your outlook on life? Living in Germany. I had grown up on the outskirts of a city but in Germany I was living completely in the countryside in a town of 500 people. Living in a foreign country for an extended period of time and having to completely absorb a totally different way of speaking as well as different expectations was the most valuable thing I could have done. Having to do the mundane things in another country taught me way more about the culture than looking at its art or history. What was your favorite band or type of music growing up? I really liked folk music in all its various manifestations. I’ve also always had a thing for very early European music. That and classical Chinese music. I also listen to plenty of punk. If you could change one event in history, what would it be? I would say the Mongols’ destruction of Baghdad. That wiped out the nascent scientific culture in the Near East. Do you have any hidden talents? I don’t know if they’re necessarily hidden. I paint, and I also appraise all sorts of antiques. If anybody shows me a piece of decorative art, I probably know when it’s from and I can guess who made it and a general figure on what it may be worth. I once appraised an estate as a graduate student. The guy turned out to own some Turner paintings, and had a very valuable collection of 19th century bronzes. It was this huge process and the estate was worth millions of dollars. What is one particularly funny memory you have from your high school years? I did not like spirit assemblies when I was in high school because I felt that they were pointless. I felt that we could be doing something more productive. So once I told my 9th grade English teacher that I would not be going to the assembly and instead he let me and a whole bunch of my classmates stay in the classroom and debate different issues using the Socratic method. What’s one way you hope to impact your students? I hope to get them to not think just about the West because there’s a whole world out there. I was strongly influenced by studying cultures outside the Western tradition, particularly East Asia. Yes, the West is important, but it’s also important to compare it to the rest of the world. I want students to have the idea that there is a China that exists, and that China has its own classical literature and its own culture that isn’t superior to the West or inferior. It’s just different. The more we look at these other cultures, we understand why the West is different and understand the commonalities that make us human beings.