Meet the expert: exploring classic texts with Professor Alastair Blanshard
Published 15 Mar, 2023 · 3-minute read
Professor Alastair Blanshard’s love of classical literature and ancient history first began with a childhood fascination, which led to an astounding academic career. Now, he’s helping UQ students own the unknowns of the future with lessons from the past.
A passion for the classics
Hearing centuries-old stories as a child sparked the beginning of a lifetime love of classic texts for Professor Alastair Blanshard.
“My love of antiquity, of the ancient, first began as a child. I remember hearing the stories of Greek myths and my imagination instantly fired up,” he says.
“I thought, I want to learn more about these people and about the world in which they live.”
Alastair’s first steps into academia began at UQ, where he studied humanities and law. Despite well-laid plans to pursue legal studies, he says that his passion for the humanities ultimately led him down a different path.
“Interestingly enough, I’m a failed law student. I started off studying humanities and law, but it was really the humanities that I found to be my passion and what I wanted to pursue. It’s always important to pursue your passions.”
Alastair's path back to UQ
Alastair's mastery of classical texts saw him receive a scholarship to complete a PhD at Cambridge University. After spending a decade studying, teaching and researching in the UK, he felt called to return to where his own story first began – here at UQ.
“In the UK, I was studying classics at Cambridge, and then I had a job at Oxford teaching classics to students there. Afterwards, I went on to have a position at the University of Reading, again, teaching classics,” he says.
A love of storytelling is what continues to excite Alastair most about working in the area of great books today.
“We have a long history of trying to understand ourselves through stories, such as Greek myths," he says.
"These myths still excite us today – tales of Gods and heroes show mankind at its worst, but also at its best."
“Through telling stories you can communicate information, you can confront difficult and often painful ideas, you can think conceptually through stories. I think it’s that ability to tell stories and to share stories with people that I really love.”
Alastair's approach to teaching
In addition to sharing stories, Alastair is passionate about helping his students gain the critical thinking skills they need to understand the stories on a conceptual level.
“Teaching has always been central to me because I just love communicating ideas,” he says.
“I love that sense when a student gets it. If they’ve been struggling with a hard idea, and then you can see it in their eyes – their face lights up when they’ve finally got that idea. It just gives me a thrill every time I see it.”
He has helped his students delve into all kinds of ancient texts, histories and languages over the years, but one particular student success story inspires him to this day.
“One of my proudest moments as a teacher was teaching ancient Greek. Now ancient Greek is a hard language. It’s a language that poses all sorts of challenges,” says Alastair.
“I had one student who had been struggling, absolutely struggling all semester. In the end, I said to her that we’re just going to have to sit down together and just nut our way through it and make sure that we can tackle this. I put some extra hours in, she put some extra hours in."
“And what was absolutely wonderful, was that by the end of the semester she was reading ancient Greek. The student never thought that she’d be able to master this language – it was always going to be completely foreign to her, literally Greek to her – and at the end, she was able to read it. And that was a wonderful thrill and terribly rewarding as a teacher.”
“It’s very exciting to be a student these days because you’re going out into a future that has such amazing potential and possibilities,” he says.
“The future is unknown, but what remains unchanged is us. Even when you look at the past, what you see is that we share remarkably similar kinds of emotions. Fear, love, hate – these have all been drivers for us in the past, and they’ll be drivers for us in the future.”