Experience in the field enhances cadets’ experience in the classroom
A/SLt 24498 Noelani Shore (RMC 2009)
With his military background, Major Bernard Brister, CD, brings a new perspective to the classrooms of the Royal Military College. (Our e-Veritas photographer, Francis Themens happened to catch him just prior to going for a workout)
Maj Brister has been at RMC since 2004, when he was accepted into the PhD program. He has been teaching since 2006, and is currently an Assistant Professor of Canadian and American Foreign and Security Policy, Terrorism, and Special Operations.
“I entered the programme for the purpose of broadening my education and didn’t actually consider whether or not I would enjoy teaching. I simply knew that part of the bill for the PhD program was to teach classes at RMC, so I would. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed it until after I began to actually teach and work with the cadets.”
Maj Brister was born in Barrie, Ont., but as his father was in the Army, he was raised all over Canada. He joined the Canadian Forces right out of high school, but then he left the military to complete his undergraduate degree.
“I took my degree in Accounting and Finance from the University of Alberta. After that, I worked for an oil company and as a bush pilot before I rejoined the military during the Gulf War,” he said.
Before turning to the academic field, Maj Brister went on a number of deployments. He was deployed to Haiti in 1995, Yugoslavia in 2001, and Afghanistan in 2003.
“For someone who joined the military to do military things, I’ve had a great career so far. The deployments taught me a lot, and they were all fulfilling in their own ways. They educated me personally, and I was able to see how other people live in what seems to be another world. I gained an appreciation for everything that Canada has to offer. The deployments put things in perspective for me, and I have a better understanding of how the world works, and how other people think. It has made teaching cadets in my field easier,” he said.
Teaching at RMC has been the most satisfying posting, and Maj Brister enjoys the interaction with the cadets the most. Here at the college, the students challenge him intellectually, and they ask questions that begin interesting discussions.
“As a professor, you’re always learning. No two classes are the same, because the students have different perspectives and attitudes, and they will ask different questions. Teaching keeps me in touch with a younger generation, and I’m able to see how and what they think, and what their attitudes are,” he said. “Without this job, I would only really speak with people my own age, and then I’d be trapped in an older generational mindset. I’m now able to see how other segments of society are thinking.”
The biggest challenge for Maj Brister is staying current on the changing political literature, positions, and philosophies.
“That is definitely an ongoing struggle because day-to-day life gets in the way, and you have to take the time to make yourself smart in those areas,” he said.
Keeping the cadets motivated in class is not difficult, but it is essential to present the information in a manageable format. Keeping in mind that the cadets have a number of other duties and responsibilities, “it’s only natural that I shape their courses around the limited time they have for each subject. Some courses in politics, especially in civilian universities, will assign a hundred pages of reading per week,” he said. “You can assign that, and outline your expectations, but you won’t ever get that result. It’s important to assign a reasonable amount of reading per week, and make sure they’re tested on it. I’ve found that as long as I’ve stayed consistent, I’ve gotten a good response.”
According to Maj Brister, all the cadets are set up for success, and should be able to get through the courses. It is, of course, up to them to be disciplined and organized, but the support structure is in place.
Maj Brister has not taught at any other universities, but he did his Masters degree at RMC, and was then involved in the inter-university sports program.
“I was involved with the swimming team, and I was able to see that students and cadets are the same socially, in that they have the same interests and goals, but RMC cadets are well-organized and they work very well together. They work well individually and they come together as a team more naturally, for obvious reasons. The activities that cadets do here, and their way of life, breeds cohesion,” he explained. “I also found that RMC cadets are more mature. They experience adult-realities sooner and with more intensity. An obvious example of this maturity is that while first year RMC students are undergoing First Year Orientation Period, the Queen’s students are playing drinking contests, and spending their money as quickly as they can.”
Maj Brister’s other responsibility at the college is that he’s the Chair of the Military Strategic Studies program. It’s an undergraduate degree focused on politics, history, and military psychology and leadership. While this is not a new degree, it has grown a great deal in the last few years.
“My predecessors were Dr. Doug Delaney and Major Michael Boire. They worked very hard to make it a more valuable and effective programme in terms of educating potential officers such that they are better prepared for the execution of their duties after they leave the College. My efforts to date have attempted to continue that tradition.”
The Arts education that RMC gives to its Engineers is a good experience and opportunity for them.
“I’m not sure that they always thank us for it, because they already have a huge program; they are really put through the grinder. But in a contemporary world, with the kinds of problems that the cadets will be facing when they leave RMC, a solid knowledge base and the ability to think critically would not be achieved without some exposure to the Arts. When the college was established in 1876, building things was an essential skill for officers graduating from RMC, and the college had a strong Engineering and Science base,” he said. “In this contemporary atmosphere, officers are no longer performing the same function, and the cost-benefit of pumping out so many Engineers may no longer apply. The quality of the Engineering programmes is certainly not an issue, but if we were to set up the college in today’s environment, I think it would have a greater focus on a broadly-based humanities programme. This programme would ideally emphasize critical thinking and a greater understanding of the contemporary and historical context within which today’s military professionals will be required to carry out their duties.”