Teaching Spotlight: Tom Brister

The coveted mentor relationship shared between a Faculty member and a student has long been upheld as the hallmark of a Wake Forest education. When a professor takes the time to invest in a student both academically and personally, the results can be life-changing, for both parties.

“It is actually a very give and take process,” said Tom Brister, Professor of Political Science, of his relationship with Richter advisee and friend, Charles Klug (’12). “I’d say that I benefit as much or more from our conversations, as it also allows me to think through these ideas myself and to sometimes gain new insights in the process.”

Charles Klug, graduated with a major in Political Science and minors in Religion and Arabic, presented his research findings on “Israeli Political Parties and West Bank Settlement Policy” at URECA’s Research Day in 2011. Klug, whose poster attracted a high volume of traffic, attributes much of his success to his former professor. “I took Dr. Brister’s International Politics as a freshman,” said Klug, “and despite taking only one class with him more than two years ago, we have continued to meet and discuss a variety of topics.” During their discussions on the Middle East and Israel, one topic in particular captured his interest. “I became interested in the Israeli political system which became my research topic, but without these discussions, I would not have stumbled upon this topic. When I applied for the Richter, Brister became the obvious choice for a mentor.”

Once they formally decided to develop a Richter research proposal, Brister worked closely with Klug to teach him the ins and outs of researching in the unpredictable environment of the Middle East, drawing on his knowledge of radical Zionist politics from his course on Terrorism, as well as his own experiences abroad. “Since his project was similar to the research I did for my dissertation on Hindu nationalism in India, I shared some of my experiences in approaching individuals and constructing interview questions on very sensitive topics, and ways that I was able to use these initial contacts as a means to expand the network of informants,” said Brister. Klug intended to examine the ability of religious minority parties to influence Israeli politics concerning Palestinian relations, specifically on the subject of the Temple Mount controversy.

Despite months of preparation, once in Israel Klug quickly realized things were not what he had planned for. He had expected to find that these minority parties would be influential concerning the Temple Mount, but within one week of his arrival he realized this was not the case. It became apparent to Klug that these small parties carried more weight on the issue of Settlement Policy in the occupied territories. “I encouraged him to go without too many set expectations, because often one finds out things by actually being in the place and seeing what is there,” said Brister. “In this case, Charles communicated to me by email during his stay in Israel that he had indeed encountered information that went against prior expectations.” Faced with a situation that many would find daunting, Klug relied on his mentor to guide him through altering his research proposal on the fly. They emailed back and forth until his approach better reflected the reality of the Israeli Poltical system.

The result was the experience of a lifetime. “During my research,” Klug explained, “I learned about the complexity of the Israeli Knesset [parliament] and how small parties can wield influence disproportional to their public support and also affect issues such as the settlements in the West Bank.” After meeting with ultra-orthodox religious leaders in Jerusalem and many Palestinians affected by settlement activity, he learned that the settlements ought to be an essential element in peace negotiations and came away with a better understanding of how religious parties within the coalition government play a role in the Knesset’s policies.

Brister has also benefitted from this exchange. He said Klug’s “insights and observations there have actually been extremely helpful to me, since this is a topic that I regularly teach. I’ve actually revised some of my ideas about the region and the conflict based on his experiences.”

What’s next on the agenda for this duo? “I am applying for a Fulbright Scholarship to research Islamic Banking in Indonesia, and again, Dr. Brister has been helping me prepare for this opportunity,” said Klug. With so many other things on his plate, Brister acknowledges that “advising and mentoring can be challenging.” However, investing so much in a student paid off when he returned from Israel “not only with an amazing experience and important insights, but also with increased confidence in himself.” Knowing that he played a role in that formative experience is invaluable, said Brister, “I’m very proud of the work he did with this project.”