Clemson University Feature Stories

Dr. Kelly Smith: “Honors students are just a blast to work with!”

Date Published: August 1, 2011

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Smith and EUREKA! student Christian Weeks recreate the famous image of Plato and Socrates (bottom). Due to his dedication to students, Smith has been honored at Clemson with the 2010 National Scholars Program Award of Distinction, the 2010 John B. & Thelma A. Gentry Award for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities, and the 2007 College of Architecture, Arts & Humanities Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Dr. Kelly Smith

Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion

Associate Professor, Biological Sciences

Dr. Kelly Smith clings stubbornly to the idea of the Renaissance man – so stubbornly, in fact, that he went through four undergraduate majors before completing his B.A. in Philosophy at Georgia State University. He then went on to Duke University where he still couldn’t make his mind up about what he wanted to study and somehow ended up with both an M.S. in Evolutionary Biology and a Ph.D. in Philosophy. Smith is currently an Associate professor of both Philosophy and Biological Sciences as well as a Lemon Fellow with the Rutland Institute for Ethics here at Clemson. Not surprisingly, his research is highly interdisciplinary and includes work on the concept of genetic disease; the relationship between religious faith and scientific reasoning; the ethical implications of biotechnology; and philosophical issues concerning the nature of life and its extraterrestrial possibilities. Smith has done consulting work with NASA, published in a wide array of professional journals, and appeared on CNN. His true passion in life, however, is helping students figure things out.

Smith has been helping Clemson Honors students “figure things out” in a number of roles, including honors courses, ranging from The Lure and Fear of Biotechnology to Honors sections of Introductory Biology. Dr. Smith has supervised many EUREKA! projects focusing on applied ethics as well. A unique approach one year had students looking into the advisability of building a “lifeboat” on the moon or Mars to preserve human civilization in case of a catastrophe on Earth. Smith plans to do future projects on digital evolution. Many Honors students have tapped Smith as their advisor for departmental honors projects; recent projects focused on concepts of space and time, and analysis of evolutionary ethics.

Below are Smith’s thoughts on the Clemson Honors experience.

Why do you like working with Honors students?

Honors students are just a blast to work with! Who wouldn’t enjoy working with bright, motivated young men and women to explore the world of ideas? I am a teacher largely because I am addicted to that feeling you get when you see the lightbulb go off in a student’s eyes and with honors students, it takes less effort and you see the lightbulb more often. I suppose you could say it’s classic operant conditioning…:)

In 2010-11, I worked with Brad Saad on a year-long honors thesis in which he was trying to figure out and critique Kant’s notions of space, time and infinity. These are extremely complex issues (to put it mildly), and they are only tangentially within my area of expertise, which meant that Brad would be more on his own than normal. I was more than a little concerned that he would get “lost in space” and never find his way to a coherent thesis, but his determination eventually won me over. While there were many, many frustrating moments along the way, the intellectual eagerness with which Brad approached these issues was truly contagious. I looked forward to our meetings with a sense of keen anticipation. We worked together more like colleagues than teacher and student – I helped him clarify and refine his ideas, and he asked me many fascinating questions I had never thought of before that caused me to understand the material in new ways. It was a true partnership and I think both of us found it deeply rewarding. In the end, he produced an extremely impressive thesis which helped secure him an all expenses paid graduate education at Brown University.  I am confident he will one day become a distinguished Philosopher and I am proud to be able to say I played some role in his development!

Why should prospective Clemson students apply to the Calhoun Honors College?

The single best thing about being an Honors student at Clemson is that you get to register before almost everyone else. Being able to tailor your schedule to your needs every semester is a very big deal indeed!

Beyond that, the biggest advantage is being a member of a select community. Part of this is purely social – like the bonding that occurs when EUREKA! students all get pitched into the water from a whitewater raft. But it is academic as well. What typically makes an honors class different is not so much the professor or the nuts and bolts of assignments, it’s the fact that it’s a small community of really dedicated learners. The content of an honors and a non-honors class might be identical, but in the honors class the students will do the readings more carefully and come to class with questions of their own. The result is the sort of true intellectual exchange where everyone in the room is engaged and actually learning (including the professor).

What advice do you have for current Honors students to be successful, both at and after Clemson?

First, don’t pick a major, choose what you want to do with your life instead. The real question you need to answer is where you want to be in 10 or 15 years. This is complex, so people all too often just choose a major and hope this will determine their career. But think about it  - most people end up in jobs that have little direct relation to their college major. So plan your career, don’t just pick a major.

Second, keep in mind that the goal is to find something to do with your life that you truly enjoy and would keep doing even if you won the lottery. It’s important to be able to put food on the table, of course, but there are a great many jobs that will never make you rich and can still meet this requirement. People tend to assume that money will make them happier, though recent long term studies have shown this is actually not true. Trust me: if you don’t like your job, making a lot of money at it only means you live for the weekends and dream of retirement.

Third, don’t be afraid to try new things in college. This is the time in your life when you are really defining yourself as an adult with ideas and skills of your own. So question the beliefs you inherited from your parents. Take courses that just sound interesting even if they don’t relate to your major. Get involved in some activities you care about. The truth of the matter is that at least half of the formative things you experience in college occur outside the classroom.

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