Formal photo of Kelly Smith, smiling at camera wearing a white collared shirt and suspenders.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Kelly Smith

CLEMSON – Clemson University students have chosen Kelly Smith as the Alumni Master Teacher of 2019.

Smith, an associate professor of philosophy in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, was nominated by several students including Graham Pitman, who said Smith’s passion for taking on the big questions of life and the universe sets off intellectual sparks in the classroom that can turn even the most apathetic students into deep-thinkers.

“Kelly puts his heart and soul into educating his students,” Pitman wrote in a nominating letter. “In addition to actually getting us to understand the concepts, he teaches them in fun and memorable ways. He also teaches us how to think and not necessarily just what to think.

The honor is selected and presented by the Clemson Alumni Association and Student Alumni Association. The Student Alumni Council reviews each nominated professor – this year, more than 180 – and select one teacher who they determine embodies the spirit of Clemson through dedication to the education and overall betterment of students.

Smith said he was humbled to find out he won the award but deferred most of the credit to his students.

“There are a lot of really good teachers on campus. Who wins the jackpot depends on a lot of factors,” he said. “This particular semester, before I was even nominated for the award, I thought to myself several times, ‘I’ve just got some really good classes this semester. The students are really clicking and everyone’s enjoying it.’ That doesn’t always happen. Classes have personalities.”

Many roles

Kelly Smith, in his doctoral robes, walks next to a student dressed as Plato. The two are chatting. Library fountains behind them

Kelly Smith recreates Rafael’s famous “School of Athens” fresco with student Christian Weeks playing Plato.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Kelly Smith

Smith is passionate about teaching. He lives by the motto docendo disco, which means “through teaching, I learn.”

In 1998, he came to Clemson from a stint at The College of New Jersey. “I quickly came to realize Clemson is a really good fit for someone like me because it takes research seriously, but it also takes teaching very seriously,” he said. “The students here are very bright; if you introduce them to ideas, they’re willing to engage. You expose them to these big ideas like God and free will and the nature of existence, and you can almost see the light bulbs go on sometimes. I really enjoy that.”

Smith wears several professional hats, with a joint appointment in the Department of Biological Sciences at Clemson and also as a member of the faculty at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville, where he oversees the ethics and professionalism curriculum.

In recent weeks he donned yet another hat, by becoming an interim department chair.

“I am very pleased to report that Dr. Kelly Smith has agreed to serve as interim chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion,” said CAAH dean Richard Goodstein. “I want to thank him for stepping up to the plate at this important time for the department. I believe Kelly will provide excellent leadership during this time of transition and I look forward to working with him.”

The perfect niche

Smith grew up in the Toco Hills area of Atlanta, raised by his father Ted, a doctor, and his mother Annelle, a social worker. Even as a kid, his interests ranged across a wide spectrum; he loved reading science fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he was also on the track, wrestling, and football teams.

“I was on the slightly cooler end of the nerdy pool,” he laughed.

His affinity for varied interests would portend what he does now – combining biology with philosophy. Smith said he’s found the perfect niche with his job at Clemson.

“If you’re good at more than one kind of thing it can actually be a problem in a way,” he said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to do physics or biology or history, and I was into chemistry at one point. I could have done any of those.”

After he enjoyed a few philosophy classes, Smith realized that other disciplines could be combined with philosophy. He also realized that doing philosophy of biology means “you can hang around with biologists, but you don’t have to run a lab.”

Kelly Smith stands in front of a group of people, wearing a yellow collared shirt, gesturing and smiling

Kelly Smith lecturing to a group of faculty at the Madren Center.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Smith said he decided to become a professor after watching his own professors as an undergraduate at Georgia State.

“I looked at them and said ‘that’s an awesome job,’” he laughed. “You get to hang around smart people all the time, you get to think about stuff you’re interested in, dress codes are not that strict, you don’t punch a clock – and the pay is OK.”

Smith received his Master’s in biology from Duke University in 1992, followed by a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1994. His research is wide-ranging and includes work on philosophical issues surrounding the search for life on other planets, the concept of “genetic disease,” the relationship between religious faith and scientific reasoning, ethical implications of new technologies, complex systems in developmental and evolutionary biology, and the origins and nature of life.

His Clemson roots extend deep into his own family. His wife of 34 years, Karen, is a computer programmer for the university, and all three of their children – Jessie, Sam and Laura – attended Clemson. (As a father, Smith said he appreciated that Clemson was a good value).

Smith enjoys golf, painting, video gaming and has a second-degree black belt in the Korean martial art of Hapkido. He and his wife also enjoy traveling the country in their RV.