A calling – The story of David Smailes
By Steven Bonini
David Smailes, political science professor, didn’t always intend to be in the career he is in today.
In his early life, Smailes debated the idea of medical school, but because of the heavy involvement of mathematics, he felt it just wasn’t for him.
“I had done science classes in high school, and really enjoyed them – especially biology classes. I was always fascinated with living things and how they work,” said Smailes.
“The math was completely daunting to me,” he added. “I just didn’t have a skill for it.”
At 61, Smailes is going into his fourth year of teaching at FSU – applying for the position in 2017.
“I knew Framingham State fairly well, living in Framingham, and I really wanted to be close to home,” he said. “I really wanted to teach there because I really liked the program at Framingham. And so, it was a pretty easy choice to apply for the job.
“I met Chris Latimer, and I met Joe Coelho, and I really had a good conversation with both of them. And I decided it made sense,” he added.
Joseph Coelho, acting chair of the political science department, said he had “a really positive first impression” of Smailes when they first met.
“Everyone who meets Dr. Smailes knows that he’s such a personable, nice guy,” said Coelho.
“He’s just the type of person that people feel comfortable around,” he added. “He’s very knowledgeable about his field.”
Coelho said before Smailes applied to teach at FSU, the number of students majoring in political science was approximately 29-to-30 students. When Smailes arrived, the number of students majoring in political science jumped to approximately 60-to-70 students.
“I think a lot of students are attracted to the major because of the work and effort he puts into the program,” said Coelho.
Upon his arrival at FSU, Smailes said it was a little tough being the “new kid on the block.
“I spent the first year just trying to navigate the place,” he said.
“That was a challenge just getting to know people – getting sort of settled, getting to know the students,” he added. “Because, again, I’m the new faculty member. Nobody knows if I’m a nice guy or not. Nobody knows if my classes are wicked hard or wicked easy.”
Smailes began studying political science when he first went to undergraduate school in 1977. He was accepted at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio – his hometown.
He said the father of a high school friend taught Middle Eastern politics at the college.
“I got into that course,” he said. “And I got very interested in it.
“It was kind of an upper-level course, so I was in over my head to be honest,” he added. “I was kind of struggling to keep up with everything.”
Smailes said although he struggled, the course was an “eye-opener,” and he began to realize he had an interest in politics.
“I had a wonderful history teacher in high school. And I was always interested in history, but I hadn’t really thought very seriously about going in that direction,” he said.
“I decided to be a political science major, and continue on,” he added. “I did a lot of courses – quite a number of courses as an undergraduate in international relations and comparative politics, but also American politics, law, sort of the whole gambit of what political science departments offer.”
As an undergraduate, Smailes decided to get his teaching certificate. He took a year off and
subsequently made the decision to go to the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) in the fall of 1982.
“I had a really wonderful undergraduate professor who taught political theory, who was a UMass Amherst, Ph.D.,” he said. “I admired his stuff so much. I really liked what he taught. I was really fascinated with political theory.”
He took the drive from Wooster to Amherst, and upon arrival had the opportunity to see former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill speak at the Student Union on campus.
“I walked in and there’s Tip O’Neill, somebody who I’d seen on TV a million times, and I said, ‘I really like it here,’” said Smailes. “I decided to come to UMass Amherst and do my Ph.D. work.”
Smailes said during graduate school he taught part time to make some extra money – “just to pay the rent” – and eventually got connected with Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.
“It’s a women’s college, and they were looking for somebody to teach an American politics course, which I did,” he said. “Got to know the people in that department very well – very nice people.”
This is where Smailes said teaching became his “calling.”
“I had a full year of teaching under my belt, so to speak, as I was finishing up at UMass Amherst,” he said. “I had started on my dissertation, and when I got the job at Mount Holyoke for the year, that was the year that I went on the job market – started looking for my first teaching position.”
Smailes taught at Mount Holyoke part-time as a grad student beginning in 1987. He was then moved to full time from 1989-1990 when he was hired as a leave replacement for a professor on sabbatical.
While looking for jobs, Smailes took a trip to Atlanta, Georgia for a Political Science Conference to do some research on former President Jimmy Carter for his Ph.D. dissertation.
Smailes said his dissertation was focused on presidential decision making titled, “The President as Administrator: Ideology and the Selection of Administrative Strategies.”
In his dissertation, Smailes said he argued “ideology often drove administrative decisions presidents made, rather than political calculations about what might help them get re-elected.”
At the conference, Smailes met a man named Leo Chang who was teaching at Regis College in Weston.
“We had a great conversation,” he said. “He told me all about the school, and made me a job offer, but I applied formally to the position and went for an interview and met some other people at the school, and I was offered a position. So, I ended up going there.”
Smailes started at Regis College in 1990.
While at Regis, Smailes said he faced the challenge of teaching and working on his dissertation.
“That was a very tough year while I was doing that because I was basically having to fit it in around being a new faculty member teaching a full-time load,” he said.
Smailes added it was a lot harder during the late ’80s, early ’90s because laptops had not been widely available to the public.
“In order to do the writing on the computer, I actually had to go to campus to have a computer to use,” he said. “As a result, I was spending every weekend from morning to night writing my dissertation.”
Smailes said he ended up teaching at Regis College for approximately 16 years but left after the school began to focus on healthcare.
“I enjoy teaching policy and health care policy, but I didn’t want to do that only,” he said. “I started to look around, and there was a job that opened up at Westfield State University.”
Smailes said he applied for the position at Westfield as well as another open position at Emerson College in Boston.
“I seriously considered Emerson for a time because it was a lot closer than Westfield would be,” he said. “But I decided I’d liked Westfield better. I really thought that Westfield was a little closer to what I wanted, and it was a bigger program there for political science.”
Smailes started at Westfield in 2006 and taught there for approximately 10 years before taking the job at FSU.
More recently, Smailes said the challenge of moving to virtual courses was not as “scary” for him as it may have been for others.
Smailes said he taught online courses during his time at Westfield.
“I’ve done it mostly at the graduate level. I haven’t done it at the undergraduate level,” he said. “I knew the technology. I knew how to structure things in a way that I thought made sense for people.”
Smailes added one of the bigger challenges he’s faced in his profession during COVID-19 has been his struggle to make real connections with students as one would in a face-to-face environment.
“Making that connection, finding that connection, is tough,” he said.
“I think we all know, whenever you’re writing an email or a text, it’s so easy to misinterpret it or to have it come across in a way that you don’t intend,” he added. “I always have to be a little bit careful. ... I want to make sure that I understand what this person’s concern is, or question is.”
Smailes said he believes it’s important to ensure all his students feel welcomed and connected in some way – regardless of the circumstances.
“You all pay a lot of money to come to college,” he said. “You deserve that time and that effort on the part of faculty to make sure that you realize how important you are to us.”
Smailes said in his profession the lowest point can be when a student fails one of his courses.
“I think when somebody fails one of my classes, I feel a lot like what I would imagine a doctor feels like when they lose a patient,” he said. “You want to do everything you can for somebody – you want to give them every opportunity. When it doesn’t work out, and they fail a class, you kind of say to yourself, ‘What could I have done differently? Could I have done more?’”
When David Smailes isn’t doing what he loves, he enjoys reading a good book, doing a crossword puzzle, or watching a movie.
“I love doing the New York Times crossword puzzle,” he said. “That’s a good mental challenge in the morning.
“I’m a big devotee of Turner Classic Movies,” he added. “I love old film.
“I think probably if you said to me, ‘You’ve got a free day, what do you want to do?’ I’d probably say I’m going to read this book that I’ve been waiting to read that I haven’t had a chance to read yet,” said Smailes. “I love Mark Twain. I love sort of humorous stuff. I probably tend to like the classic authors more than modern authors.”
Leisure aside, Smailes said he enjoys teaching, and he doesn’t intend to leave the Neld anytime soon.
“I really see this as my calling. I mean, this is the thing that I really enjoy doing, and I really can’t imagine not doing it at any point in my life,” he said.
“For an artist, it’s painting or sculpting. For me, it’s teaching.”