Introduction to Davidson:

“I taught at Davidson 41 years, and I was chair of the department for 16.”

“We arrived in the summer of 1970, and it was obviously hot, and we were greeted at the door by a woman who was Mrs. Woods, and Mrs. Woods wanted to know everything about us; she wanted to know where we were from, and all the kind of background, and we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.”

“It was different than anything we had experienced before.”

Here is Dr. Palmer on his introduction to Davidson:


 First Teaching Experience:

“I taught my first class, came out of the class, and two students kind of corralled me there at the door and said,  ‘We just wanted to get to you before Davidson ruins you.  You’re just not teaching the way you need to be teaching.’  And I thought, What have I gotten myself into?  That was a rude awakening – it was kinda tough – but I stuck it out.”

“They wanted the classroom to be, as they characterized it, an experience.”

“It was a shock there – I was wondering if I should stay or if I should leave now.  But I stayed.”

The 1975 Davidson Psychology Department (Dr. Palmer is second from the left); courtesy of the Davidson College Archives

Serving as a Professor:

Dr. Palmer’s decision to remain at Davidson was a fortunate one for the rest of the Davidson community.  His contributions to the faculty and to students,  past, present, and future, were and are innumerable.

“I love working with students… I tell the students in all the classes, ‘all of you are going to be leaders.’”

He taught introductory and social psychology, and developed a social psychology methods course and incorporated it into the curriculum. That course remains an integral part of the psychology major to this day.

“My seminar was Research in Children’s Televisual Media – that’s what I call it now, but it was then Research in Children’s Television.”

Here is Dr. Palmer on teaching his favorite class:

 After so many years of teaching, Dr. Palmer has impacted many students and faculty members, and it is clear that his influence is well respected.  Though his accomplishments as a professor cannot be quantified or captured in such a brief snapshot, there are a few awards that speak to his fine work.  In 1993, he won the Thomas Jefferson Award for teaching and professional service, one of Davidson’s most prestigious awards for faculty.  Furthermore, the Davidson Psychology department has established the Edward L. Palmer Service award, given to a senior each spring.  And for his outstanding achievements as a professor, and for his contributions to the Life Sciences building (see below), the Social Psychology Lab, Watson 338, has been named for him as well.

Dr. Palmer with a recent winner of the Edward L. Palmer award; courtesy of Bill Giduz

 Serving as the Psychology Department Chair:

Since Dr. Palmer thought of himself as a research-oriented professor, he was originally surprised and put off by the department’s desire for him to be chair.  He said to a friend:

“They want me to be chair and I don’t want to do it.”

However, he did become chair of the department, serving from 1985-1999 and again in the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years.

“When I came in as chair, I told the department that I saw myself as a facilitator.  That I wanted to help.  They were the experts in their fields, and I wanted to do whatever I could to facilitate what they did well, and people seemed to respond to that.”

“I had some unpleasant non-tenure decisions along the way, but those had to happen too.”

In one particular case, a professor who had initially vied for the same position as chair sought to receive full professorship, but, as Dr. Palmer discovered,  had put false information on his CV regarding publications.  This was an intimidating man, but Dr. Palmer knew he needed to report him for ethical violations.  As the leader of the department, his decision was to leave the other faculty out of the proceedings so that they would not be implicated in anything.

“He was pretty good with guns, so I figured if he was going after anybody, he would go after me.”

“That was my biggest [case of] having to take a stand that would be difficult to take, but one that I think that some of the older folks in the department remember, and respect, because they knew it had to happen.”

Despite this situation and some of the other more difficult parts of the job of department chair, it was something that Dr. Palmer ultimately enjoyed and was glad to do.

“It was a gratifying experience.”

Dr. Palmer, Chair of the Psychology Department pictured in the 1987 Quips and Cranks yearbook; courtesy of Ed Palmer

As his biggest achievement during his time as chair, the Life Sciences building remains Dr. Palmer’s legacy on campus.  The building came out of Dr. Palmer’s wish to situate the department of Psychology at Davidson firmly within the broader category of life sciences, along with Biology.  That same drive would also lead to the hiring of award-winning professor Julio Ramirez, whose specialization in neuroscience unites both disciplines.

“I’d been chair during the project we had of the life sciences building… and that was, I think, the most major project that we undertook.  But I was pleased with the outcome.”

The Watson Life Sciences Building; courtesy of the Davidson College Archives


The Watson Story:

Among his greatest accomplishments as an educator, Dr. Palmer talks about his reception of the Watson Professorship and the establishment of the new life sciences building, called the Watson building.  In fact, Dr. Palmer’s interaction with these two “Watson” achievements was not arbitrary.  Instead, it was born out a particular relationship, and the story stands both as a testament to Dr. Palmer’s commitment and care for his students, and as an embodiment of the truth and the power of Davidson’s dedication to student-faculty relationships.

“I was just caring for her like I would for a daughter, or anybody else that I would work with.”

Here is Dr. Palmer with the story behind the Watson Professorship:

Dr. Palmer receiving the Watson Professorship from Wayne and Carole Watson (parents of Brina); courtesy of the Davidson College Archives

The Watson saga does not end there however, as the relationship that Dr. Palmer nurtured with Bryna continued to bear fruit.  Ultimately, because of their relationship with Dr. Palmer, the family decided to donate a great deal of money towards the new life sciences building, which thereafter became the Watson Life Sciences Building.

“At the time, President Kuykendall and I flew to Atlanta, and we had lunch with the Watsons.”

“Before we left to go back to Davidson, Mrs. Watson called me over in the corner, and she said, ‘Ed, do you think this is what we should do?’  And I said, ‘I think it would be a good thing for you to do’.   And they did it.”

“It was just incredible.”

The Dedication of the Watson Building; courtesy of the Davidson College Archives


Dr. Palmer gathering with the Watsons and others at the Dedication of the Life Sciences building; courtesy of Bill Giduz


Looking Back – Davidson Then and Now:

After 41 years at the school, much has changed.  Dr. Palmer, from his experience, reflects that the type of place Davidson was and the types of students that came were very different than the current Davidson environment and student body.

“I would call it very much a provincial southern school when I first came.  We didn’t have the interstate.”

“Now it’s all very cosmopolitan here.”

“It was an all male school.  It was 1000 males, was the heritage of Davidson, and the alumni prized  themselves on that 1000 males.  It was three years after I got here that they decided that they would go coeducational.”

“It went through rather smoothly… when they brought them in, they brought in seniors first.”

Not everything changes, however.  The bedrock principles of the school, despite a changing demographic and a changing role in the community, ultimately remain the same.

“That emphasis on the honor system has been a hallmark, and it’s continued throughout the time I’ve been here, and I really respect that, and I think it’s something that the college wants to preserve and can be very proud of.”

For Dr. Palmer personally, the recent shift to retirement means he no longer has the responsibilities at the college as before.  His dedication to Davidson, however, has never wavered.

“It’s a delicate balance, because I don’t want to be a ‘hanger-around’ at the department itself, but I am interested in the college, and where it’s headed, and the kinds of things that are going on there, so I try to stay informed.”

Ultimately, Dr. Palmer’s time at Davidson was extremely successful and he is recognized by anyone that knew him as a beloved part of the community.  A wonderful article reflecting on Dr. Palmer’s time at Davidson put it this way: “Palmer’s scholarship has been a labor of love, a professional testament to his well-known personal compassion and curiosity about the real lives of real people.”

Dr. Ed Palmer; courtesy of Bill Giduz

Dr. Palmer reflects that, although he could not have anticipated the career that he ultimately landed, in no way does he regret it.

“I am gratified with what I did – working with these kids over all those years, and getting those letters back telling me what I had meant to them.  That’s hard to beat, it really is. “


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