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DAVID PALMER
Lecturer


BIOGRAPHY


Dave Palmer (Ph.D. University of Massachusetts, 1988) teaches behavioral psychology and statistics at Smith College, while also working part-time as a consulting psychologist at a program for adults with developmental disabilities. He is an ardent exponent of the views of B. F. Skinner (every department needs a token behaviorist!), and his principal activity is the clarification of the conceptual foundation of behavioral interpretations of human behavior. Dave lives in Leverett with his wife, Jill, daughters, Lindsay and Robin, two fine cats, and sundry chickens and pigeons.

Dave received undergraduate degrees in English and geology -- the former, because he has always liked books, and the latter, because he wanted to be able to point to something tangible in the unlikely event that someone would ask him what he had learned in college. But since he had spent most of his time playing chess, going on trips with the Outing Club and hitch-hiking to Bolivia, there was little enough to point to in any case. Besides, the Vietnam War was raging, and he wanted to save the world. He loved Thoreau, and he built a little cabin in the woods one summer out of a load of slab wood that he bought for $5.

Thoreau’s influence was profound, but indirect. Dave picked up a copy of Walden Two from a friend’s bookshelf, reasoning that it must have had something to do with his idol. It turned out to be B. F. Skinner’s fictional account of a utopian community. The problems of the world, Skinner argued, were behavioral, not technological. What was needed was a science of behavior. Unfortunately, the most pressing problems facing the world were too complex to study in a laboratory. Let us, then, he suggested, experiment with our own lives in experimental communities, where one might approximate the conditions of the behavioral laboratory. Dave said to himself, “I’ll think about it.”

When he unexpectedly got a high lottery number in the army draft, he was free to do so. He taught high school English for a semester and then set off on a cross-country bike trip. On a bicycle trip, one has plenty of time to think, and what he thought about was Walden Two. By the time he reached San Francisco and scattered the vial of sand that he had carried from Ipswich Beach (to the probable confusion of future sedimentologists), he had made up his mind: he would start a Walden Two community. You get only one crack at life, and you might as well try to make a difference.

In the early 1970’s, it was easy to find a people who were interested in alternative communities, but it was hard to find people with a taste for the scientific method. After an eight-year experiment in cooperative living, making a living as an auto mechanic, a forester, and a surveyor, he turned to graduate school in behavioral psychology at UMass in Amherst. For this, he can mainly thank Beth Sulzer-Azaroff, his first academic mentor. However, Beth’s interests were mainly applied, so it was to be John Donahoe who became Dave’s advisor. It was a good match. Dave enjoyed graduate school and would be there still, if the Psychology Department hadn’t threatened to change the locks.

Dave is a local boy at heart, and he was happy to find a niche at Smith College in 1989. (It was to be a temporary position, of course, as his contract still attests.) At Smith, Dave mainly teaches statistics and statistics labs, but his intellectual interests are still staunchly behavioristic. In 1994 he and Donahoe wrote Learning and Complex Behavior, a text that attempts to integrate the science of behavior with what is known about the physiology of learning in order to provide a foundation for the interpretation of complex behavior outside the laboratory.

In his spare time, Dave is a consulting psychologist at Riverside Industries, a vocational school for mentally retarded adults. He also teaches one course in behavior analysis at Simmons College, and a second in a master’s program in Sardinia at the Associazione Istituzione Libera Universita' Nuorese.

In 1987, Dave married Jill Shimabukuro, whom he met in graduate school over a NY Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle clue (Clue: Nonsense; Answer: Bilgewater). That was a sufficient foundation for a romance that led to the birth of Lindsay (1990) and Robin (1992). They live in Leverett on the former campus of a Walden Two community with their cats, pigeons, and chickens. Jill works at the Jones Library in Amherst, and the girls attend Amherst schools.

Personal Interests

  • Going on outings with my family
  • Raising chickens
  • Bicycling
  • Local history
  • Tireless but pathetic attempts to grow fruit

Heroes

I’m not trying to be pretentious, but these dead white males have changed my life:

  • Isaac Newton, for showing what one person can accomplish.
  • William Shakespeare, for those beautiful lines, and for Falstaff.
  • Henry David Thoreau, for more beautiful lines, and beautiful ideas too.
  • Charles Darwin, for figuring out Nature’s mainspring.
  • B. F. Skinner, for figuring out everything else.

Other Duties

  • Board of Assessors, Leverett, Mass.
  • Secretary, Leverett Historical Society
  • Consulting Psychologist, Riverside Industries (a vocational school for mentally retarded adults)

David Palmer

Biography

Research
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