One on One... with Mike Eslea

We dip into the Society member database and pick… Mike Eslea, University of Central Lancashire. With online extras.

One treasured possession
The first thing I would grab if my office was on fire is my beautiful Japanese wooden puzzle box. It was a present from Yuichi Toda from Osaka University, who came to visit Peter K. Smith and his Social Relationships In Schools team at Sheffield, where I was doing my PhD in 1993. I had heard about the Japanese tradition of giving gifts, so I should have been better prepared. I was mortified when he gave me this wonderful box and I had nothing to offer in return, and now it sits on my shelf as a bittersweet reminder of his kindness and my bad manners.

One book that everybody should read
The Wisdom of Birds by Tim Birkhead. It sounds dull – it’s a history of ornithology, after all – but there’s loads in it to interest a Psychologist or indeed any scientist or philosopher of science. Superb, clever, creative experiments helped discover the truth about migration, for example. Previously, people had believed that swallows spent the winter underwater, in ponds! Similarly inventive work unlocked the secrets of birdsong, enabling show-off noblemen to trick their pet nightingales into thinking it was spring, and thus make them sing on demand whatever the season.

One historical figure who inspires me
In 2005 the Psychology Department here at UCLan moved to a new building, and when it was suggested we name it after Charles Darwin I was sceptical. It sounded arrogant: I remember saying ‘imagine how we’d take the mickey if the physicists wanted theirs to be called the Einstein Building!’ but I warmed to it in the end. Then I had the idea of inviting a big-name evolutionist to do the opening ceremony on Darwin’s birthday, and was amazed when Richard Dawkins accepted the invitation. I even commissioned a special beer, Evolution Ale, for the occasion. Since then I have arranged Darwin Day Celebration Lectures every year, and have enjoyed some fantastic evenings with superstar scientists. Nowadays I love the fact that I work in Darwin Building. It’s an honour.

One band you should go and see right now
IDLES. Singer Joe Talbot says they are definitely not a punk band, but they make a powerful punky racket to go with their darkly humorous and soul-baring lyrics. Perfect music for this old punk rocker! There’s plenty for Psychologists to enjoy, too: their first album is a meditation on grief, inspired by the death of Talbot’s mother; the second an examination of masculinity and fatherhood in modern Britain. With jokes.

One thing I should have done more of
Experiments! I have somehow ended up doing lots of work based on questionnaires and interviews, despite being happiest when doing experiments. I love the rigour of the design stage, the practical challenges of equipment building, the fun of running the participants. The research I am most proud of is the aggression paradigm I developed with my PhD student Dominik Ritter: ‘The Chopstick Game’. This gave us 15 minutes of fame, when we were asked to make a documentary for BBC3 about small men’s aggression. We spent a crazy day pitting guys as short as 4’8” against average-height controls in a variety of tasks. To my delight, the so-called Napoleon Complex turned out to be a myth. Taller men were more aggressive.

One way to relax in the evening
Take up archery. It’s a very inclusive sport, and also very psychological… lots in common with golf (trying to repeat the perfect shot every time) and cricket (long periods of relaxation punctuated by a few seconds of intense concentration). My club, the Chorley Bowmen, are a friendly bunch, and it’s a great way to wind down on a warm summer evening.

One highly rewarding part of my job
I have been a trade unionist all my working life but I had never really been active until 2010 when I got into a bit of bother at work and needed a rep (I was accused of bringing the University into disrepute through my public criticisms of our complementary medicine courses, but that’s a story for another day). My UCU rep, Stuart Pooley, was so helpful and supportive I decided to become one myself. Since then I have trained as a caseworker and been elected Assistant Secretary of the UCLan UCU Branch, and it has become the most satisfying part of my work. There’s a great synchronicity with my interests as a Psychologist – working with members who have been bullied, for example, or negotiating with management over workloads and stress. I also like getting to meet people from all different parts of the University that I would never normally encounter. So join your Union now, or, if you are already in one, get more active. You won’t regret it.

One Psychologist who changed my life
I have had some great tutors and mentors in my life. I would like to mention Miriam Zukas and Jo Silvester at Leeds, Peter K. Smith at Sheffield, and John Archer here at UCLan, who first tempted me over to the wrong side of the Pennines, 23 years ago. But if I am only allowed one name, it has to be Simon Cusworth. Simon was the Educational Psychologist for the school in Leeds where I was a Senior Houseparent in the 1980s, working with boys with severe behaviour problems, long before I entered academia. At the time I had vague plans to become a social worker, and had never even thought about studying Psychology. Simon inspired me and encouraged me to apply. Who knows where I might have ended up, but for him? Cheers, Simon!

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