You gotta have soul: Engaging students beyond the techno-rational

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So what does it take to be a university teacher? Daphne Loads, Academic Developer in the Institute for Academic development, looks to the notion of soul to help her answer this question…

As an academic developer, this question is often on my mind. I know it’s more than subject knowledge plus technique. More and more I’m coming to think that, as George Jackson put it, “you gotta have soul”:

Some women, they grow a little shorter,

Some women grow a little old,

Short or tall, young or old,

If you wanna love me, you gotta have soul.

Here, Jackson firmly rejects metrics and introduces the notion of soul. Okay, he’s talking about love, but I think his ideas apply to teaching too. Seriously. If you want to be a university teacher, you gotta have soul.

So what do I mean by soul? Let me give you an example. Say we’re trying to learn about “student engagement.” There are lots of ways we could deal with this topic.

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At one end of the continuum is techno-rational learning. I liken this to taking the temperature. We could, for example, use learning analytics to find out how many hours students are studying online and how many comments they’re posting on a discussion board. This would give us a straightforward measurement of student engagement in a particular course.

If we wanted to delve a bit deeper, we could try to bring about a transformational learning experience, and get lecturers (and students) to re-examine their taken-for-granted assumptions about what engagement actually means.

But I’m talking about going further and doing what Dirkx (1997) describes as learning through soul. This symbolic, metaphorical way of learning makes me think of the mythological phoenix, who rises from the flames. One of my favourite ways of inviting in soul is through collaborative close reading of a poem. As a group, we read and build up layers of meaning, word by word and line by line. Randall Jarrell’s piece : “Office Hours 10-11” works well when we’re talking about student engagement.

Together we could explore the echoes and patterns in this poem: the huntings and hauntings, the poignancy and paradoxes. We could notice that “made to learn” seems to mean both “forced to learn” and “created for learning”, and that “we missed you” may or may not have any emotional content. This way of learning can be very powerful; it doesn’t, of course, suit everyone.


So I think of learning through soul as at one end of a continuum. Techno-rational learning is instrumental; it’s about adapting to external requirements. It lends itself to measurements of performance and productivity, and can be presented as an objective report. Transformative learning, by contrast, is concerned with seeking and making meaning. It includes not only individual reflection but also social critique. Discovery and authenticity are valued; it might take the form of a reflective journal. Finally, learning through soul draws on narrative, symbol and myth. This kind of learning makes space for spirituality in all its forms; it draws on emotion and intuition. I have given the example of poetry, but in fact soul seems to be at home wherever the varied disciplines we know as the arts and humanities come into play.

And, as George Jackson says: “You gotta have soul.”


Dirkx, J (1997). Nurturing Soul in Adult Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74.

Mann, S (2001), Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: alienation and engagement, Studies in Higher Education, 26 (1).

Wintrop, A (2017). Higher Education’s Panopticon? Learning Analytics, Ethics and Student Engagement, Higher Education Policy, 30 (87–103).

A version of this post previously appeared here.

Daphne Loads

Daphne Loads works in the Institute for Academic Development and is academic lead of the Edinburgh Teaching Award and convenes the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme.

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