Souls and universities

Feminist theorist Julia Kristeva begins New Maladies of the Soul with a provocative question: “These days, who has a soul?” Thinking about this, she writes, seems “frivolous and ill-advised” (1995, p 7); nonetheless, the question continues to worry at and excite her. In her search for a soul for our times, Kristeva proposes rereading sacred texts, such as the Bible, which she suggests is intriguing for the borderline subjectivities it creates. The human subject is in continual “crisis, trial or process” with his relationship to the divine. Interpreting such fractured and multiple identities requires that we recognise a new space, “a space for our own fantasies and interpretive delirium” (1995, p 126).


Always extrapolating the institutional from the individual, I wonder: these days, do universities have souls? The borderline subjectivities Kristeva mentions resonates, as do the academic selves in crisis with their relationship to institutions. I write this post because I keep seeing mentions of the soul in a university context. What’s that word for when you start to notice something everywhere? [googling] Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. These references have come across my desk this week.

Here’s bell hooks (1994) in Teaching to Transgress, which I was reminded of while writing a reference for a colleague:

To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

While drafting a journal article, I came across a mention of Paul Sutton’s work on the soul and labour, which I had read when it was first published, but which rewarded a second reading. As a conceptual and theoretical paper, it is best read in its entirety, but here is an extract from the abstract:

The soul of academic labour is becoming lost in performativity … [which] only measures and values those dimensions of academic labour that can be captured by quantitative performance indicators … The soul is the moral energy and purpose central to species-being: the peculiarly human ability to transform the socio-human world for the good of all … Within the soulless technical measure of academic labour that now dominates the university lies the possibility for developing a more soulful normative measure.

This book was mentioned by a colleague in a conversation about academic freedom (although I am not sure how the term soul is used here):


Searching for the details of Schrecker’s book led me to this one, which focusses more broadly on the idea of the university:

Brink’s (what a great name for writing of the soul of the university in peril!) book is not yet published, but I look forward to reading it (starting with the Kindle sample when it is released).

Meanwhile, I ponder. What good is the soul of a university? Thinking about it is, I think, an attempt to capture something ephemeral, something whose absence is keenly felt but whose presence is difficult to articulate. Something akin to the spirit of research or the poetics of higher education perhaps. It is a means of articulating what cannot be quantified: (to follow Sutton’s argument) love, connection to others, and wellbeing. This article, Challenging the Productivity Mantra: Academic writing with spirit in place, is perhaps a manifestation of the soul in higher education. It describes a writing group that started with the aim of increasing publication outputs, but became a spiritual fellowship. A new space.

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