Course Objectives

I've been thinking a lot about course design lately. One reason for this is very practical: I'm developing a course right now called God and the Good Life with Meghan Sullivan (you can check out the website here:, and course development requires you to think hard about course objectives. Some of the others reasons, though, are more abstract. I'm always really taken with this op-eds and think pieces about the value of a liberal education. I always nod my head while I'm reading books like William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep , I always think to myself: "That's right, the liberal arts aren't and shouldn't be purely instrumental!" But I think that this attitude often leads us directly into what we could call the Ineffability Fallacy. According to IF practices which are pursued for their own sake don't have quantifiable goals; you can't measure intrinsic goodness. I am, of course, sympathetic to the spirit of IF. Often -- especially within the domain of education -- measurable goals are introduced in order to (or eventually lead to) reduce the practice into something you can put a dollar sign on. "GRE scores correlate with higher income. Philosophy majors get higher GRE scores, ergo..."

But, lately I've been growing increasingly skeptical of the way that people employ IF in order to justify bad pedagogy. Significant learning outcomes need not reduce to (or eventuate in) financial deliverables. We need not think that striving to better understand -- in concrete and measurable ways -- what helps students learn must ultimately be justified and evaluated in economic terms.

That's what I've been learning a lot from business lately. Yes, business. Even as someone who favors democratic socialism, is pre-disposed to think markets will tend toward vice and evil rather than virtue and the good, and has professed hatred for the hand-wavy seemingly nonsensical nature of business-speak (probably because I just haven't been focusing enough on my profit-margins and need to directly target bigger and more diverse markets without decreasing productivity...I could do this all day) -- even still -- I've been getting really into business theory and practice. A professor of mine suggested I take a look at Peter Drucker's writings a couple weeks back, and I've been pretty hooked.

Drucker talks about breaking business objectives down into 6 key areas -- each of which has a pedagogical counter part, I think. Those objective areas are:

  1. Marketing
  2. Innovation
  3. Resources
  4. Productivity
  5. Social Responsibility
  6. Profit Requirements

I'll briefly reflect on just a couple of these areas to show you how I think educators -- especially at the college level -- could benefit from thinking about their courses (and course development) in terms of business models.


Okay, to illustrate just how surprising the insights from business can be, I'll start with one of the most counter-intuitive objective areas. Marketing. How could marketing possibly apply within the educational context? Like it or not, universities have become marketplaces. Students are consumers. They pay an exorbitant amount of money for accreditation. Pursuing the truth for its own sake is something that, within this context, is actually prudentially irrational. 

So we have to innovate. We have to show students why taking our courses might be valuable for them -- why it might help them accomplish their general life-goals, financial goals, or perhaps enrich their lives in ways they'd never previously considered. All of this requires more than just sitting down and writing up a course description with words like "universal questions, deep thinkers, practical value" -- it means getting in there and learning about your audience. Figuring out who might take your course, and developing resources that are aimed at that group. 

We've been trying to do this with our God and the Good Life Course. Here's a trailer we came up to help illustrate what students can expect from the course:

A Few More Thoughts...

With respect to Resource Objectives: what does philosophy (for instance), as a discipline, have to offer the best and the brightest at our universities? The academic job market is saturated, but employers continue to value the critical thinking that philosophy majors consistently exhibit. Philosophy majors make more money, and are more competitive in many markets, than most other majors. How can we use this -- not as a crude capitalistic carrot, nor as an embarrassing recruitment technique -- but as a data point, something that can help us tailor the courses we offer to those students who will need to critically apply difficult philosophical concepts to realities in sectors like business, secondary education, etc.? The same goes for Innovation Objectives.

And how about Productivity Objectives? This is an area that I think is particularly important. What does it mean for a student to be productive in a philosophy course? Does it mean she absorbs a certain amount of knowledge? Acquires certain skills? It's not entirely clear, but I think it's worth thinking about as we design our courses and write our syllabi. Whatever the answer, I think we need to make sure that it influences the way that we use grades as incentives (rather than ends in themselves) when considering how to assess assignments.

Social Responsibilities Objectives should be one of our strongest suits. We're constantly griping about how many people in our culture seem unable to think critically about the moral dimensions of their actions, or the systematic implications of the way they structure their business or community, but we are we doing as educators to change this? What are we doing to measure the things we're doing to change this?

I've got more thoughts on this, but enough for now. I'd be interested to hear from others on this topic. Do you think it's helpful to think of learning experiences and outcomes in terms of objectives? Do you think the analogy with business models and concepts is helpful? Do you think it distorts the purposes or realities of the educational enterprise? Let me know what you think, and I'll keep sharing Drucker quotes as I come across them...