If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Moss, trail to Avalanche Lake

If a teacher posts readings without requiring students to write about them, incorporate them into class discussion, or otherwise reflect on them, are they part of the course?

Before the semester, I defined for myself questions that governed selection and structuring of each week’s content:

  • Week 1 And when I die: What themes and issues does Being Mortal raise?
  • Week 2 Toe bone connected to the foot bone: How and why did we delegate end of life decisions to our health care system? How does the system work? How is it financed?
  • Week 3 You say you want a revolution: Can the issues raised in Being Mortal be addressed by reforming our health care system? What reforms are needed? What is necessary to implement such reforms?
  • Week 4 I’ll be watching you: What is the legal basis to reject medical treatment? What is the legal basis for the right to die?
  • Week 5 I am a rock, I am an island: When does one have a legal obligation to help another? How should society reconcile an individual’s right to autonomy with the needs of others negatively affected by exercise of that right?
  • Week 6 For the loser now will be later to win: How could one change social attitudes regarding end-of-life decisions? How did the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Rights Movement effect change?
  • Week 7 Reflection: How do this course’s topics and themes tie together? What have we learned? What will we take away from this course?

These express my conception of the course’s intellectual arc. They are not the “right” questions and themes. There is no “right” answer. Most topic connections are impressionistic, requiring individual interpretation.* I vowed not to impose on you my version of the themes and narratives. It was not an easy vow to honor.** Your weekly activities and discussions were different from those I would have delivered.  For me the results–that is, the topics you discussed, the issues you raised, the conclusions you drew–were often revelatory, especially as you became more comfortable expressing your beliefs and disagreeing with each other. (Which you did, without becoming disagreeable.) You took each week’s content seriously, and I grew more comfortable letting you run without controlling the reins.

We’re at the end. Week 7’s task is, in many respects, the most difficult: make sense of it all.

Actually, no. Requiring Team 7 to define What It All Means would violate the rules. Its task is to reflect.


I am confident that Team 7 will ruminate, cogitate, cerebrate, and contemplate their way to a valuable and satisfying final class discussion. And for the final act, I’m lightly tugging the reins, revealing my cards, shaping the discussion, and listening for the tree’s fall.***

*Were I teaching you how to perform heart bypass surgery, I would not have merely given you a patient, a scalpel, and a pat on the back. This is not heart surgery–or statistics or financial accounting or economics or calculus, which trod narrow and certain paths. Our worst outcome would be a boring, wasted classroom experience.  We did not come close to that.

**Along the same line, I thought: if I share this Reflection document with students before the final class, will it interfere with, or unduly influence, their reflections? Perhaps. It’s a risk. Then I thought: if I don’t share it before the final class, will they even read it? Probably not. It’s a larger risk. Which brought me to the question above:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

***And mashing the absolute bejeezus out of these metaphors.