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  • Writer's pictureNeža Krek


Neža Krek: This is a fun meta-conversation I had with Chris McMorran. It's a podcast episode about using podcasts as a way to get students deeply engaged with a topic of his field of research and teaching the concept of home. We spoke about the podcast “home on the Dot”, and how he organized the making of it into a full-blown course, the results, ups and downs, and the beauty of co-creation with students. Even if you’re currently not reaching, I invite you to listen as we challenge the concepts of learning and what we are really trying to disrupt in the pursuit of education innovation.

On the official side, Chris McMorran is an associate professor of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore. He's a cultural geographer of contemporary Japan. To author his book titled “Ryokan mobilizing hospitality in rural Japan”, he spent 12 months scrubbing baths, washing dishes, and making guests feel at home at a Cop Springs Resort. Chris is a wonderful conversational partner who is not afraid to dig deep, explore, and have lots of fun on the way.

When we met last year, and I heard him speak, I knew I needed to talk to him and have his perspective on learning and teaching. I started digging into his material and got even more excited.


Chris McMorran: I became an educator because I was inspired by some professors in my undergraduate days. They were approachable and kind humans. Really interesting people who lived in the world, experienced failure and success and sparked some kind of inspiration in me. I always wanted to emulate that and pass that along to the next generation. I was the first in my family to graduate or even attend college. Let alone graduate college. I didn’t really have any inspiring mentors in my family, no one else told me about college and what it was like.

The professors I encountered at my undergraduate institution drew my attention right away. I saw an ideal kind of model for my future self. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do that. I didn’t know what graduate school involved nor how to apply to get into a program. I didn’t even know what it meant to be a professor other than what I saw in the classroom of this small college.

Neža Krek: Now you have lots of experience and also developed your own philosophy of what teaching is for you.


Chris McMorran: I have a couple of different teaching philosophies. The one I talked about at the VOC learning workshop was about the idea of disruptive pedagogies or disruptive learning. For years there are these talks about disruptive technologies and how they’re going to change the future. A lot of these technologies were introduced into our classrooms by people with good intentions. Thinking that this might change the way we teach and students learn.

However, I always felt underwhelmed by technologies that didn’t, at their heart, solve the bigger problem which is disrupting the ways we think about teaching and learning. The ways we think about our role, along with the role of the students in the classroom.

And as in reading people like Bell Hooks and Mike Healy. He works on things such as having students as partners or student-based research. These things have led me to think about disruptive pedagogy and things that disrupt the centrality of the professor as a font of knowledge. As the person who decides what the assessment should be and how much it should be worth.

I don’t want to completely replace myself. But I want to create an atmosphere where students feel as responsible for creating the classroom, teaching, and learning along with each other as I do.

This stems in part from Bell Hooks and his ideas about the classroom as something everyone should feel responsible for co-creating. Not just the professor and not just the students.

All of us have a role to play and a shared role in being vulnerable and responsible with each other.

That's where I have been coming from in the last few years.

Neža Krek: This is where your philosophy and my work beautifully meet each other. I am not an academic, I consciously did not go that way. I realized that my brain cannot do the work you do. But I really wanted to contribute to education. My contribution to this is in form of teaching educators about facilitation and group engagement. These are the overlaps I was so excited to talk to you about! Whether you have a classroom of students at the university or you are a corporate trainer, you still want to have those both-way relationships. To share the responsibility for learning and for engagement.

The number of times that educators from all places come to me and ask: “How do we engage them?” I always answer: “Have you taken your own role under scrutiny?” It’s a very vulnerable conversation that I had with many educators. Nobody likes to be told to start with themselves. For me, starting with yourself as an educator and asking yourself: How can I disrupt the way we’re doing education? That takes a lot of guts and energy. It’s a form of leadership.


Chris McMorran: There are numerous ways one can be a leader in education. Leadership begins with the creation of a syllabus that is heading in a particular direction. You can’t just start with nothing. You have to take some initial steps.

Part of being a leader in a classroom is turning some of that responsibility for syllabus development over to students, being willing to open yourself up for critique, and asking students what works and what doesn’t. Letting them design some assessments and topics that interest them. That’s also a way of demonstrating leadership.

At the end of the day, I have to be the one who approves this. Of course, it’s institutionalized leadership.

That’s very vulnerable and frightening. I’m probably not as good as I’m preaching here about giving over control to the students. I have some ways of doing that and I have some ways that my institution wouldn’t want me to fully do that. Then I pull back. There are curriculum committees and department committees that approve the syllabus ahead of time. I can’t one day go in and say, here is the syllabus, these are the assignments, do you want to scrap it all? I can give students some flexibility to change small things. But I can’t just scrap an exam because they want to. That needs to be approved elsewhere.

I want students' feedback, I want them to feel they have a buy-in in the class. But there are limits to what I can actually let them achieve or how much power I can actually turn over to them.

Which is very frustrating. In a way, this relates to some of the research I did here at NUS. I work on something called LIS Learning or grade-free learning. I don’t know if you’ve read any of that stuff. But around 6 years ago my institution decided to have the first-grade free semester. Students could just come in, relieve their stress, and take a class without the burden of getting an A hanging over their heads. At the end of the semester, they could decide whether to take the grade they earned or just get a satisfactory if they pass the class.

Neža Krek: Like a joker. In the end, you can put it on the table.

Chris McMorran: Yes like a wildcard. It has a wonderful mission behind it. I ended up doing surveys asking students and doing focus group interviews. We ended up asking over 3000 people: where does the aim of this program align with how people are actually using it? We found so many ways that people were abusing the system and found so many frustrations along the way among faculty people like me, who wanted to make the class grade-free. We thought it would change the way we approach the topic, change the assessments, and everything else. But we were not allowed to do those things.

We had to use the old tools and teach the class the old way. And then, just at the last minute, students get to decide if they take the grade or not. There are ways to open up and give more responsibility and power to students that institutions are not ready to fully adopt.

Neža Krek: Let’s circle back to the assessment. We talked about your project “Home on the Dot” with your students. Basically, you gave yourself the lovely challenge of producing a podcast with your students. It kind of encompasses everything that we’ve been talking about right now: leadership, giving over power, and producing something concrete.


Chris McMorran: It all started with a module, a course called “home” that I envisioned years ago. I’m a geographer by training but I teach at the Department of Japanese Studies. I was encouraged to create a general education module on a very broad theme that could be interdisciplinary without bringing in other educators to teach part of the course. I could do it by myself and pull on strands of different disciplines around a central theme.

I chose home. It’s something I work on in my own research in Japan. I read a lot of geography, anthropology, sociology, political science, and other things that kind of led me to develop this class. At the end of every semester, I get students to pull out the syllabus. It’s always on the last day, so you’re never going to have to look at this again.

I ask them: “What are the two readings you remember most, things that stick with you the most, things you might use in the future? And which two would you cut because you’ve already forgotten them? Then tell me about a topic you would like to add. What would you change?”

This is power I’m not giving them at the start of the semester. I give it at the end of the semester to try and bring that idea of responsibility. You now have a responsibility to help develop a better class. They took it very seriously. One of the challenges I got from students was that all the readings I had selected, didn’t talk about Singapore. None mentioned or talked about Southeast Asia or about the multicultural/ethnic society we live in.

A lot of the literature came from North America, the UK, and Australia. Those are the hotbeds of geographic thought on home. The next year, I decided to make it more inclusive and brought some readings in. When I think about home, it’s such a personal idea. We all have a home, you might talk about geopolitics, but you don’t think you have a personal connection to it. Everyone knows what home means to them. I wanted students to reflect on their own personal circumstances, their own memories, and relationships and tell me what home meant to them.

This is also in some way, giving up power and control of what this whole module is about. I’m not telling them what home is. I’m showing some big ideas about what other scholars have said home is, and I want them to challenge it. Or use those ideas by referring to your own individual relationship and understanding of home. Whether that’s home at the scale of the neighborhood, your bedroom, your residence, or your nation. Whatever it means to you.

I went through a very painful eye surgery and I didn’t want to spend much time reading. I am a fan of podcasts and asked students to take advantage of this technology to tell a story about their idea of home. I’m in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and felt that all we ever did was get students to write papers. I thought it would be creative and invigorating for them to try something different. I was impressed with the quality of their storytelling and their ability to take advantage of this technology.

That’s when I decided there is more to it, these are stories that need to be shared with the world. I was listening to their assignments rolling in and everyone that I cited and talked about with reference to home should be listening to these, and seeing how these students in Singapore use that work. Singapore is an endlessly fascinating country that I want everyone to know more about. I decided to move this beyond just the assignments for homework.

I hired some students as producers, and sound engineers. That’s how we created a professional-sounding podcast that’s been going for 3 seasons. We have 10 episodes per season and each episode is 20 to 30 minutes. It starts with the nugget of a homework assignment, then it builds to something broader through field visits, and interviews with experts on the topic through deeply reflective narration by the student producer. Who is sometimes one of the students from the class and sometimes a student who has listened to that homework and developed it on their own.

We created something that’s called “Home on the Dot” and is accessible anywhere and by anyone. Now I’m able to use some of those episodes as homework for the next generation of students. Some of my assigned readings are not readings but listenings of the previous podcasts. Again we’re building this responsibility among students during the semester:

“This is not just homework you’re going to get a grade for. You might tell a story in such a way, that it becomes the thing that inspires the next generation. You have the power to create content for the next year or future.”

Some of our episodes were featured on the in-flight entertainment system for Singapore Airlines. That’s the biggest impact. You will be able to say you did a homework assignment that didn’t die on the floor of your professor’s office. But that turned in a 30-minute episode getting streamed on a flight to London.

Neža Krek: You were really able to spark their curiosity and creativity while beautifully passing on responsibility for their learning. Moreover, they also really learned and incorporated what they were supposed to read or listen to. I don’t think they will ever forget these concepts.

Chris McMorran: I haven’t done follow-up surveys yet. But it would be interesting to ask them after they graduate: “What does Blunt and Dowling’s idea of both mean to you now?”

They might say: “Huh, what are you talking about?” but ideally they will say: “ I used my home piano to talk about the material realities and the immaterial realities of how this object shaped my relationship with home.”

Neza Krek: You talked about hiring your students, which is an unusual concept in education.


Chris McMorran: The students I hired were not in the class at that time. I don’t pay any students to be in the class. But after they had done their homework, some showed either great storytelling, had a nugget of that story I wanted to build upon, or technical prowess. I received a grant from NUS for $70,000 which allowed me to hire them. I felt very strongly that it was important to do so. It is unusual to hire students. But if we think about natural sciences, students are paid to help do surveys, research, or programming. In Arts and Social Sciences somehow, we expect our students to work for free. That’s crap.

Creative individuals deserve to be paid for their time, energy, and ideas. Just like all artists everywhere in the world should be paid for their art. I felt very strongly that I even paid the students who composed the theme song for example. If it took her six hours I pay for six. If took her 20 hours, I pay for 20. I didn’t track. I trusted the students and they felt that responsibility to produce something valuable. They filled out a timesheet and I paid them thanks to this grant.


Chris McMorran: The students are young, around 21 years. They’re mature but they don’t value creativity as much as they should. Hiring them, filling out a contract, and reporting hours made them responsible. It made them want to finish the project. On a volunteer basis, the results would have not been the same and it would have been hard to inspire them. The pay made them feel responsible to finish the job. I also really wanted to reward them and wanted them to respect their own work. Unfortunately, I think that’s only possible with a salary.

Neža Krek: When we met, you mentioned that one of the effects was that their self-esteem and belief in themselves flourished. Some even went to work in these fields. Chris McMorran: Thank you for the reminder. Yes, that is another impact! Students suddenly realized they were good at this. They had someone validate their creativity or engineering abilities. One student went to work for a company and started part-time working on other people’s podcasts. Then got enough work to quit his full-time job and moved to be a full-time sound engineer. He told me:

“I wouldn’t have had the necessary experience and confidence without having worked on this podcast.”

Neža Krek: When people ask me when I started doing what I’m doing. I always ask how much time they have. If they have lots of time I start to tell about my teenage years when I was a scout. I was guiding and teaching other scouts how to be leaders. That’s when I started working with group dynamics which sparked my interest. I know that I'm extremely fortunate to have had an experience like that and I could build my whole career based on what I did as a kid.

Chris McMorran: And you were encouraged at that time? Because it could have been that someone said it’s a waste of your time. But probably, there were some rewards that pushed and inspired you.

Neža Krek: Yes very much. Thank you for creating these opportunities for all your students. I know some people will ask questions about the assessment. You’re teaching at the university, create this podcast with your students, and pay them but then:


Chris McMorran: I have been very intentional about co-creating rubrics with students. Also, I wasn’t paying students who were in class. It’s not like that if we have a good podcast at the end of the semester I gave an A. I assign the students a 10 to 12-minute group podcast. As a group, they do a report on one object or place that signifies home for that group. I mark them at the end of the semester based on a certain number of qualities the podcast has.

I separate the professional public-facing podcast and their assignment. I didn’t start the co-production of a rubric with the students. Over time, I got many complaints from students who didn’t know what made a good podcast. They wanted to know what I would grade them on. The natural inclination for a professor is to say: “I’m the expert, I have the knowledge, I will decide and you don’t need to know.” I think that’s disingenuous at some level. Especially when it comes to something students haven’t done before.

At NUS it’s still very rare to assign a podcast. Everyone knows what to do with a paper. They know the format, and they should have a good thesis with strong evidence and conclusions. But what level of storytelling versus what level of academic rigor they should put into the podcast is up in the air.

Ahead of time, I get students to listen to 3 podcasts. I have some clear questions as part of the assignment. I ask the following. What elements made this memorable? What elements make this a good learning tool? How does a podcast differ from a written assignment as a learning tool for you?

I get students to think about what a podcast is, and what they liked listening to, then they have a discussion in small groups. We write the statements that they think make a podcast interesting down on a whiteboard. This is how we co-create the rubric for this assignment. I did not reinvent the wheel here. I heard people do this with papers as well. Where they let students grade old papers and discuss what is good and what could be improved.

Over the course of that exercise, they’re helping students build critical reading skills while also helping to understand what they need to do to do well. This is what I tried to incorporate into the podcast assignment which I think worked really well.

Neža Krek: The work with your students on this podcast is combining education, community, and home. I’m a big proponent of our classrooms almost being like a home for people where they can be the way they are. Where we help them learn, whatever learning is for them at that moment. I assume the podcast you created also helped create a strong community feeling.


Chris McMorran: I haven’t thought about the podcast itself as a community. With the professional public-facing podcast I wanted to have that community feeling. Some of the students got that because they worked on some projects together. But creative types mostly enjoy working independently. As much as you try to encourage a sense of community, there are still some students who resist that. So it’s not perfect.

But it creates a sense of shared ownership within everyone who has produced an episode. When I announced that we were going to be featured on the flight entertainment system of Singapore Airlines, everyone who worked on it for the last three years felt shared pride. It’s a community of creative types who felt connected through this project they made together.

I try to create a comfortable learning atmosphere in all my classes. I wouldn’t go as far as to it’s a home. Mostly because I teach about home. I know how complicated that term is. It’s not just about comfort. Sometimes homes challenge us. Sometimes we can’t be ourselves in our homes. Home is a very complicated and multifaceted word. I try to create a space where students feel like they can try out new ideas. If that means home, ok. I also want students to challenge each other, and feel responsible for co-creating that space and learning experience. In some ways, that’s the responsibility family members feel toward each other. Even if they don’t like each other, they love each other. Maybe that is a home. I didn’t think about it this way before.

However, without all the background explanation it’s too simple. I don’t just want to call a classroom a home. That makes me think I’m living in a fairy tale, ignoring all the realities underlying the surface. At the end of the day, I’m still the one who gives grades, so there is a power balance. The fact that I’m a cisgender, male, white American teaching in a Singaporean environment also recreates some kind of patriarchy in eyes of the students. I hope not. I hope they feel like they have something to contribute and that I’m opening a space for them to do so. But I can’t fully get in the heads of my students. As much as I wish I could. Neža Krek: Thank you so much for doing the work you do and for challenging this community about disrupting education and what tools and means we want to take for transformative learning facilitation. Chris McMorran: Students as partners, there are ways to transfer some of the power and responsibility in the hands of the students and not put it all on our own shoulders.


Chris McMorran: If I haven’t convinced you yet to listen to an episode or two of “Home on the Dot”, then I’m not going to start now. But yes, if you have some time, I would love to hear what people think about it. I have been forwarding the most rewarding emails to my students of these episodes. They are from educators and listeners around the world. On our website: there is a tab “for educators”. This is explicitly in response to some emails I had gotten from people who are interested in incorporating a podcast and want to know more. I don’t have all the answers, but I try to generously share everything I thought about in everything I prepared. I even have the syllabus and you can see the schedule and how it can work. All of that is available for free. If you use any of it I would love it if you let me know! Or if I’ve just opened your ears about using podcasts in teaching and learning in general I would love to hear from you as well. Here is my mail:

Thanks for listening. I hope you feel inspired to experiment and inject more of yourself into your classroom. One thing is certain: you can do whatever you set your mind and heart to. If you are looking for more inspiration, and practical tips, sign up for the newsletter where I share exclusive content related to the podcast episodes. Click here: Newsletter — Neža Krek ( and join a community of fun ambitious educators like yourself.


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