Faculty Spotlight - Rita Premo

Rita Premo: This is how I teach at SSU

Rita Premo

“We think of everything we do as a teaching moment. When students come in to ask a question at the research help desk or when the Library makes decisions about how to organize our physical space, that is our curriculum.”

School: University Library

Position: Scholarly Communications Librarian

Subject Librarian: Majors in the School of Science and Technology

Although library faculty typically do not teach credit-bearing courses during the semester, they are still strongly engaged in teaching and learning. Can you tell us about ways that you approach teaching and learning as a librarian?

We think of everything we do as a teaching moment. When students come in to use library spaces such as asking a question at the research help desk or when the Library makes decisions about how to organize our physical space, that is our curriculum.” The questions are often about their coursework, research assignments, or use of proper citation. They will come with an assignment perhaps and may not have an understanding of terms and why they matter: say, what a peer-reviewed article or a primary source is. Students are sometimes confused because the same terms have different meanings across disciplines. How history defines a primary source may be very different from what biology considers the primary literature. Yet students are hearing the same terms in different classes but may not see that they are different. So although most of the library faculty have previously taught credit-bearing courses at other institutions, here we tend to educate in these liminal spaces as well as through information literacy instruction in the disciplines. It’s far beyond the old bibliographic instruction model of “here’s how you find articles in JSTOR '' and gets into critical thinking about information. 

Tell us about an project or collaboration that you are proud of.

A couple of years ago, several librarians planned and launched an “Adulting 101” series where we focused programming around what is called the hidden curriculum. Take academic reading for instance. Students learned that it’s usually not effective to read a text straight through from beginning to end, and that book chapters require a different approach than research articles. Reading often requires note taking, reflection, and time to digest, yet these are things that students may not have been previously taught. For this series, we made an effort to reach out to other campus entities who have related expertise. So for a session on internships and jobs, we partnered with the SSU Career Center and developed programming that covered both researching potential employers and preparing for and handling oneself during an interview. With Culinary Services, we addressed eating healthy on a budget, and with Student Health we talked about how to evaluate health information, what they might need to know to care for themselves physically and mentally, and what resources are already available to them on campus through their student fees. We were looking to expand the program when COVID hit, but we decided to not add to students’ Zoom fatigue by offering sessions online. 

What have you learned from the students? 

When most “traditional students” arrive, they tend come in with surface-level thinking about information sources that is very black and white, e.g., scholarly sources, good; Wikipedia, bad.But they don’t understand the nuance that a “good” source like a government website can be biased in what it does and doesn’t present, and they have no idea what to do when scholarly research on the same topic disagrees. Who is right? We strive to teach them how to read the original studies or resources very carefully, consider the context of the research (such as how the methods differ), and reflect on how these factors affect the conclusions drawn. But simultaneously, students are information creators themselves, whether through their assignments, when they write a social media post about their experiences, or even in conversations with friends and family.

What suggestions do you have for faculty in building information literacy skills into their courses? 

Consider the appropriateness of an assignment for the level of the student. For example, assigning a deep literature review that requires advanced skills to a fall-semester freshman class is likely to overwhelm and confuse them, even if they had access to research databases in their high school education. Consider scaffolding your assignments to gradually build their skill in reading, writing, and analyzing scholarly research. None of this is intuitive, and research and writing are like muscles: You have to repeatedly use them to build strength. Also, to put my scholarly communication hat on, consider discussing the disciplinary research ecosystem they will face after they graduate, when the vast majority of resources and tools they have at SSU are no longer available or cannot be used in the same way (thinking about Fair Use and copyright but also the extent to which research conducted by an employer may not be disseminated outside the organization).

What do you think it means for SSU to be a public liberal arts and sciences institution (the only member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges in the state of California)? 

It means that we have a very specific kind of opportunity to create well-rounded students. We are building critical thinkers. For me, the liberal arts reflect a consciousness not just of the disciplinary knowledge students are learning and the skills they are building, but also of their use in the world and the implications thereof. At some institutions, things such as ethics training or cross-disciplinary conversations are considered “extra.” Here what is “extra” is a foundational part of the experience.