Teaching Students to Close Read by Creating Indexes
An index is an organized catalog of concepts that allows efficient navigation of a text. It also allows a reader to see trends, motifs, or patterns, even without actually reading the text. Creating an index of a book while you're reading is a great way to close read for literary commentary, but it is also a way to synthesize information, no matter what the text type.
My own experience with indexing falls into two categories:
- Indexes I've created that have been published
- Indexes I've created to promote my own research
I created the index for Krin Gabbard's Better Get It In Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus. Before tackling this project I had very little working knowledge of Mingus. I understand music and have a relatively deep knowledge of contemporary, classical and baroque music, and a solid foundation in music theory. But I've never been a jazz scholar nor a jazz musician. Nonetheless, careful reading and indexing does not require expertise in the specific domain. It does require some knowledge of the general field, but not expert level knowledge.
I also created an index for E. Ann Kaplan's Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. I had a much deeper working knowledge of this domain and was able to contribute more than just a few fact checks or tweaks. (And Ann very generously references a paper I wrote on environmental zombies in a footnote!)
What I learned about indexing from these projects is that careful reading doesn't require you to be an expert. It also taught me how to move slowly and carefully, and to keep track of everything I observed. You throw your observations at the wall and see what sticks.
The example of an index I created to promote my own research comes from J.G. Ballard's High Rise, which featured in my dissertation on architectures of safety. The index looks like this:
It is very messy. But by creating a map of motifs and references, I was able to see patterns and associations. This led me to create coherent and evidence-based thesis statements. Again, I threw things at the wall and then pieced the results together in the way that made the most sense to me. Here is a set of notes I wrote for students on the concepts of "prison" and "zoo" in the novel, just a brief thinking "essay" (a trial, an attempt) using quotations recorded in my index. This pushed me toward a "thesis statement."
I share these examples with students so they can create their own indexes while they read, so that they are motivated by the possibilities of indexes, and so that they aren't so intimidated about what to record. Just record anything that happens more than once, that speaks out, that conforms to some expectation or that undermines some expectation, or that fits into a pre-determined "literary" category: metaphor, setting, characterization, etc. The hard thinking work comes at the end, and by that point, if your index is rich enough, the paper will practically write itself.