Are indexes obsolete?

1 0 592

This blog was originally posted on January 29th, 2015.

A posting on the Free Library Blog recently caught my eye, particularly the following paragraph:

Most students also don’t know that many books are indexed. Thus they are unaware that the nature of the assignment might not require that they read the whole work, but rather that they use the index to find the relevant sections which address their own topic. As long as they understand that context matters and learn to read efficiently within a work, they need not be defeated by hundreds of pages of text. Without these skills, it’s a safe bet they haven’t been introduced to bibliographies, chasing notes, or any myriad of other useful appendixes at the back of the book. (See What students (and often their teachers and their principals) don’t know about research and an enric....)

Students don’t know books are indexed? I was mildly surprised to read this . . . until I had a chance to interview seven college students from as many different universities in the last few weeks. I was asking these students about their writing in general, as well as about their writing assignments and about how they went about fulfilling them. Since all the students were using a writing textbook, I asked about that too. The students were all bright and full of good insights—a lot of fun to talk with. And I learned a lot about how they thought about their weaknesses and strengths as writers and also about how they went about finding answers to questions they had about writing. “Where in your textbook do you go if you want to find some information?” I asked.

And that’s when I got surprised. A couple of the students said they looked in the front of the book (that would be the table of contents, though they didn’t call it that). Others said they flipped through the book or looked at the key words on the tabs that divide the book to see if they could narrow down their search. One student, who was using an electronic version of a textbook, used the search function. None of the students mentioned the index. Eventually, I asked one of them “would you ever look up something you wanted to find information about in the index?” The reply: “where is the index?”

If your textbook’s index has a listing for ‘indexes’, will your students know where to find it?

I’ve thought quite a bit about this response and should probably not have been surprised.  After all, students are so used to searching online for information, using search boxes and keyword searches, etc. Still, a great many students are using books, including reference books, and for these texts the index can be absolutely key: as the library blog notes, without an index a reader is left to sift through the volume searching for information.

So here’s one of my resolutions for 2015: I intend to make sure every student I talk with in a class or in the writing center knows where to find the index in books—and how to use it.  A little time spent practicing with an index will take up very little time, and it could end up saving a LOT of time.

Do your students know where to find a book’s index and what to do with it once they find it?

[Photo: The index of The St. Martin’s Handbook, Eighth Edition]

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.