In praise of the index – a conversation

by Ron Barnett and Dagrun Astrid Aarø Engen

Ronald Barnett is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at University College London, and is the President of PaTHES.  He has written or edited well over 30 books on the philosophy of higher education, is the inaugural recipient of the EAIR Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Higher Education Research, Policy and Practice’ and has been an invited keynote speaker in 40 countries.

Dagrun Astrid Aarø Engen is Associate Professor of University Pedagogy at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and a board member of PaTHES. Her PhD thesis is on knowing and knowledge in educative processes in the “supervision room” in MA education.

A while ago, Dagrun received a short text from Ron that was meant for the En Passant column in the PaTHES Newsletter. Ron wrote in praise of the index – as a writer and as a reader. The thoughts and narratives that Ron articulated in his text resonated with Dagrun’s thoughts and experiences on approaching academic literature as meaningful materialisations of thinking. They decided to write something on this together.

Dagrun: When I came to the University, I did not learn how to read – I knew that already. But I was taught how to study literature. I remember the lecturer demonstrated a way of not only identifying words in a text, but actually engaging oneself in the thinking of the author(s) of the book. I remember this very distinctly, because it was not common. What was common was to lecture on the content of a book, but not to spend the lecture on pointing the students in the direction of critical approaches to texts as forms of writing. 

The lecturer demonstrated the many ways we could explore and analyse texts in the literature by using the table of contents, the bibliography and the index. The table of contents reveals the overall structure and direction of the author’s line of reasoning. The bibliography gives a glimpse into the author’s academic conversations and the intellectual company she or he keeps. The index is the author’s opportunity to display concepts and words that are important, that the author hopes the reader might look out for. The index can in this way become a site for conversation between author and reader. 

Ron: A good index is a many splendored thing. It can perform two major roles.  

The first of these is two functions in one.  Self-evidently, a good index can provide both an indication of the topics within its covers and their locations.  On this ground alone, an index is indispensable for it makes the whole text accessible.  

I picked a book off the shelves of my library two days ago, which I knew pretty well and knowing that a topic appeared within its covers, but I was faced with no index and so that book went back to the shelf and wasn’t cited in my own writing at the time, nor in my bibliography.  That author’s citation index received no boost from me.

The second reason is no less important but never mentioned.  A good index can set out the conceptual geography of the whole text.  It can reveal the text, lay it open, show it off.  It is, in itself, a voyage through the book, showing – in a few pages – the kind of work it is.

Dagrun: “Geography” is a good metaphor here, at least for books that tries to create a meaningful universe. Also, an index is not only a listing of words, I think of it as a genre with a certain notation system. There are main entries and subentries, “see” and “see also“, and ways of creating a conceptual hierarchy within the geography.

Ron: I have an example: Whatever we may think of the work, the index to the Blackwell edition of Heidegger’s Being and Time is a model in both of these respects.  It runs to sixty pages and enables the fine details of the text to be accessed, and – in itself – it reveals brilliantly the book’s complex conceptual architecture.  Being and Time, without that index, would remain – for most people – a closed book.

Although I am pretty familiar with that book – having wrestled with it on and off for decades – I recently wanted to explore in some depth a couple of its concepts and, using its wonderful index, I was able to find important passages containing those concepts. Moreover, I was able to extend my understandings of those concept into somewhat critical insights, as it happens. The index had made it possible for me to change my sense of Heidegger as such.

Dagrun: I can dwell in an index, sometimes get lost in it. The collective of concepts can spark ideas and beginnings. I can return to the index after reading a book, or parts of it, and find that I interpret the index in another way, discover more of the conceptual logics that are hidden in it.

However, such an approach is only meaningful if the authors themselves are involved in selecting the concepts that are to be included and excluded in the index, and which pages the reader should be guided to when searching for these concepts.

Ron: Yes. I insist on doing indexes to my books, and I pay particular attention when compiling the indexes of my sole-authored books. In doing so, I try to give the busy reader ways of comprehending the book in question – I try to reveal it, to bring it out into the world – as well as finding ways into it and through it.  

A good index, therefore, is a wonderful resource, not least in the business of academic life.

A concern for the reader as a busy person is crucial here. Academics today rarely have time – or make the time – to read whole books, cover-to-cover. They need to be able to pinpoint passages very quickly, even if they have read the book in toto in the past. Without an index, they are bereft.  

Producing an index, therefore, is part of the professional responsibility of the academic as a writer. Even though a little arduous (and it typically takes me around three weeks), it is an essential element in a book and should not be shirked.

Dagrun: It is time consuming to create a good index, but I remember that you also have told about how much you gain satisfaction from compiling the index and you even have a little fun in the process. You once made an entry for “cake” in one of your books. In my view, this is one aspect that makes writing a truly human activity which cannot be automatized. In the conversation between author and reader there is room for interpretation, surprises and playfulness. One example that amuses me is from the book The Social Construction of Reality (TSCR) by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The subtitle of TSCR is A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. The word ‘knowledge’ is also included in the index – with one reference: “13ff”, an ironic way of telling us that the whole book is one long line of thought on the problem of ‘knowledge’.

I think that treating academic writing as automatized and efficient production (of what?) is one way of rendering thinking meaningless and pointless. Luckmann and Berger’s index in that book is a good example of thoughtful pointing. The digitalisation of old and new books makes it easy to scan texts for certain words, but the index is not a scanning tool, it is a pointing tool. If I search for the word “institution” in TSCR, I can within seconds learn that the search tool was able to find this particular word 21 times in this online pdf version that I found somewhere. Furthermore, I can – just by a single click – manoeuvre to the next passage where this word is used. The word ‘institution’ is not included in the index, however. What is included in the index is ‘institutionalization’. The authors wanted to point the reader to the process, not the product, because it was the processual characteristics of society that was central in their thinking.

Ron: There is a very important point here. Computers can pick out words but the art of the index lies in identifying concepts. This requires care and thought, not least because concepts may be expressed in different words and even simmer under the surface of words. Such care requires time and so is costly, both on an author’s time and on the publisher. And so, in academic book publishing these days, we are faced with a tacit conspiracy between publisher and author. 

In a constant drive to reduce costs, publishing houses have dispensed with their former indexing capabilities. No longer are professional indexers employed.  Instead, at best, authors are invited to supply a set of ‘keywords’ that publishers’ computerised typesetting systems will turn into an index – of a kind. Authors, on the other hand, neither see much if any point in an index nor feel that they have the time to put in effort on that front. The result is that we are ending up in a situation in which academic books either contain a perfunctory index or, increasingly, no index at all.

This is an extraordinary situation. Coming across an academic book without an index is like finding a recipe that consists of a picture of the dish in question, it just having come out of the oven, but neither a list of its ingredients nor a set of instructions as to how it was all put together. 

So, to conclude, an academic work without an index is worse than useless for it frustrates and produces negative attitude to a book; and that is not an attitude that an author will want to induce in a potential reader. On the other hand, a good index can promote continuing interest in a work and allow it to be a continuing resource for ever-new insights.  

An index is part of a book’s own becoming; its own sustainability over time. A good index enables a book to live on, and so enhances a book’s longevity..

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