Where’s the Index?

Bedford/St. Martin’s editor extraordinaire Carolyn Lengel and I have been interviewing student writers as we’re working on a new edition of The Everyday Writer. We haven’t met these students; all we knew is that they had used Everyday Writer in one of their writing classes.  As we talked, the students told us when and why they used the book, what they thought it had been helpful for, what about it they liked—or would like to see improved.  But we were also interested in HOW they used the book.  So we asked them to walk us through one time when they wanted to find information in their handbook—step by step.  What did they do first, and so on.  To our surprise, several students said they began by looking at the words on the tabs to see if it looked like one or more of them contained the information they wanted.  A couple of other students said they started by looking at “that list in the front of the book,” AKA the table of contents.  Finally, we asked a student if he had checked the index to help him locate what he was looking for.  “So, where’s the index?” was his response.

We subsequently asked all students about the index, and most seemed only vaguely familiar with it.  The online sources they go to, they pointed out, don’t have indexes.  These students, bright and generally school savvy, are not completely savvy about print book conventions.  “So, where’s the index?” is a question worth listening to.

I’ve always urged teachers using one of my textbooks to spend class time early on getting the students into the book, showing them what’s there (these books are packed absolutely to the gills with what I’ve learned about teaching writing over 40+ years, so I know they can seem dense!) and how to find information.  When I teach with one of these books, I use it frequently, often kicking off my course with the chapter on “Writing to Make Something Happen in the World.” I want students to read this chapter, to hear about the students featured in it, and to ask themselves how they define good writing and how often their writing makes something happen in the world.  (I’ve found that students have fabulous stories to tell about such writing!)  So we talk about writing as a performance, as active, as something that makes things happen.  That’s writing, I find, that they can be committed to.

I also love to focus some class time on style, using chapters on sentence structure, on language, on word choice, and so on as a platform for workshopping some of their own work.  I love working on sentences, taking one from each student and working together to make that sentence “sing.”

What I’ve learned over the decades is that if I want students to get the most out of a textbook, I have to bring it into class on a regular basis, showing them how to make it a valuable friend to their writing and their writing processes.  And now I know not to take anything for granted!  So early on I’ll ask a series of fairly abstruse questions and ask students to work together to answer them, using their handbook to help. Then we map the processes they used to find the answers, including false starts and missteps as well as successful moves in locating the needed information.  And along the way, I make sure to ask, “So, where’s the index?”

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