“Reading Indexically”: An Assignment on Indexing and the Digital Humanities

“Reading Indexically”: An Assignment on Indexing and the Digital Humanities

The following assignment is indebted to Rachel Sagner Buurma’s “Victorian Literature + Victorian Informatics” course, which she makes available on her website.

Inspired by her unit on indexing, as well as by the ideas explored in three other key texts – Lewis Carroll’s An Index to ‘In Memoriam’ (1862), Stephen Ramsay’s call for play in “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around,” and Ronald Day’s comparison of indexing to “surface reading” in Indexing It All – students in ENG 398: Digital Victorians did two things. First, they created an index for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” (1850). Second, they wrote a brief essay assessing the implications of using indexes versus digital tools to “sort” and comprehend a literary work. Although we worked with a set of poems, this assignment can easily be adapted to a novel, set of novels, or a collection of short stories (i.e., the Sherlock Holmes stories or Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills).

In addition to having students comprehend the purpose and (brief) history of the index, the learning objectives of this assignment were three-fold:

  1. To test whether “reading indexically” could tell us something about a text that close reading might not;
  2. To understand how an index mediates literary information;
  3. To evaluate the degree that critical methodologies based in digital tools continue or depart from the precedent set by indexing.

To make this assignment engaging and comprehensible, we broke it into discrete steps that took place over four class meetings.

Class Meetings 1 & 2:

In preparation for these class periods, students skimmed Lewis Carroll’s index and looked over excerpts from Henry Wheatley’s What is an Index? (1878) and How to Make an Index (1902). They also read the guidelines for creating an index from University of Georgia Press as well as Day’s “Indexing It All.”

After discussing how, why, and when an index might be useful, students were asked to read “Sonnets from the Portuguese” with an eye to creating an index. Students discussed the relationships among concepts and words and how an index differed from a “key words” list. By discussing the purpose and methods of indexing, students came to appreciate why word searches and tools for text visualization alone could not generate an effective index (e.g., Voyant, Wordle, or Lexos).

Class Meeting 3:

For homework, students created seven index entries and a rationale for their entries. These were posted on the course blog. In class, we shared entries and rationales. Interestingly, this opened onto a larger conversation about subentries and cross-references, and how such organizational categories reflected and inflected how we understood “Sonnets from the Portuguese.”

As a class, then, we used Google Docs to compile our individual entries into a single index. We spent 50 minutes doing this. While students were working on adding and refining the index on their laptops, we had a discussion on what the index should look like (i.e., formatting, font, etc.) and how the index might serve a reader.

Class Meeting 4:

For the final class period, students did a close reading of select sonnets in order to see how “reading indexically” differed from “close reading.” We also broadened our conversation to talk about how these practices of reading intersected with or departed from reading practices we had explored earlier in the semester, including surface reading and distant reading.


Students thus were equipped to write a 1000-1500 word essay about their experiences. Their essays responded to some of the following questions:

  • First: How does approaching the text as data to be parsed and organized change your experience of reading the text? In creating an index, did anticipating the needs of a future researcher or reader of the “Sonnets” influence your reading practice? Does understanding the “Sonnets” as organizable data enhance your understanding of these poems? Or, alternately, does understanding the “Sonnets” as organizable data somehow miss the point? After creating the index and using visualization tools for the “Sonnets,” what do you feel this set of poems is about?
  • Next, and more broadly: What relationship might indexing have to the digital tools we’ve explored in class so far? In what ways does the function of the index overlap with or diverge from the visualizations produced by Voyant, Lexos, or Wordle? What should be indexed? Is there anything that shouldn’t be indexed?


This assignment yielded a number of interesting insights into “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” as well as into indexing, digital tools, and practices of reading. Moreover, the final essays generally were thoughtful, creative, and full of fascinating associations and connections.

Students found this assignment to be an easy way to explore issues related to information, organizational systems, and reading practices – issues that are also, yet differently, explored in the digital humanities. I lay out the structure of this assignment in the hope that others can adapt it to examine a novel, set of novels, or short stories. 


Winter Jade Werner, Wheaton College

Thursday, 06/02/2022 - 19:06

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