Monday, December 6, 2010

Digging for Treasure: My First Dig

I’ve been thinking about teaching a lot lately, and especially the question of how you can know something without knowing exactly what you know. I’ve been through that with a few subjects. The first one was book indexing, which has been my main career for the last twenty-four years.

Oh, I know how to do this!

When I had been indexing books for about ten years, I realized suddenly that I felt competent. I liked the indexes I was creating, and so did my clients. I felt excited and powerful as I read books and figured out how to make the information in them accessible to readers. I started going to indexing conferences, and discovered that indexers were my people. I totally enjoyed talking about the ins and outs of indexing with other people who actually understood what I was talking about. I remember heads in a restaurant turning when a tableful of us shrieked with laughter…about cross-references!

Something to offer

Other indexers were noticing my competence too. People were starting to ask me questions. To my surprise, I had a lot of opinions. (Um, no-one who knows me now would be surprised!)

I went to all the workshops at the conferences, but I was frustrated. There seemed to be a lot of talk about mechanical issues like punctuation, prepositions in subheadings, and cross-reference placement. Now this stuff is important, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not interesting. How to figure out what the author is really saying, how to create appropriate wordings for ideas that take a paragraph to explain, how to connect almost-but-not-quite-the-same concepts in the index—that is interesting. No-one was teaching about that.

A workshop? What?

So I wrote my first article, about the special challenges of scholarly indexing. I thought maybe I could actually give a workshop, but that was so outrageous that I didn’t tell anyone about it. I swear! But right after that, a chapter of the indexing society called to ask me to give a workshop for them. I said, “You know, I’ve never given a workshop before?” They said, “Oh, that’s okay. We loved your article and you’ll do a great job. Teach about anything you want. And we’ll fly you to Texas and put you up in a hotel.”


I was terrified. What on earth was I going to tell these people for a whole day? I knew I was a good indexer, but I didn’t really know what was good about what I was doing. What was I doing, anyway?


So I started to observe myself while I indexed. For several months, every time I made a decision, I made a note about it. I watched myself making headings, subheading, and cross-references, choosing wordings. I also watched myself getting stuck, changing my mind, wondering if I really knew how to do this, finding answers.


And something magic happened. I found out that there were patterns in what I was doing. I started with a mass of details, lists of mixed notes growing in my computer. And it was as if a scaffolding, a structure, rose up out of them all by itself. I found categories and names for the steps of my indexing process. Some of the concepts I identified had not been named before. Those concepts and my names for them have become my permanent contribution to my field.

Wow. Yes, I’m a bit proud of myself.

Something else magic happened. My indexing improved. The more I could identify the patterns I was unconsciously following, the better I became at following them. When I got mired in a tangle of words and concepts (something that happens to every indexer), I had to narrate my way out of it. And when I got stuck again, I found I had written myself a guide.

Wow again.

Oh, and the workshop went great. But I’ll talk about that another time.

I have taught a few other things over the last years. I’ve helped other people figure out how to teach what they know. And I’ve realized that the process I go through, of observation and structure-making, is something that lots of people might be able to use. I’m going to call it “Digging for Treasure.”

More to come!

Please join me in the comments! Ideas:

What do you know in this subconscious way? What would it be like to try to teach it?


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this story! My mind is often a mix of methodical/analytical decisions and then sheer intuitiveness as well. I like your "digging for treasure" metaphor quite a lot.

    I have recently branched out on my own after working for a company who trained me in a very particular kind of reading intervention for almost a decade. I'm finding that I like the liberation of making my own decisions about my students' instruction and think, in many ways, I could better teach others to do what I do (compared to my former employer). It's a daunting task to try to reconceptualize the teaching of an entire curriculum - your method of slowly documenting your decisions and actions over time seems so much more sane and manageable! Thanks again and I look forward to reading more.

  2. @Beth, how nice to hear from you! Good for you for branching out! I bet the entire curriculum is there in your subconscious knowledge. I'll be interested to hear what you think about my process.

  3. Hi. I don't know how I found your house, but I'm sure glad I did. It's almost like it's made of gingerbread...

    Anyway, I loved your question about figuring out what I know so deeply and subconsciously. Because, like you, I see patterns, the patterns of emotion and experience that cause people to react the way they do. Helping people one on one is easy. Showing a lot of people how to duplicate these results...I haven't figured out how to do that yet. But thank you for giving me ideas. *busily making notes* :)

  4. Oh, I got some ideas while I was reading your process. I'll go write them down before I lose them. But one thing I know I"d like to do: Teach creative people how to solve technical problems. Teach a workshop at a conference where I help people set up their own facebook page, twitter account and an online blog or journal. I could do one-on-ones, and a grou[ thing for people who are almost there, but don't quite get it.
    I can show them how to set up their privacy, and how to solve common problems and avoid traps.
    I want to travel to other places, particularly conferences or seminars or festivals to present the workshop, and I want to do it once (or even twice!) a month. The obstacle? How to find workshop presenters or conference coordinators who have attendees with twitterphopia?

  5. Ooh, ooh, that sounds great, Linabella! There is such a need for exactly that! There are lots of those people around.

  6. This is fascinating. I love the way you describe your own patterning, when indexing. I also always find patterns in things, I sometimes call myself a "patterner" after a novel I loved. I've never thought of patterning my own patterning, though. That's beautiful. I think there's something essential about the scanner in that, too. It's how we do that. (When I was a kid, I wanted to be a renaissance woman when I grew up. Not a or but a renaissance woman.)

  7. woops, there was a typo in that. Should have been "Not a thisjobtitle or a thatjobtitle but a renaissance woman" I forgot the angle brackets would be interpreted as html.

  8. Yes, patterns...I guess that's what the whole Digging for Treasure thing is about, isn't it?

    Yay, you always knew you were a scanner! It took me years to stop looking for the One True Thing I was Meant to Do!

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