Reading Tags vs. Themes

Reading Tags vs. Themes

One of the features of the introductions in the revised HUM Readers will be a selection of “tags” for each work. Those who write introductions will be invited to identify 5-10 tags that will appear in an information box at the start of the introduction. The editors, including some of us who have already written introductions, wondered about using the term “tag” rather than “theme,” and a healthy debate resulted. The following attempts to clarify what a tag is, how it differs from a theme (at least for the purposes of the Readers), and why we view them as particularly useful.

The term “tag” is borrowed from blogs and online publications. Most blogs are organized by categories chosen by the author at the creation of the blog. For each individual blog post, the author may designate as many tags as they like to indicate the subjects or topics that that post engages. To borrow the analogy from this Elegantthemes webpage, a blog’s categories are like a book’s chapters, and the tags are like the index.

A book can have several different indices. In the discipline of Classics, it’s not unusual for a scholarly text to have three or more indices: one for proper nouns of places and names (index nominum), one for ancient works cited (index locorum), and one for “general” subjects (index rerum).

Tags function like a general subject index. They will not include places, names or events. This is the point of overlap between tags and themes, and why our editorial discussion was necessary. Tags emerge from the works themselves. They can be very diverse; the different tags for a single work need have no connection to each other. For example, for the Buddhist work Kisagotami in HUM 124, we included the following tags on the template introduction: Buddhism, Death, Gender Roles, Narrative Ethics, Wisdom. For the Apology of Socrates, we could include: Philosophy, Death, Citizenship, Law and Judgment, Wisdom. (We would not include Socrates, Plato, or Athens.) In a syllabus organized by themes, both Kisagotami and the Apology of Socrates could be assigned as reflections on death or wisdom, but neither work would be particularly illuminated by such a theme or by connection with the other. It is simply that they represent different views toward some similar questions, although they are not circumscribed by those questions. They share a few connections in their broader purposes.

Tags highlight those possible connections. They do not determine them. Tags enhance our understanding of the work. They are organic, emergent, context-forward and practically infinite. Tags represent some of the questions that the work addresses, but the questions do not determine the complexity of the answers.

Themes, on the other hand, are organizational, like book chapters. In a syllabus, themes encourage the way that the work is read. Themes are limiting, context-effacing, more self-determining.

Tags resemble “keywords” more than themes, though the term “keywords” suggests that the words themselves appear in the text that follows. Tags may represent words that appear in the text or introduction, but it is not necessary for them to do so. In the example of Kisagotami above, Death and Wisdom are “keywords” while Gender Roles and Narrative Ethics are clearly contemporary frames rather than words or terms that appear in the work itself. At least one online publisher, Springer, includes “keywords” for their online material which include the names, places and events that we exclude; and Springer’s materials sometimes add the note: “These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

As guidelines, then, for adding tags to an introduction, we encourage authors to focus strongly on the content of the text rather than specific facts within it or interpretations of it. To give another example from the ancient world, we have used Odyssey 9, Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus, as a text illuminating the theme of “Identity and Other.” Potential tags could be: Hospitality, Food, Violence, Monster, Trickster Hero, Society, Prophecy, Curse. In our scheme, we would not include Odysseus, Polyphemus, Poseidon or the Odyssey. Nor would we include Identity, Other, Colonization (though Odysseus is widely read as a colonizing figure in this passage), or Environmentalism (though Polyphemus is a pastoral figure who lives in harmony with the land).

As editors of the Humanities Readers, we could use the tags for a general index at the end of each work, but we see a benefit to including them at the front of each reading as part of the introduction. Tags in a blog post encourage a reader to search for other readings with a similar tag. We hope that our tags can encourage such cross-cultural and trans-historical reading. To encourage that kind of reading, we plan to choose 10-15 tags to identify and elaborate in the cross-cultural introductions in each Reader.

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