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Five reasons you should use LaTeX and five tips for teaching it

February 21, 2010, 9:30 pm

Over the weekend a minor smack-talk session opened up on Twitter between Maria Andersen and about half a dozen other math people about MathType versus \(\LaTeX\). Maria is on record as being pro-MathType and yesterday she claimed that \(\LaTeX\) is “not intuitive to learn”.  I warned her that a pro-\(\LaTeX\)  blog post was in the offing with those remarks, and so it comes to this. \(\LaTeX\) is accessible enough that every math teacher and every student in a math class at or above Calculus can (and many should) learn \(\LaTeX\) and use it for their work. I have been using \(\LaTeX\) for 15 years now and have been teaching it to our sophomore math majors for five years. I can tell you that students can learn it, and learn to love it.

Why use \(\LaTeX\) when MathType is already out there, bundled with MS Word and other office programs, tempting us with its pretty point-and-click interface? Five reasons.

  1. \(\LaTeX\) looks better. Seriously. MathType is getting better at visual appeal — it doesn’t look appalling any more — but nothing beats \(\LaTeX\) for refinement and polish.
  2. \(\LaTeX\) is the mathematical typesetting standard in all technical disciplines and in many related fields. Most, if not all, major publications in math, computer science, engineering, and physics use \(\LaTeX\) as the preferred typesetting system. arXiv prefers \(\LaTeX\) over all other formats.
  3. \(\LaTeX\) is becoming a standard elsewhere, especially on the web. Last year, Google Documents added an equation editor that is basically a stripped-down \(\LaTeX\) editor with a point-and-click interface. The wildly popular online presentation tool Prezi has said that \(\LaTeX\) integration is coming. WordPress.com blogs like Casting Out Nines can do \(\LaTeX\), and so can Wikispaces and several other web services. Online \(\LaTeX\) typesetters abound, and more are popping up. The web likes open standards, and since MathML is all but impossible to use, \(\LaTeX\) fills a gaping need for free, open-source mathematical typesetting. Which brings me to the next point:
  4. \(\LaTeX\) is free. Free as in beer and free as in freedom. You can download it right now for just about any operating system imaginable, and have the full strength of the system available to you at no cost. And this is a system that has been around for 40 years (if you count TeX) and has millions of users, many of whom actively contribute to the further development of the system by writing specialized packages and macros. This is in stark contrast to MathType, which is proprietary and closed, and although you get the “Lite” version bundled in with office software, the full version will set you back at least $37.
  5. \(\LaTeX\) is what you make it. You can use \(\LaTeX\) with a point-and-click IDE, or you can type everything out by hand with a text editor and compile from the command line, or anything in between. You can tinker with the low-level creation of fonts or just quickly type out a letter. It’s up to the user. Other proprietary programs force a menu-driven point-and-click approach upon you, which you may like but may not like.

Others may add to these in the comments. But if \(\LaTeX\) is so great, how come nobody ever seems to learn it until graduate school? I’m not sure, but it’s not because \(\LaTeX\) is counterintuitive. It’s not totally obvious, either, but with a little guidance, \(\LaTeX\) can make perfect sense even to high school students. If you’re a math or science teacher, make it a project to learn \(\LaTeX\) yourself and start using it in your classes, then teach it to your students. Here are five ways to make that a painless process.

  1. Use an IDE or a user-friendly text editor rather than a plain, no-frills text editor or EMACS. For Windows machines, use the free TeXNicCenter IDE that gives point-and-click code insertion (or you can just type the code in) with syntax highlighting. On Macs, use TextMate if you have the money and Aquamacs if you don’t; both of these are text editors with tons of great \(\LaTeX\) goodies built in. (In TextMate, for instance, typing begin and hitting the Tab key automatically creates an environment with the matching \end{}. ) On Linux, try Kile. These provide user-friendly interfaces and syntax highlighting that take the edge off some of the learning curve.
  2. Have someone else do the installation and setup, or provide a total handholding guide for doing it. The only really hard thing about using \(\LaTeX\) is simply getting it to work in the first place. This is one of the advantages MathType has over \(\LaTeX\), but the payoff is worth it. New users will need to be walked through the whole process in high-definition detail. But once that’s over, the fun begins.
  3. Start small and simple, and build gradually. When first getting students to use \(\LaTeX\), restrict them to just a small, relatively simple document, one that’s mostly text with a little bit of math typsetting required. Small, early successes will convince them that learning \(\LaTeX\) is worthwhile. I like to give out my training videos to students and have them learn the system on their own; then have a grace period where students get extra credit for doing their assignments in \(\LaTeX\); and then start requiring it after the grace period expires.
  4. Use it yourself. Students will learn from your example. Try writing your next syllabus in \(\LaTeX\); and your class handouts; and your tests (perhaps using the excellent exam package). When you use it, and students begin to use it, they see that they are producing math that looks as good as what the pros do, and they get excited.
  5. When you give a document made with \(\LaTeX\), also give out the source code that generated it. Students can then look at what you created, ask “How’d s/he do that?”, and get the answer immediately from your code and do it themselves. I myself have learned about half the \(\LaTeX\) I know from this method, and adapting/tweaking someone else’s code is a time-honored and very effective means of learning almost anything done on a computer.

Once they are over the initial learning curve and producing beautiful mathematical documents, my students look back on the dark days of MS Equation Editor and wonder, along with me, why anybody would put themselves through something like that. Happy \(\LaTeX\)-ing!

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