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


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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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Five reasons you should use LaTeX and five tips for teaching it

  1. I actually like needing to learn those bits of coding, but while that’s appealing to me, maybe it’s a reason against…

    Jonathan

  2. I’ve *required* my abstract algebra, real analysis, and topology students to type their HW in LaTeX (I gave them templates so that they only needed to type their solutions—they didn’t have to worry about headers, formatting, etc.) My knot theory and my discrete mathematics classes had to type math into wikis—the wiki site (Wikidot.com) used LaTeX commands for the math.

    Not only have I had no complaints, quite a few students have thanked me for having them learn LaTeX. Actually, halfway through the real analysis class I gave them the option of handwriting their solutions. They voted to stick with LaTeX (part of this was that I allowed them to do revisions, which is much easier if they already have a typed version).

    Also, we have TexShop installed on all of the Macs in our building, so they don’t have to worry about installing their own version (although I know quite a few who do).

    I have to say, I’ve loved having the students hand in typed solutions. They’re so much easier to use, and it seems like they put more time into writing good proofs.

    (I didn’t get into the Twitter LaTeX/MathType challenge because it has been SO LONG since I’ve done any mathematics using Word. I don’ t even know how to get to the equation editor—although I suppose that it is not hard to find.)

  3. Michael

    I’ve tried multiple times to install Mathtype. Tried again earlier today because of all of the Twitter discussion. Guess what: it still won’t install for me. Complains of mathtype.dll stuff. I’ve got LaTeX to install on every computer I’ve had in the last 5-6 years no problem. Their tech support told me, “Oh Well” last time I called.

    Word 2007 Equation Editor is workable for symbol simple typesetting. Anything remotely complex and LaTeX wins hands down. I use both with some frequency.

    But some people just insist on their way and I sat go for what works for you. But no reputable mathematics journal is going to accept your Mathtype! And if they do, they will re typeset it in LaTeX to publish.

  4. Alasdair McAndrew

    All very good points, but I think you need to point out that Emacs, with AucTeX and RefTeX, provides a LaTeX environment which is absolutely second to none. TexnicCenter and all the others pale in comparison. On Linux you should NOT use Kile in preference to Emacs/Auctex/RefTex, unless you’re writing only simple documents. For writing multi chapter books, with large reference lists, masses of cross references, indexes etc, you need something more powerful than Kile.

    I don’t require my students to use LaTeX (I’ll accept hand-written work if that’s what the student is happiest with), but I must say that for publication-quality mathematics LaTeX is the only way to obtain professional documents.

    I’ve never understood the “easy to learn” argument; that something may require a bit of learning doesn’t seem to me to in any way a bad thing.

  5. Great Post Robert. I have been using Latex for 3 years, and I really like it. In fact, I have created a tutorial on how to embed it in blogs, so you might want to refer your students there. The web address:

    http://math4allages.wordpress.com/2009/12/06/latex-tutorial/
    http://math4allages.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/latex-basic-commands/

    Im planning to have a tutorial on using TexniCenter soon.

  6. Nice blog, I agree. I would also suggest MacTeX for Mac OS X as the entire distribution and its IDE are installed with a single binary, meaning it can be easily installed with no previous LaTeX experience.

    MS Word is too bloated, too slow, too weak and too expensive. Yet it is somehow an unofficial industry standard, even though OpenOffice and Google Docs are free and provide all of the most commonly used functionality. There are arguments centering around MathType’s integration with MS Word – but in my book, if you’re using MS Word you’ve already lost.

    Since LaTeX is a scripting language, you can type the most complicated mathematical object very quickly. There is no pointing-and-clicking, no dragging-and-dropping; just efficient and intuitive typesetting.

    One final pro-English point. Since I’ve never heard of the word ‘math,’ the name MathType is nonsensical. Apparently it has something to do with typesetting maths…

  7. While I often use LaTeX (and have even taught it to students before), my particular sticking point has been pictures, which I use all the time in my documents and can easily shift around in a WYSIWYG interface but have to flip back and forth many times to get right in LaTeX.

    Also, I don’t know why you wouldn’t make undergrad math majors use LaTeX. If any group needs the skills on a professional basis, it’s them.

    Also also, my work doesn’t allow the installation of anything extra on the computers, so I’m stuck with plain Equation Editor a lot of the time anyway.

  8. Jeff Walker

    One wonders why OpenOffice chose to role their own syntax for Math, rather than simply adopting LaTeX.

    Online math-intensive classes virtually require a decent math formula editor. Grading scanned hand-written homeworks can’t be fun. Heck, grading hand-written homeworks that haven’t been scanned in a regular course isn’t fun.

  9. Cathy

    I taught myself how to use LaTeX when I was a third year undergraduate. It wasn’t easy, but it was well worth the effort. I use it all the time now. It is much, much quicker than MathType, and the end result looks so much better. However, it is virtually impossible to get my maths teacher colleagues to use it. They will still scan hand written solutions to exams for distribution to the students – it looks so unprofessional!!!

  10. Pingback: Latex Tutorial: How to embed Latex in blogs and forums « Mathematics and Multimedia

  11. Great post – couldn’t agree more! Learning Latex was one of the best decisions I ever made.

  12. (First, I am the CEO of Design Science, makers of MathType so I am biased. )

    I love the challenges presented by the whole MathType vs LaTeX debate but I would like to correct some of the misconceptions about MathType presented here.

    MathType does not come with MS Word. All versions of MS Word come with Equation Editor, a stripped down version of MathType. Office 2007 also has a new equation feature that is language-based and more integrated into Word’s editor. It does a nice job but is somewhat hard to use. LaTeX people might like it. It is surprisingly virtually undocumented by Microsoft.

    While LaTeX is widely used, it is more used by mathematicians, theoretical physicists, etc. and less used by economists, biologists, math and science teachers. Turns out that most math is not done by mathematicians. The farther one goes away from the hard-core math use, the less LaTeX is used and the more MathType is used. There is a logic to this. If one does math all day, then the steep learning curve of LaTeX is worth the investment. Less so the farther away from this core you get.

    Is LaTeX more popular than MathType and its junior Equation Editor version. No, not by a long shot. We have done informal surveys of publishers that accept authors’ submissions and, of those that contain math, more than 85% are MS Word with MathType or Equation Editor equations. Of course, submissions to mathematics and many physics journals are dominated by LaTeX. However, again, most math is not done by mathematicians.

    While MathType does have a point and click interface, anyone who uses it a lot would definitely learn its keyboard shortcuts and perhaps even modify and add new ones. This is all very easy to do. For those that want LaTeX-like behavior, it will understand its keywords too. It is amazing to me considering the LaTeX learning curve that you guys will blast MathType without ever even looking at any instructions or even just simply perusing its menus and dialogs. You would discover these features in about 5 minutes. Instead, they are conveniently ignored.

    One of the biggest reasons MathType is faster to enter than LaTeX is in the reduction of mistakes. In using LaTeX, how many times does one enter a complicated expression and miss a bracket or other grouping or have to add a space or take one away to get the parsing right? Sometimes it is hard to tell where the change needs to go. With MathType, you see the expression already formed so these mistakes are very hard to make if one is looking at the screen.

    LaTeX does a really nice job at what it does. It makes sense to use LaTeX in some environments. The choice is and should be up to the individual.

    Paul Topping
    Design Science, Inc.

  13. Paul,

    First of all, thanks for stopping by. You add a lot to this discussion and I appreciate your time.

    Regarding popularity, notice that I said LaTeX is “the mathematical typesetting standard in all technical disciplines and in many related fields”, not that it is more popular than MathType.

    Regarding the keyboard shortcuts and the ability of MathType to handle LaTeX keywords, unless I am mistaken, MathType does not have the ability to load arbitrary LaTeX packages, for example those that supply specialized fonts. So while I don’t doubt that MathType will handle /some/ LaTeX commands — the ones that produce MathType symbols — as far as I know MathType does not have LaTeX’s ability to extend the set of symbols it is capable of producing via third-party packages. This is a crucial point for many who work with math typesetting. So the fact that MathType can accept LaTeX commands is relatively minor importance to many folks. And there is still the issue of the aesthetic quality of the output, regardless of what command was used to produce it.

    As to the “reduction of mistakes” issue, a text editor with syntax highlighting eliminates the kind of problem you are mentioning (of not knowing where a bracket goes, etc.). Such editors (such as Aquamacs or TeXShop on the Mac or TeXNicCEnter on Windows) can be had for free. And of course the LaTeX compiler spits out specific line numbers on run-time errors to tell you where to look.

    And there’s also still the issue that LaTeX is free and MathType isn’t.

  14. Robert,

    I appreciate the opportunity to air my thoughts.

    While it is true that you said that LaTeX is the mathematical typesetting standard, that can be taken many ways. My guess is that most readers would take such a statement as indicating popularity. I do think that LaTeX’s math output quality is the standard against which all others are measured, MathType included.

    You are right, MathType can’t deal with macro packages like LaTeX. It really doesn’t have that much need of those sort of things because its chosen domain doesn’t cover that sort of thing. Much of this is because MathType is not a document processor like LaTeX.

    As to aesthetic quality, LaTeX wins of course. It does so by completely controlling its font and output environments. This is not something MathType can do. However, MathType integrates better with modern applications and websites, allowing users to just cut and paste equations into hundreds of apps and websites. It is a tradeoff.

    I disagree with you on the “reduction of mistakes” issue. I am a programmer so I am very familiar with syntax highlighting. It can help but it is still often not easy to know where the bracket should go. Often in TeX the brackets can be balanced but the expression is still not bracketed as one wants because it needs to be based on the author’s intention and no editor feature can help with that. A mismatch of this type can’t even occur in MathType. It is the same reason most people use direct manipulation word processors and not markup languages like LaTeX when writing text. The benefit of direct manipulation is even stronger when it comes to math.

    LaTeX is only free if you ignore the cost of learning it and struggling with it. If you maintain that people don’t struggle with it, I direct you to the many forums and such devoted to helping LaTeX users. Users need to factor in the time needed to learn and use LaTeX. That time has to be worth something.

    Some years ago, I submitted an article to TUGboat, the TeX Users Group journal. Of course, they require TeX and so I had to install it and use it. I’m an experienced computer scientist and it still took me an hour or two to get a standard TeX distribution working on my computer. I don’t remember the specifics but the problems were due to things like an installer’s intolerance of doing an installation to my D: drive rather than C:.

    Paul

  15. j edward ladenburger

    “LaTeX does a really nice job at what it does. It makes sense to use LaTeX in some environments. The choice is and should be up to the individual.”

    Paul Topping
    Design Science, Inc.

    ’tis Friday afternoon and I just got done jumping into a “fair and balanced Fox” vs “Liberal Media bias” debate with comments generally designed to calm the waters — I smiled as I read through some of these $ \LaTeX $ vs MathType comments — and found even more joy as the debate spilled over into Twitter challenges issued by Maria and taken up by folks who went as far as to submit YouTube videos documenting their TeXing.

    I think Paul’ comment — quoted above — is spot on. I use both for different purposes. If I have a heavily math or physics oriented document or exam to type, I’ll generally use $ \LaTeX $ — but Paul is right — I fell into $ \LaTeX $ only after I was employed as the physics coordinator at Duke Marine Lab. In a previous job, teaching mathematics at a public high school, I used MathType and could not seem to find time to overcome the “learning curve”. Now I find that the number and scope of packages for $ \LaTeX $ is truly remarkable, and in addition to the traditional math and physics, I use it for letters, song books, chess notation, large documents, musical scores, etc. Once a format is established and the learning curve is overcome, it is so easy to reuse and re-appropriate a basic form — simply replacing content. That said — I am currently beginning to migrate to Mathematica for many lecture notes due to the interactivity of “Manipulate” and the improved typesetting and presentation features.

    Isn’t it grand to have so many quality options available — I recall a time when it was a nightmare [for me at least] to communicate mathematics oriented material in print!!