Thursday, June 05, 2008

LaTeX for Undergraduates

As I said in my previous post (this morning), it was great to be back at university today without any stress whatsoever. It was so great, that as I predicted as I was there till 5pm. (Well I would have gone home sooner but I didn't manage to finish what I was working on, which isn't a very good thing.) I had set up base in the smaller computer room and no one else went there. (I wish I had taken some lunch though, for I am starving!)

Whilst I was busy trying to be busy, I saw... hmm let us say Mick (MS) walk past. (Note: My policy is that I will only write the names of those lecturers who know that this is my blog, and have spoken to me about it. If they haven't then they are either Dr. X, Prof. Y, "AB" (their initials) or a made up first name like in this instance. Also, I tend to keep on making new names up for the same person. But obviously if I have a nice thing to say or have an occasional blip, the surnames might pop up).

So Mick walked past and I hurried after him to discuss The Galois Group (TGG) of course. I have to send some information to Mick, and he asked me if I could do something else. I wanted to find out if he knew anything about Fresher's week (yes I'm already thinking about next year!) so we could work out a strategy to promote TGG to new students. He told me that LW was the person to speak to, and since he was on his way there I joined him too. (It so happens that the University are benefiting from TGG in various ways. Perhaps I will sign it away to them if they gracefully grant me a first? Not likely though, is it?)

Anyway, in the conversation with LW, LaTeX cropped up and Mick commented his surprise at me using it. He enquired as to how I learnt it, and I went down memory lane but for a second only. The first thing that had come to mind was "my blog" and then "Steve"! The Blog didn't get a mention of course(!) but I recalled Dr. Coleman telling me about LaTeX once in my first year (a couple of days after I had posted about it!), so that was what verbally left my mouth. Then of course, I mentioned the online community which has helped me a lot when it came to learning about LaTeX (i.e. Steve!)

I then mentioned that perhaps LaTeX learning could be incorporated in the first year module, maths workshop. My exact words were that instead of Matlab which should learn LaTeX, but that isn't a correct thing to say. LaTeX is a typesetting software, whereas Matlab isn't. Anyway, initially it was "difficult" but with the amount of help available online, and books out there it is not too difficult. Yes, once you want to become more adventurous and perhaps use coloured fonts, or link things (etc) you have to go outside your comfort zone slightly. Nevertheless, it is a challenge with the resulting end product being fantastic.

The problem boils down to how "computer-ate" a person is. I am able to use a computer and always try to learn new things about them (and new software etc. ) but does one have to be "very computer-ate" to learn LaTeX? Documents that I have typed in Microsoft Absurd look really horrible to me now. I don't think my idea will ever be considered, because those students who want to learn about LaTeX will. However, perhaps they should be told about it.

What about if all the undergraduate students had a blog! (Can you imagine that?) Well it was by blogging that I actually learnt a great many new things...

Enough of that musing. One of my agenda for the summer is too learn Beamer (and hopefully acquire the book about LaTeX). I'm also hoping to get Adobe Illustrator on my system, which should mean that I don't have to worry about images any more. When one tends to write their goals down, one gets carried away at times. However, after some time one learns their lesson and stops themselves from getting adventurous. Me though, I can't stop myself from writing that I intend to post more about LaTeX. (Don't laugh now!)

To conclude, Dave Barry deserves a medal for the following quote:

You can only be young once. But you can always be immature.

(This post has lost the plot slightly because I started it at some random time and now it's 9:45pm. I also can't remember what else Mick and LW discussed with me about LaTeX


steve said...

The way to get Manchester to help students learn LaTeX is to do what you did before - tell them Warwick do it!

We run a learning course in the autumn term, and have an accompanying course on the website. If you don't know, LaTeX is the way to typeset mathematics, it's extremely powerful and very flexible. Have a read, come along or help out. Academic Stuff.

OK, it's run by the Maths Soc but you don't have to say that! Why not contact Warwick Maths Soc about teaching LaTeX? While you're at it, promise that if one of their lecturers would come and give a TGG talk next academic year then you'll send a Manchester lecturer to give a talk to them :)

Beans said...

Hi Steve,

That sounds like a smart idea! Although this reminds me that I seem to have neglected the forum for quite some time--I think I need to remind people of it again. The forum was meant to inject LaTeX into students, but alas it has yet to materialise. (They are not transferring the current forum onto the university server, but starting from scratch I think.)

It is a shame that I'm not authorised to check that page out, but I really like the set up of Warwick's Mathsoc. I fear that when I leave, The Galois Group will leave with me. :/

Haha, if I make such a promise and they agree, then what (which lecturer would go)?! However, (you didn't hear this from me by the way!) we are looking to see if we can get a TGG lecture done by someone whose not from Manchester. (Hence me asking for names!) So that will solve that problem then.

I've added this to my agenda. :)

Beans said...

Steve, you got another mention today as well! Dr. Coleman was telling me about getting coloured writing in LaTeX documents (and colour in general I think) and how it wouldn't work. I told him that you created colour links for me in the proposals documents, and I'll send him the preamble.

(I think he did wonder for a second as to why you help me, and why anyone would help me; but I think he realised that he helps me himself so he can't wonder such things!)

So if you were sneezing today I do apologise, or is that just another myth?

KTC said...

I know you wrote first year, so maybe Manchester do it in later years, but if not, you might be interested to know as well Edinburgh do it in its Junior Honours year (and assume you know it for Senior Honours) as part of its its Mathematical Communication course. (Translation: JH is 3rd out of 4 years, SH is 4th/4 years. 1st/4 year is skipped by some students.)

From my experience seeing reaction of other students, I think most actually don't mind LaTeX, which was actually a surprise to me.

Beans said...


So in your third year you are taught about LaTeX?

I'm slightly confused now though, because I though that you had to do four years in Scotland. (Can you graduate having only completed 3 years then?)

That means I can now tell the University that "Warwick and Edinburgh do this so why don't we?" (Can anyone else add to this?:D)

It's a bit like having a fear of the unknown. I once showed a LaTeX file to a few Tweenies and they were of the opinion that "why complicate things when you have word"? (I thought it was best not to explain that LaTeX was actually doing the opposite!)

However, I agree that we shouldn't say that because a person is not "computer-ate" they can't be told/taught about LaTeX. We shouldn't make LaTeX seem scary to students.

At your university can you had in written coursework?

KTC said...

A bachelor honours degree in Scotland is typically 4 years, however some students are allowed to skip 1st year with suitable high results from pre-university (e.g. Advanced Highers / good A-Levels).

One can also graduate after the 1st 3 of 4 years with an ordinary or general degree.

One can indeed hand in written course work, whether that be produced with LaTeX or even Word.

3rd year Edinburgh (at least when I was doing it) have a mathematical communication course for most of its maths students. Maple & LaTeX, with projects in Maple / Matlab, with report produced with LaTeX.

Physics also like its students to learn LaTeX to produce reports in it, but don't actually teaches it as part of a course.

Beans said...

Thanks for clarifying that.

I asked about written coursework being handed in, because I was wondering about the consequences of enforcing coursework to be acceptable only if produced with LaTeX! (Not a likely thing to happen of course).

I think it is a nice idea to have a proper course about such software. We were taught Matlab as part of a module, but since we only used it for a short period of time, I have since forgotten it all! (And I have never used Maple and co.)

Hmmm, my head is ticking away and I might see if we can actually do something constructive to introduce LaTeX to undergraduates.