I am happy to introduce my first guest post on this blog. It’s from my archaeologist friend whom we decided to call “the LaTeX Noob” here. She will give her perspective on how using LaTeX in the Humanities feels for her and the problems she has encountered. Like how getting help can be tricky, you don’t want to look like an idiot and how you constantly have to defend your choice to use LaTeX (to users and non-users alike). “Why would a Humanities person want to use LaTeX anyway? You don’t need it and you’re not up for it” are the most common insults a Humanities person might have to endure after choosing LaTeX.
Here come the confessions of a LaTeX Noob:
Confessions of a LaTeX Noob
Okay, here I am, the LaTeX noob. Well, not that noob-noob, but noob nonetheless. I am an archaeologist and I am trying to write my thesis in LaTeX. Well, my catalogue, to be exact, because we archaeologists like pictures of our stones and potsherds and whatsoever.
So, we need a good tool to achieve a really nice looking result document. And no, I don’t have the money or the skills for Adobe or anything like that.
Have you ever tried to get a nice document done with Word, including lots of pictures? Yes, there is a good chance you will kill yourself trying. So, that is why I am here, busy reading the Ninja’s blog and her tutorials. I like the way she explains things (to me, also in our lunch and coffee breaks at university) and I really trust her on that issue. Mainly, because I cannot talk computer-talk and she understands my archaeologist-talk, because she is one of us.
So, why am I writing my first guest post on this blog? As a LaTeX noob, you are willing to try this new way of getting nice results in your writings, articles, and so on, BUT: It is neither simple nor easy to ask for help. Or trying to. Or showing your code to others.
Fear of being dumb
Okay, this might sound a little like overreacting, but yeah, asking for help in some online forum or even colleagues and friends who are skilled with LaTeX (and some of my friends and colleagues indeed did to write their thesis in LaTeX) is not that easy. Especially not if you are like me – always trying to find your own way, your own solution. But it is obvious that you will reach the point where you have to ask for help. After all, this is teamwork, right? I know, maybe this is sort of naive, but I always learned that I have to ask others, because they have different skills and knowledge and can help me, and I can help them in return. So, I just asked my questions… And then, a lot of nasty answers followed.
Sometimes, people are just suggesting what they mean using short terms or abbreviations – so, I have to google it, because simply writing that I am a LaTeX noob does not get across to them. If I repeat my question stating (the obvious) that I have no idea what they are talking about, some get really upset, writing that noobs and beginners should not even try because they have no idea of the matter. It gets worse when I tell them that I am an archaeologist, so, a girl of bones and sherds. This means, humanities. And hello, one of the greatest cliches around us: What do we need LaTeX for? We are no technicians. I will not argue about that. I took some university courses in programming, I can use QGIS and I know how a database should work and how I would have to build it, but I would not strictly need that stuff in my area of research, that is correct.
So, I might have heard about some things, but not all. And not all things I have heard about are logical to me. Arrogance does hurt. Noobs and beginners like me are tryng to learn. So, be kind. I sometimes try to talk to this kind of people… never mind. It does not help very often. But, I have to say, there are a lot of friendly people in the same online forum who tried to help and who sent a lot of tutorials. There is hope!
But mainly, I just felt dumb and stupid and I quit my experiments everytime, because I thought that it is not worth my time trying to get better and to do something good with LaTeX if there are that many unfriendly people out there. It sometimes felt like they did not want to be nice or help at all.
No one ever said that LaTeX was easy-cheesy, but you have to admit that some coding is just not logical. How to put text and figures in the right connection, wondering why the whole thing is just a mess – until I stumbled upon the problem of
floats (where it got even worse). Floating and non-floating, figures and minipages, and so on. I got really stuck there, it took me lots of hours to figure out what the differences were and how I can use both in combination.
It gets even harder, when skilled LaTeX-people are asking you about your work. You describe your way and your solution – and find yourself bombed with suggestions and new variations of packages you never ever heard of. And even trying to make your point clear does not really help sometimes. So, I just remain quiet, listening and somehow my brain gets totally winded up in knots and funny question marks in very bright colors. I asked them to write their suggestions down or to send me an example – most of them promised, but never did, and we never ever talked about that subject again. So, if you just want to show me how good you are, fine. But I really wanted your help, otherwise, I would not have started the conversation at all. If I do not want your help, I will tell you.
And then, there are people who think that you are exaggerating trying to use LaTeX, mainly because no other person they know has used it. They will even tell you every time they see you that you are wasting your time. You should be writing your thesis, not surfing the net and looking up funny lines of code. I had to invest all my energy on my genetically predisposed stubbornness to lock them out out of the room and to figure out my needed piece of code.Then I present it and they are really surprised (well, most of them). Some remain sceptical and even tear your work apart, because they have worked and are working in a different way and, of course, it is only correct if done their way.
Fear of doing things wrong
I have still to fight that one. As for now, my document looks nice and is working, so after all, it is functioning – no errors mean everything’s good, right? Still, there are people who are telling you that you code is not clear, not logical or far too complicated. BUT: It can’t be completely wrong. It works, after all.
Okay, I might have a very strange style, but that is okay for me, as long as everything works that way I want it to work. I somehow think about coding style as a fashion issue. So my coding may not be fashionable, but I think it is like cosy underwear: I might not want to show it to people. But hey, it feels good to me.
Getting rid of my image as a LaTeX-Noob
I sometimes wonder when I will get rid of my image as a total noob. I might not be a beginner anymore because I can read tutorials, even advanced ones, and I can understand them and I can follow them and reproduce them myself on my terms and conditions. But, I am still a noob. Maybe I will always be a noob, concerning some people out there who are basically LaTeX-gods. But at least I have a LaTeX Ninja among my friends. She will show me how I can survive.
So, this is my first post here. In my next one, I will write about my writing and my time management – and my motivation vs. my iron discipline on how to write 130 pages a month, neither loosing my nerves or my mind, nor killing anyone (including my laptop).
So, this is it for now. Thanks for reading, as always.
the LaTeX Ninja
PS: By the way, she prepared this post in LaTeX 😉