Why is it so normalized to make snarky side comments about LaTeX?

Actually I wanted to write about something different today and had a post already prepared. But then I came across yet another instance of people making negative comments about LaTeX (for apparently no reason and without explaining why they think so) and I guess that made me angry, so here’s today’s post about today’s topic: Why is it so normalized to make snarky side comments about LaTeX? Both in the DH community and otherwise.

What is people’s problem with LaTeX?

So the offending post, in this case, was this – but I really don’t mean to shit on it because it’s a great post otherwise (I have actually written something similar in Where can I *actually learn* programming? (as DH and otherwise). I guess that’s part of the reason why it makes me so angry. It’s an overall great post by people who are influential in the DH, with a considerable audience and otherwise doing great work. And then a snarky side comment about LaTeX in the second paragraph. We don’t really know why it’s there or how exactly it contributes to the argument (although I assume it makes sense to include it as the post is about “Do I need to learn coding to be DH?” – an important topic I have addressed elsewhere, like here and here, and should maybe talk about again too). It’s not about the post itself but the fact that apparently it’s normal to a) think LaTeX is only for computer scientists and b) it’s apparently normal to just make negative side comments on LaTeX. I don’t want to discuss whether the comment was actually meant as a snark or not, as much as I don’t want to hate on the post (just repeating so people don’t misinterpret what I’m saying…) – it’s just something which reminded me of the fact that it is normalized to make snarky comments about LaTeX. Irrespective of whether this particular comment was meant as such or not. So this post is really about asking why such comments are there in the first place and consistenly reappear?

I guess it must be because people seem to have negative opinions about LaTeX. Often I wonder whether these opinions are actually rooted in personal bad experiences in LaTeX – because in my own life, independently of this post, I have had the experience that the people who have the most objections against LaTeX often have never really used LaTeX for themselves (also, see my post on common objections against it). So I truly wonder: What is people’s problem with LaTeX?

False assumptions and associations are at the root of a lot of LaTeX phobia

I assume it’s all about (in my honest opinion) false assumptions people associate with LaTeX. And, very possibly, having “grown up” in a community that is always negative about LaTeX and portrays it in a, in my opinion, pretty antiquated way. Like it’s “just for the tech dudes”.

Just recently, I have posted a book review of the LaTeX Beginner’s Guide which is essentially a quickstart quide for anybody interested in learning LaTeX. Without feeling like reading technical documentation or feeling exclusive. It’s a totally Humanities and Noob friendly introduction to LaTeX in my opinion (please share yours if you disagree – it’s hard for someone who already knows the skills taught to assess in a neutral manner whether the content is presented in a way which is understandable for an absolute beginner with no previous knowledge). This book totally doesn’t reek of the unwashed-testosterone smell I personally associate with exclusive tech spaces. Which I (sadly) associate with, for example, most Computer Science classes. Take a trip to your local technical university’s CS programme and take a sniff to know what I mean. But the thing is – that’s not LaTeX.

LaTeX is just a technology! The negative stereotypes associated with it are linked to your own bias with regards to who uses this technology. I like to wear lots of lipstick and it totally doesn’t stop me from using LaTeX! If you’re going for the T smell, that’s your good right, too, and I’m the last person to judge you for that. But I will judge everyone who publishes the assumption that LaTeX is somehow only for “tech people”. Whatever “tech people” are anyway.

I think this criticism of LaTeX (at least in the DH) is us externalizing our fear of nerd culture which might exclude Humanities scholars as “real DH”. But, I’m sorry, it’s really not LaTeX’s fault that we’re not adressing this – in my opinion – pressing issue in our self-image of what a good/real DH person is supposed to look like.

Please don’t blame it on a technology which is such a beautiful piece of coding craft that it lasted this long and has hardly any bugs. Which has been cited as an idealized example of the results of Deep Work by Cal Newport. There are so many great things about LaTeX. I truly don’t get why people ever only chose to highlight the negatives.

Oh, also there’s this gem of a LaTeX-hating post if you want a list of things people deem to be wrong with LaTeX.

Or is it just about the typical look of LaTeX documents? You do know, however, that one can create documents with LaTeX which don’t look like “typical tech guy documents” at all, right? (See Typesetting Historical Print for an example).

The whole point I’m trying to make with this blog is: Everybody can use LaTeX. It’s not a “difficult technology”. In fact, I think it’s much easier to learn – at a beginner’s level anyway – than many other technologies which are now very normalized skills in the Digital and even more so in the Computational Humanities (like learning a programming language). If you use LaTeX just as markup (for more info read Does LaTeX count as “programming”?), it’s definitely much lesss work to learn than to actually learn programming as a Humanities person. I actually find that markup, be that XML or mark-up-like looking LaTeX, is actually pretty easy to learn for Humanities people and I’ve taught many classes with absolute beginners.

Then why is LaTeX considered as “reeking of CS” or somewhat exclusionary to the Humanites? In the blogpost which inspired this reaction of mine (the offending sentence was this, btw: “What’s next, providing a properly LaTeX-formatted PDF download so the Data-Sitters Club might fit in with the computer scientist?”), it wouldn’t even be necessary to know LaTeX to achieve the desired result. There are tools like Pandoc which allow you to transform your data to LaTeX without knowing LaTeX yourself. And what’s wrong with wanting a nicely formatted pdf for my ebook reader? What’s wrong with enjoying nice typesetting, full stop? How is that “fitting in with the computer scientists”? I honestly don’t understand this connection at all and I’m sure neither to all of the book historians…

Actually, compared to many other technologies, I also find that typesetting something nicely is a need much closer to the heart of traditional Humanities communities (mostly so for the scholarly editing community) than many other tech skills. Then why is LaTeX portrayed as something only relevant to “tech people”?

Why is LaTeX mentioned as an example for how we’re expected to do unnecessary things just to fit in with the tech community? I mean, I get it. I have the same criticism that I think DH people are expected to overcompensate in terms of learning tech skills out of fear of being inadequate compared to “real CS people” or not having an excuse to exist as a field. I know that definitely do overcomensate and strongly feel this constant sense of technological inadequacy with regards to Computer Science. But what does that have to to with LaTeX?

The TeXLaTeX community is actually one of the most welcoming ever tech communites online and definitely not CS-dudes only

In many of these snarky side remarks, LaTeX seems to stand in for a) an unnecessary technology and b) an exclusive community of computer scientists.

But in all honestly, I can’t imagine many tech communites which are as welcoming as the TeXLaTeX community. Just try to tweet #TeXLaTeX and you should be able to very quickly find new friends and get all the help you need. If you check out the TeX Stack Exchange, you will find that the community actively polices rude comments and having a harsh tone towards newbies. It’s much better in this regard than the actual bastion of all that stands for Computer Science, Stackoverflow.

It’s a community of people whom I’ve never met in real life (was going to but then Covid happened…). We’ve ever only communicated on (mostly) Twitter yet they send me Christmas cards from all around the world or spend their evenings and nights to save my ass with some book editing trouble. I don’t think the people making these snarky comments even know the TeXLaTeX community and I know that the lovely TeXLaTeX community I know doesn’t deserve it at all. Maybe there are some CS dudes using LaTeX how are mean and condescending people. But they are not the TeXLaTeX community. I haven’t met a TeXLaTeX professional who would have been rude to me. Which might also have something to do with the fact that actually working in TeXLaTeX is quite a bit more precarious than just working any other CS job. So please don’t equate TeXLaTeX with some random CS dudes who have been rude to you. It’s not the same community at all!

The community actively tries to include non-tech people and to work against this noob-shaming culture that is, sadly, so typical of tech spaces. I have experienced litterally no gatekeeping at all – unlike in some DH spaces. Even though this is probably an unspeakable thing for me to say as as a DH person and thus betray my DH community a little. I think it’s really sad and ironic that the TeX community gets this false association with exclusive tech dudes all the time. Because they don’t own LaTeX.

I assume for many LaTeX represents a supposedly antiquted technology (I wouldn’t agree) and it’s strongly correleated with Computer Science nerds. Which.. I get why you would think that but also… I’m not your standard computer science nerd. Part of the reason why I started this blog in the first place was that I felt lost in the DH because people kept devalidating me for liking LaTeX and, excuse the language, shitting on LaTeX whenever they could. That felt like also shitting on me as a person and somehow attacking me personally because that was, at the time, the technology I was most proficient in. Ergo I felt like my skills were not appreciated, not even accepted.

I was told LaTeX is not programming by people who clearly don’t know LaTeX very well (in case you were wondering, it’s a little more complicated than that). I was rejected by a community and field who do Digital Edition because apparently nobody needs print and typesetting anymore (agree to disagree?). Which, by the way, is not what I’m hearing the non-digital scholarly editing community in the Humanities thinks. (Btw I have learned that apparently this blog has somewhat of a cult status and a large fan base in the scholarly editing community which I’m hoping to honour with a dedicated blogpost and a real-life workshop some time soon).

A main purpose of this blog is to show how LaTeX doesn’t have to be scary. How LaTeX is for the Humanities too. How it also isn’t a lot of work to “get into LaTeX”, like many of the criticisms seem to imply. I have written a number of blogposts on the topic such as Jumpstarting: Learn LaTeX in 3 minutes, A Humanities’ seminar paper with LaTeX – in 10 minutes or The most important book to read if you want to learn Digital Humanities, Computer Science, Maths, Programming or LaTeX.

If we’re projecting our own fear of being inadequate onto a technology then it is about time we actually work on dealing with our stereotype of what a good DH/tech person is supposed to look like. Instead of hating on LaTeX.

I vividly remember (but can’t find anymore) a Twitter thread where this tech dude (I think actually a Computer Science professor) said something like “I’m expected to do my slides in this antiquated technology (LaTeX) so that my students will respect me as a real computer scientist”. I mean honestly, this sounds to me like you’re projecting some of your own fear of being inadequate onto your students for some absurd reason. I mean, honestly, I don’t want to be pedantic about this – but how do you know your students think that? Did you do a study about it? Did you collect data? Most people really think a lot less about us than we assume. We’re not the center of people’s lives, we’re just in the background. And if the students disliked this guy, it’s much more likely that there was a problem with his teaching or grading. And even if they judged him for not using LaTeX – why should anybody care?

And, even more importantly, why should that be the fault of LaTeX much rather than us as a society projecting unrealistic ideals onto people? LaTeX just a technology like any other and – like I’ve discussed in passing before – there are many much more difficult technologies people are expected to learn. This is true for both computer scientists and Digital Humanities scholars. I think we can agree that it’s much easier to learn to use LaTeX than to understand and use machine learning… Then why aren’t people complaining about machine learning? Can one really expect that all Humanities scholars should learn machine learning? Probably not? It is much less to ask people to learn the basics of LaTeX (which can litterally be done in 3 minutes)? Definitely. Other technologies have steep learning curves, too! In fact, most do at the beginning, even MS Word! So what’s really going on?

Then, to come back to my original question, why is it so normalized to shit on LaTeX? Has this technology come to symbolize our fear of not being able to keep up with all the tech skill demands workplaces have nowadays? Is it yet another technology we feel we need to learn but don’t have time to?

Let me know what you think in the comments.

In the meantime, thanks for all the fish!

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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