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I've been given permission to put up a poster in the campus writing center. The primary users of this writing center are from the humanities—those students who need to write rather long papers on a regular basis.

Given that it is strictly non-technical writing, what features of (La)TeX systems would draw such a user, and how should I advertise these strengths on a small poster or pamphlet?

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I'd go with a poster full of ducks. :) –  Paulo Cereda Sep 10 '13 at 18:37
@PauloCereda And maybe a lemonade stand… I wonder if Alan Munn has anything to say; as I recall, he's in such a field. –  Sean Allred Sep 10 '13 at 18:38
None. They will corner you in a dark alley after they receive the corrections from their supervisors as annotated pdfs. –  percusse Sep 10 '13 at 19:17
Automated bibliography stuff: I often have articles with over 100 footnotes. My dissertation had about 1200+, I think. For critical editing, packages like (e)ledmac/(e)ledpar surpass (affordable) commercial options. And the same reasons separation of form and content, and writing structured documents still applies. (And writing a dissertation is the best time to learn something completely new like *TeX because one has at least a year or two to come to grips with a completely new type of workflow.) –  jon Sep 10 '13 at 19:22
A two step process: First, teach them about distributed version control and how to use it, then teach them about LaTeX. Clearly nothing could possibly go wrong and this isn't overly complicated at all.</sarcasm> –  Sam Whited Sep 10 '13 at 20:18

3 Answers 3

up vote 22 down vote accepted

not sure how to present these in a poster, but here are some features of latex that should be especially attracive to users in the humanities:

  • plain text input, not dependent on software upgrades or versions, and input is not corrupted (or lost) if a run doesn't complete successfully; plain text also means that it's very easy to rearrange paragraphs with minimal side effects
  • access to competent and flexible bibliography tools
  • automatic tables of contents, and reliable indexing facilities
  • ability to use multi-layered footnotes, as required for critical editions, provided by the eledmac package
  • many multilingual capabilities, including language-specific hyphenation (on a paragraph level) and ability to intermix different scripts (latin, cyrillic, greek, arabic, kanji, ...)
  • powerful tools designed for linguistics; a large population of linguists who use latex in their work (including Geoffrey Pullum, one of the authors of the Phonetic Symbol Guide), and a forum devoted specifically to that discipline
  • document classes such as memoir that are more in keeping with humanities work and "fine publishing" than the "usual" technical-oriented styles

some of these capabilities won't be appreciated even for long papers, but as soon as one is ready to tackle a dissertation or a book, there's really nothing new to learn if familiarity with the system has been nurtured through practice with shorter projects.

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I'll comment on this answer, since it's pretty much exactly the one that I would give. What's notable about this answer is its lack of appeal to the beauty of TeX. This argument is, IMO, a red herring, and even more so in the humanities where most documents (other than critical editions) are just plain paragraphs plus footnotes. And the real value definitely comes in longer documents such as a thesis or book. So for undergraduates in the humanities the appeal is limited. (And most linguists would consider themselves cognitive or social scientists, and not in the humanities.) –  Alan Munn Sep 10 '13 at 21:41
@AlanMunn :-) I know precious little about linguistics, so I'll trust you on that point. I agree that trying to convince people simply on typographical terms has been less than effective; when it comes right down to it, most people just don't care; there has to be a practical advantage. (I would be very interested if there is a study that shows the grading advantage in particular.) –  Sean Allred Sep 10 '13 at 21:53
@SeanAllred To think that there would be a grading advantage is to take a very cynical and in my experience unlikely view of professors' grading practices. However, I do know that in certain areas of the humanities, citation practices are fetishized, so having good bibliography tools (as TeX does) would definitely be a plus. –  Alan Munn Sep 10 '13 at 21:59
@AlanMunn -- when i worked on a master's degree, b.c. (before computers), i was actually told by one of my professors that a paper of mine got kicked up a grade because it was typed on real bond paper with an executive typewriter using a carbon ribbon. i don't know who was more cynical -- that professor or i. (i didn't mind the grade inflation though.) but a fair statement about linguists being social scientists; that's what my degree is in, although there was a heavy concentration in ancient germanic languages that was more to the humanities side. –  barbara beeton Sep 10 '13 at 22:06
Philosophy is a humanities subject and lots of logicians use LaTeX. Some non-logicians, too. Not just philosophers of mathematics etc. However, I think the appeal to undergraduates is minimal. Postgraduates, yes. (There stuff like bibliographical management, control of layout and version control will convince a minority.) But usually it seems to take off in departments where some dedicated person teaches others or where there is a critical mass of logicians or whatever. Otherwise, you're the lone weirdo who insists on doing it differently. –  cfr Jan 22 at 4:40

In the centre of your poster, have a side-by-side comparison of a page of text typeset by Microsoft Word and a page of text typeset by LaTeX, in the style of various examples I've seen on this website that show off the beauty of its output. Emphasise that for typical essay-writing, the learning curve is incredibly short, and the difference in quality of output is both great and beneficial (because graders are unconsciously driven to give beautiful work higher grades).

Pick a nice font like Garamond with old-style figures. Use someone's actual essay rather than lipsum filler text.

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While someone like me would think this is fantastic and be drawn to it, I actually don't think most humanities majors would care at all. It sounds counter intuative since they probably deal with text all day, but most English majors and the like probably have never considered the design and formatting of what they do; they're concerned with the content. It's a sad truth (in my experience). –  Sam Whited Sep 10 '13 at 20:16
@SamWhited It's good they're concerned with the content: one of the best aspects of LaTeX is that you're able to change formatting from the ground up with only minimal modifications to the input file. –  egreg Sep 10 '13 at 20:43
@egreg Absolutely, and focusing on that sounds like a great idea (but that's not what he said). Focusing on typesetting minutia though probably won't hook too many humanities folks. My earlier comment did say `formatting' though; wrong word, they probably do care about that. –  Sam Whited Sep 10 '13 at 20:59
I agree that it's not something many humanities students would think to care about, in the sense of having it as a concern they're aware about when selecting a system to work with, but if you confront them with it, showing two A4 pages, one of which clearly looks more beautiful, you can make it become a consideration. Humanities students do care about their work looking professional, like the academic papers and books they spend all day reading. –  dbmag9 Sep 10 '13 at 21:13

Why not reminding readers on the annoying character of word processors?

  • LaTeX does not try to outsmart you, neither changing the order of letters, nor the layout, without your explicit command!
  • You can have an enumeration directly after a numbered headline and LaTeX will never take an item of the enumeration for another headline!
  • Hyphenation will work! There won't be a single paragraph without hyphenation, except you forbid it.
  • There is microtypography and hence no rivers, almost.
  • Even if you stick with science for all your life, LaTeX will be there. And since your texts are written in ASCII, you can become old and grey and still giggle about the nonsense you wrote when you were a student.
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I would say that hyphenation is something to be avoided, and TeX will do a good job of avoiding it! (And, of course, uses it well when necessary.) –  Sean Allred Sep 10 '13 at 20:49
"Latex does not try to outsmart you". Sure, \begin{figure}[h] => "No no no, you don't mean 'here'. Let's put it elsewhere.". –  stefan Sep 11 '13 at 8:52
@stefan Well, but LaTeX places figures reasonably, while placing pictures in a Word file, closing and reopening it may have very strange consequences. But I agree, "h" as an option is misleading, if you read "here", instead of "here?". –  Keks Dose Sep 11 '13 at 9:36

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