In my college, there isn't any course where you can learn anything about LaTeX, so I've been thinking on doing a little workshop or seminar in order to give other students and teachers a chance at trying it out and learning the basics. I'd like your advice in many things:

  • Has any of you done anything similar? If yes, how did it go?
  • I think that the installation and configuration in Windows is a troublesome aspect, but many people in my college use it, so I'd have to show it, should I do it at the beginning or at the end?
  • What do you think is better for initiating non-LaTeX people, something like a beamer presentation showing the commands and the result or magnifying the typing of the commands in place (or de-commenting) and compiling to show?
  • Is it better if people can try things during the "course" in a preinstalled computer or will they get distracted and not follow the ideas properly?

Any other advice you can give will be appreciated.

  • 1
    This doesn't merit a separate answer, but I thought I'd add that the University of Waterloo's Computer Science Club hosts one of these at the beginning of almost every term, and they're very popular. I don't really know how much it actually does increase adoption, but there it is :) – Adrian Petrescu Sep 4 '10 at 8:33

Nicola Talbot and I ran a course for UK-TUG earlier in the year: see http://uk.tug.org/2010/07/30/training-day-a-success/ for the slides and so on. The course ran for one day, which was probably as about right. Some people wanted more time (we did have to move fast), but getting people together and having the teaching time is of course a challenge.

The approach we took was to built the material around writing a thesis (a pretty common requirement). So we made a few decisions

  • Ideally, people should leave with a PC capable of running TeX
  • We'd focus on some aspects, such as document structure, and not try to cover everything
  • We'd only talk about PDF output, no DVI mode

The general scheme was to start with installation, then do document basics, then structure and finally some more advanced stuff. Setting up TeX is no too bad with TeX Live (we went with that as it's the same across platforms). The only issue there was the time it takes to install: for the next course I'm going to send out DVDs in advance with instructions, and give anyone who struggled some help on the day.

Again, we were aiming for cross-platform working so had decided to use TeXworks as our editor. The built-in PDF viewer and SyncTeX, plus the fact it basically looks the same on Windows, Mac and Linux made this a good choice for a mixed audience. It also kept the screen pretty clear so we could stick to typing in commands: I think not such a bad way to learn.

We did a mix of slides and examples. So the start was 'what is TeX and what is LaTeX?', where we kept the TeX part short and mainly focused on LaTeX. We then showed some basic ideas in beamer before moving on to some real examples. Again, I think for the next time I might have a bit more on how (La)TeX works, explaining about the 'source code and output' and 'command sequence' ideas. This is easy to miss out once you've got experience!

The way we did the bulk of the course was a few minutes at the front, with slides and examples, then a period when the students tried things out. Nicola did a hand-out with lots of exercises to try. We then went round the students and helped them out (there were about 20, which was manageable).

Some of the students came with very specific questions, so the last hour was a Q&A session where we tried to help with whatever was asked. We also mentioned various places for support, and gave what pointers we could to other resources. That included recommending a book: Kopka and Daly is the best single book in English, I think, so we said that one!

As I say, things seemed to work quite well that way. We're planning to present the same material again, learning from the things we didn't quite get right and hoping to help out another batch of students. So I think the approach was okay.

  • Thanks, that was a good advice. I'd be checking the source when I have some time. – fabikw Sep 4 '10 at 12:15

I have never done anything like this, but I think it's a great idea.

I'm not sure that showing source from beamer would be the way to go. Its basic commands are different from those used to write a document. Maybe give the presentation using Beamer and then at some point mention that you created it with LaTeX as well.

I do not know what the best way to motivate the use of LaTeX is. I'd worry that showing two versions of a document, one typeset with TeX and one with Microsoft Word, to someone who has never thought about what a beautiful document looks like might be fairly unimpressed. You could point out Word's deficient line breaking algorithm and show how you get overly loose lines, but I suspect the response would be, "So?"

One way to motivate its use might be to show off the more automatic features. Labels and references, citations, tables of contents, reordering sections requires just moving text. The separation of form and content. "Oh, you don't want Foo in bold any longer, now you want it small and typewriter everywhere in the document, let's just redefine this one macro then!"

As for actually teaching, I think it'd be essential to have computers at which the attendees could try out what you're doing. Imagine if just hearing something like, "Okay. Now you start off your document with backslash documentclass and then a left curly brace and then the word article and then a right curly brace. Now we start the document with begin document, that is, backslash begin and then document in curly braces like we did with article. ..." Even with slides, that's likely to go in one ear and out the other.

If this is to be a one time thing, plan to stick to the bare basics. It always takes longer to teach material than you expect—even when you expect to cover less material than you expected. =)

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    We probably need to take care with "Oh, you don't want Foo in bold any longer, let's just redefine this one macro then!". Most Word users have been using Word 'styles' for ages now. Word has (softly) enforced this since 2007 where, eg, ctl-i produces the Word equivalent of \emph rather than italics. A simple selection from the Office Ribbon changes the style throughout the doc, no macro coding involved. Same deal for "semantically" changing all other elements of the doc via design templates that, by mouse hovering above their icons, provides instant preview. Just saying that arg needs care. – Geoffrey Jones Sep 4 '10 at 3:28
  • Of course, the comparisons should be made by people who actually know what they're talking about. As Geoffrey points out...I don't. =) – TH. Sep 4 '10 at 3:43
  • Word styles do a good job if used well, but even in the newer versions of Word you still need to think about them. So the comparison is about similarity: if you use the tools available they work, if you don't ... – Joseph Wright Sep 4 '10 at 5:45
  • I can't believe I wrote documentstyle. I've never used a version of LaTeX older than 2e! – TH. Sep 4 '10 at 8:32

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