Last week, I worked with LaTeX, a formatting system that uses markup language to create documents, for the first time. The experience was:
- Not as complicated as I imagined, and
- Offered a glimpse into how the more technically oriented people in my research field think.
The decision to use LaTeX was not mine. The organizers of a conference where I had a paper accepted not-so-subtly told authors to switch from Microsoft Word to LaTeX (via the Overleaf interface) because the Word template they provided was so dysfunctional.
This understandably upset a lot of people. Many (myself included) had never used LaTeX and the revision period overlapped with the winter holidays. The research community raised valid concerns about the template issues that dogged the entire submission process, and I hope the conference organizers consider them. But that’s not my focus here.
By the time I sat down to re-format my paper, several researchers had voluntarily compiled a Google Doc with detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to transfer papers from Word to Overleaf. The process took me about a day-and-a-half and proceeded more smoothly than I expected. (Seriously, those researchers saved the day with that document.)
Now that I’ve used LaTeX/Overleaf, holy moly, no one should ever typeset a complex document in Microsoft Word again. I can’t believe how many hours of my life I’ve lost tinkering with tables, figures, and columns in that program, trying to divine what random collection of keystrokes and clicks would make everything snap into place on the page.
It’s not that things don’t break in LaTeX; they do. But when they do, I can more easily see why. I can check for missing parenthesis or parse the error statement and fix them. With Word, I have no idea why something breaks, and, more important, little sense of why my actions fixed it.
Part of this facility comes from the fact that I have basic HTML and programming experience, so I generally understand what the tags are trying to do. And the Overleaf interface, which shows the compiled document next to the code, makes it easy to see the results of my typing.
LaTeX sees documents as collections of different types of text. So formatting in LaTeX means defining the different categories, either within the template or by using software packages others have created for LaTeX, and then tagging the text to identify its category. So instead of manually changing the font and size of a heading title, or selecting a heading style in Word, you just type \section before the title and the text automatically formats to the pre-defined font and size.
I now get why so many people in computer science and math use LaTeX; it’s a programmer’s approach to formatting. Things (in this case text) belong to certain categories, and the author’s job is to label them. And with this realization, it also became a little clearer to me why some of my CS colleagues might struggle to understand the interpretive and mostly qualitative research I do, or why engineers might overlook social implications when they design technology. I study how people shape technology (and how, in turn, technology shapes them). And people cannot be slotted into categories. (As Mark Zuckerberg said at a tech event in 2016, “The code always does what you want—and people don’t.”)
Another small clue about the position of qualitative research in computing appeared in the sample template PDF. The document provided tips on how to format things like figures, tables, and equations. But nowhere in the document could I find a block quote, something that appears often in the papers I write. I’m not suggesting this was an intentional omission, but it made me wonder, did whosoever made the template not realize or expect that block quotes would appear in the papers submitted to this conference? Qualitative research contributions are an established part of human-computer interaction research, but that doesn’t mean everyone understands or accepts it.
I knew that before, but after using LaTeX, I have a slightly better sense of why that might be. I work in an interdisciplinary field whose members come from a variety of backgrounds and apply assorted research methods to study computing. Misunderstandings and disagreements are inevitable. Seeing how people whose research approaches differ from mine think helps me understand how to engage with them rather than wonder why they don’t get it.
So thanks, CHI2019, for pushing me to try LaTeX. My schedule and my brain appreciate it.