Using LaTeX at SIUE for students

What is LaTeX?

LaTeX is a way to typeset mathematical documents. There are other ways to typeset documents that include mathematics, including Scientific Workplace and Microsoft Word. LaTeX is usually not like Word in that you can type and click buttons to get what you want. You usually have to "code" a little bit. LaTeX is a mark-up language, just like HTML (the "code" behind webpages) is.

Why should I use LaTeX?

Where to begin! At SIUE, the main competitors are Scientific Workplace, LyX, and Microsoft Word. In comparison to MS Word, I believe LaTeX has the clear upper hand. Finished documents look much nicer and cleaner. Word is incapabable of automatically numbering equations. Word does not keep track of references and section numbers --- if you move a section in LaTeX the numbering automatically changes. Word does not have all the symbols mathematicians typically need. Word is slow, clunky on large documents, and is not easily shared with other people (how you see a document and how I see a document would be different). A small portion of the mathematical community uses Word.

Scientific Workplace (SWP) is a much better program, but I still dislike it. Let me stress --- many faculty use SWP, and it will produce satisfactory results for your senior project, thesis, etc. I think LaTeX still has the upper hand. I find SWP difficult to cajole into doing what I want. SWP files are not compatible across all platforms as SWP is not available for the Mac. Most importantly, SWP is VERY expensive ($260 for a student license). We have SWP on campus in the labs, but then you need to do all your writing on campus. LyX is an open source alternative to SWP. LyX produces some nice results, but it is not as customizable as LaTeX. If you are getting started and have a little programming background, I'd give LaTeX a shot. If programming gives you hives, then start with LyX.

LaTeX suffers from none of these problems. LaTeX is 100% free. LaTeX is available on essentially every computing platform (you could probably install it on your coffee maker...) It is generally fast. It is capable of typesetting essentially every type of mathematics. The distinct disadvantage is that you have to learn something to use it. For the most part, you must learn a small amount of the mark-up language to typeset documents. There are very good (free) help files available for this. If you enjoyed CS 140, I think you'll have no problem picking up LaTeX quickly. I've also provided some templates to get you started.

A LaTeX documentclass for writing SIUE masters theses is available here.

How can I use LaTeX?

There are two answers here: one if you want to use it ONLY on your laptop or home computer, and another if you want total portability. I really like the totally portable solution for students who switch often between computers, but if you always use your own laptop you are better off with the second solution.
Totally portable --- LaTeX online
There are now some good, online LaTeX editors. This has advantages (available everywhere including on iOS, no need to install, have your file both on and off campus, no need to sync devices/files) and disadvantages (requires an internet connection, need to upload graphics, usually slower compilation times). A couple of good options are ShareLaTeX and Overleaf.
LaTeX on your desktop or laptop
You'll need to install LaTeX and all the associated tools. For Windows, I recommend MikTeX, available here. For the Mac, I recommend MacTeX, available here. These are large files (maybe 2gb +), so you'll want to do this on a fast connection. These programs must be installed, so you'll need administrator rights on the computer you are using.

Getting help for LaTeX

The best free comprehensive references is The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX 2e. If you learn that, you're in good shape. Also very good is this WikiBook. But that's a few pages, so I've collected here some much shorter tutorials. I also recommend reading the AMS Guide to Typeseting Mathematics. Finally, a student recommended the Visual FAQ; I think it's very helpful for beginners.

Files for the workshop

  • Practice sheet
  • Practice sheet (tex file - don't cheat!)
  • Where/how to get help
  • Homework template
  • Senior Project Template
  • ``Powerpoint'' presentation