Last month, I highlighted two very different articles that continue to influence my thinking, behavior, and decision-making. This month, I chose a couple that are somewhat related. But be warned; they are both quite lengthy.

Chalk, by Barany, M & MacKenzie, D

I love it when you have friends who just get you. Sometimes, those friends send you articles that you would never have found on your own, and they are little (or large) gifts of fascination. Erin McKean sent me Chalk: Materials and Concepts in Mathematics Research (archive of PDF), a chapter from the book Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited.

I think I spent a very comfortable afternoon curled up on the couch with a cup of tea, a highlighter, and a very confused dog reading this chapter. It was like reading a hug. Okay, I might be a bit strange.

This chapter explores the effects that the act of writing has on both the writer and viewer. I’ll draw from the abstract because I will never do this chapter justice:

Mathematics is often treated as the most abstract and idealized of human practices, so that mathematicians' words, gestures, handwriting, and chalkboard marking appear to be merely incidental and secondary ways of expressing and conveying mathematical truths. In contrast to that view, the chapter argues that mathematical concepts do not speak for themselves, and that mundane communicative practices and tools provide carefully circumscribed surrogates for idealized mathematical phenomena.

While I internalized this chapter primarily from the view of pedagogy, it also touches on the expression of mathematical concepts through chalk as somewhat of a performance art, where the “boards constitute spaces for mathematical performances that are not reducible to the speaker’s chalk writing”.

I do wonder if we have lost something very important in the transition to slides and prepared video lectures: a realistic view of learning. Chalk repeatedly touches on revisting concepts, rewriting expressions, reformulating approaches, revising erroneous statements. Making mistakes is such an integral part of learning, and when attending a lecture that only has one direction (“next slide!"), the student gets robbed of the journey that helps them develop strategies and intuition for the subject matter.

The availability of different modes of erasure also has narrative consequences. Minor corrections can be made using the side of one’s hand to erase small areas of the board while producing an audible thud that preserves the ongoing sequence of words and board-sounds in the speaker’s story. Larger erasures, however, must be made with a separate instrument whose use requires the interruption of such discursive sequences—a desirable effect at the end of a planned segment of a talk and an appropriate one where the speaker must “reset” an argument after a significant lapse. The narrative break of clearing a board establishes a board-sequence division that holds even when a new board is available.

There is a meta quality to Chalk, where the reader is taken on a journey that mirrors the experiences described in the text itself. It is an exquisite piece of writing that at times transported me to lectures I had never attended. I don’t know if I had a gold standard for academic writing before reading Chalk, but I sure do now.

The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX, by Oetiker et al.

Many academics who have published in science journals have some familiarity with LaTeX, unless you’re a die-hard troff person (you know who you are). Both are typsetting systems and the rivalry between the two seem slightly less heated than that of emacs versus vi—although perhaps their barbs are just more beautifully presented. I wrote my thesis in LaTeX, though my first introduction was while writing portions of a journal article a couple of years prior.

As I was brand new to the typesetting system, I went to read the documentation. However, I was a poor student and the book was a bit out of my budget at the time. So I went with my lab mate’s recommendation and downloaded The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX (archive of PDF).

At this point in time, I was sleep deprived and hallucinating multi-dimensional matrices that I was certain held the answer to THE ALGORITHM. Who needs drugs when you have research? So, reading this manual seemed like a nice break from bashing my head against the proverbial wall and literal dry-erase board.

The subtitle for this manual is “Or LaTeX in 280 minutes”. I still find that absolutely hilarious. Give me the confidence of a manual that takes a bit under 5 hours to read and still has the word “short” in the title, even if it is qualified. What’s better is that the book I couldn’t afford is 288 pages, and this manual is 298 pages.

Like with Chalk, there’s self-referential joy to be found in The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX. The beautiful typesetting, the way you can just tell that the author was able to focus on the content because LaTeX took care of presentation, the delight expressed in the introduction. If Chalk is my academic writing gold standard, The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX is that for technical writing.

This introduction to LaTeX teaches you more than just LaTeX. You learn about CLIs, ligatures, history, and overfull hboxes. You spend an entire subsection on dots. It transforms you into a typsetting snob and corrupts you indefinitely.

There is so much great information in this manual, but I became a forever fan of LaTeX when I read this sentence in the preface:

If you have problems getting started, ask the person who gave you this booklet.

I did, so naturally they picked up some chalk.