Academic people should git and TeX


Mr Torvalds created two amazing things: Linux and Git. Former is an OS kernel; latter is a version control system. Unluckily, none is prevailing in Malaysia.

When I was a lecturer, creating a new programme with various courses is truly exhaustive. The worst case is recording the changes of the documents for the government agency’s accreditation. If you are systematic, you will backup the files. But backing up the files does not tell you what are the changes you had made. Unless you create another note for each changes you made. But that will be double works. If you say you can use Microsoft Word’s feature to compare the documents and see the changes, it is totally impractical if the two documents are big and there have a vast changes.

What is the best solution? In practice, you need to ask your boss to step down and change all your colleagues 😉, because your boss doesn’t understand your solution, he and your colleagues will treat you as idiot.

In the condition above, the best solution is using TeX and Git. TeX allows you to create your document in plain text. Plain text is so important for Git. Git allows you to keep track the changes you have made, and you can see the difference of the changes line by line in text format.

Git allows you to work collaboratively with your team members to work on same project by preventing the conflicts. Preventing conflicts doesn’t mean there will have no conflict, but you will detect the conflicts earlier and need to resolve the conflicts manually.

TeX, unlike WYSIWYG application software, such as Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer (I don’t think Malaysians use LibreOffice), we create the document using markup language and setup the paper style through some complex TeX statements. Though the setup may be exhaustive and TeX has a steep learning curve, the results can sustain for long-term. The document style can be re-used for the whole institution, especially if the students are provided with the thesis format in TeX form. Moreover, the TeX skill is useful to publish papers to the journals and conferences. You can easily port your content to another TeX style such as IEEE conference paper style.

Sadly, most people take easy learning tools to do the complex tasks, yet feel proud and not open minded to learn useful skills.

An academic institution should offer training to the staff, lecturers, and students to learn TeX. It would be even better to offer Git training, Linux and command-line. Open source software can reduce students financial burden, avoid pirated software, and prevent virus infection.

However these are not implemented in most academic institutions. As a result, the users are spending hours to edit the document style, generating the table of contents, or even preparing table of contents manually. That is sad to create table of contents manually. Any change on the page, you will have to edit the table of contents. However, if you are using TeX, you will focus on the content, instead of the styling.

Lastly, because the culture focuses on the outlook such as styling of the document, instead of the quality of the contents, that is why implementing Git and TeX is just an unrealistic approach. Great Microsoft Word, you are a legend.

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