The meta-tutorial and the proto-tutorial

I’ve decided to introduce two new genres of writing to this blog: the ‘meta-tutorial’ and the ‘proto-tutorial’.

The web is full of really helpful little tutorials on how to do various things. I’ve learnt a lot from them. I basically learnt Python programming from the Stack Overflow question-and-answer site, the official Python language docs, and a bunch of tutorials by random programmers. Less the latter than the former two, but still. There have been those times when what I’ve needed as a reader was not the nuts and bolts of ‘how do I do X?’ but an understanding of how somebody who does X thinks about X, and in those cases, the tutorials have been really valuable. It doesn’t have to be programming; that’s just an example.

I don’t think that the value of a tutorial depends on whether anybody actually follows the tutorial. At times, I’ve learnt something from a tutorial without following it. Guiding a hypothetical newbie through the nuts and bolts of a thing seems to provide a good structure for publicly thinking the thing through, whether or not that’s how the writer in question intended it. Well, that’s how it seems to me anyway.

So I’m going to start posting meta-tutorials here on this blog. They’ll be like tutorials in that I’ll be explaining how to do things, but the emphasis will be on reasoning about the doing of the things that I’m explaining. I’m not sure whose benefit I’ll be writing them for. I’d like to say that it’s for yours – but I don’t know whether anybody’s really going to read them and I’m not sure that it matters anyway. The discipline of explaining how to do something in enough detail that somebody else could potentially follow the steps has value of its own as a spur to thought, and – even in the absence of a pupil – there may be as much to be learnt from teaching as there is from being taught. And if anybody does follow the steps and finds the following of them helpful, then so much the better. A meta-tutorial can ideally also be used as a tutorial, although its purpose is still fulfilled even if that never takes place. Perhaps that’s the case for all tutorials, but with a meta-tutorial, it’s explicit.

Then there’s the proto-tutorial. A proto-tutorial is the thing you wish you’d read before you started doing the thing that got you into the mess that you had to read tutorials to get out of. From my point of view, it’s less a way of thinking through the nature of X by explaining how to do it than a way of looking back over everything I had to do for the sake of X and asking myself whether X was really worth it in the first place. A proto-tutorial could simultaneously help me the writer to persuade myself that something was worth it and help you the reader (if you’re really there) to feel vindicated in your decision not to bother with it. But its real purpose is simply the reckoning that its construction requires.

I’m going to retrospectively tag my recent essays on blogging and LaTeX as a proto-tutorials, because that’s what I consider them essentially to be.

I haven’t written any meta-tutorials yet.


The LaTeX fetish (Or: Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting)

It’s that time of year when students are signing up for study skills classes. One of the skills that science students are likely to be encouraged to develop is the use of LaTeX. Other people may come to LaTeX for other reasons: people who want to typeset their own books; people who’ve heard that LaTeX may have something to do with Digital Humanities; etc. I’ve written this essay as a sort of pre-introduction to LaTeX. It won’t teach you how to use it (I’m not qualified!), but it will try to give non-users a clear understanding of what LaTeX is really for, which may help them to make their minds up about whether the effort of learning it (not to mention simply getting it to work) is really going to be worthwhile. Why such a long essay? Because many of those who evangelise for the use of LaTeX fetishise it to the extent of spreading misinformation about its true benefits and I want to clear some of that up. Continue reading “The LaTeX fetish (Or: Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting)”