Shaking the Dust Off of Emacs

Who wouldn’t want to compose most of their text in a program from the 1970’s?

It’s been a while since I’ve messed around with emacs, an extensible, customizable text editor that can literally do anything under the sun.

The summer term at Hunter College began about two weeks ago, marking the beginning of my return to grad school. With it being the start of a new chapter in my academic journey, I thought it would be a great time to revisit my productivity tools.

I’ve previously used Google Drive, which is a great all-around tool for notes. The interface is good enough, generally easy to use, and Drive makes files pretty easy to edit and share. Google Drive is an amazing collaborative tool, and I expect most of my teaching work in the fall will be based around Drive, including lesson plans, lesson slide decks for students, etc.

A few years ago, I dabbled in statistics and computer science when I was a graduate student at Indiana University. In the process, I learned enough Python and R to rekindle a long-forgotten love that I had developed for technology.

My stats coursework was a watershed moment for my productivity, because it was during an introductory statistics course that I discovered R Markdown, a fantastic tool for gathering notes, data, code, etc. all in one place.

R Markdown is a type of markdown language, meaning that plain text can be converted to a number of elements, such as bold or italicized text, links, and more. The beauty of markdown languages lies in their simplicity. Without wading through GUI menus in Word or Google Docs to implement various types of formatted texts, I find it much easier to get my notes and thoughts directly from my head into a digital file. Markdown streamlines the writing process exponentially for those who take the time to learn it, although I recognize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Many will prefer the familiar GUI’s of Microsoft Office or Google Drive, and that’s completely fine.

Using R Markdown in RStudio was a huge step in the right direction for my productivity, but it still was bogged down by some of the same problems as other GUI editors — it wasn’t always clear how to do certain things, and every time I move my right hand to move the mouse or tap the touchpad I lose just a bit of my efficiency. I know it seems trivial, but the time needed to move a mouse, click on the screen, and return to a typing position really do add up. I later realized that .rmd files could be prepared in plain text files– perhaps I will try experimenting more with the format one day. I sometimes suffer from being enticed by multiple options to get a task done, that I’ve sometimes stopped myself from getting any work done at all. I’ve used emacs these last few weeks, and I’m committed to this workflow, at least for now.

I wanted a text editor that can be whatever I need it to be, and that can also grow with me over time as I learn more about it’s features and the myriad of ways to customize it. I was never a power user by any means, but I worked through the emacs tutorial a couple of times and looked over a cheat sheet enough to realize how powerful of a tool it can be.

As I settle into the term, I’m going to use this summer to experiment with a note taking workflow based on org mode, an emacs mode that streamlines a lot of organizational tasks, such as note-taking, various documents, to-do lists, and more. I largely use org mode as a note-taking system, but there are plenty of other awesome things that I hope to learn over time.

Unfortunately, I’m fairly certain that I’ll never get to share my interest in emacs with future coworkers — teachers who live pretty happily in Microsoft Office and Google Suite tools. Not everyone wants to work inside of a program that looks like a terminal shell from the 1970’s, and that’s totally fine. In the meantime, I’ll likely use emacs for my own use, copying and pasting text wherever it needs to go.

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