Via PhD Comics, naturally.
Via PhD Comics, naturally.

This will be the latest in my series of tutorials for making the most of R Markdown. My repository already has R Markdown LaTeX templates for academic manuscripts, CVs, and personal statements (e.g. teaching statement, research statement). The syllabus is the next step.

I’ve bemoaned elsewhere on my blog that the syllabus is more tedious than it is creative or imaginative. Long-time professors don’t waiver much in their views about what constitutes core material. This leaves the professor wanting to do just a few things in crafting the syllabus.

  1. Conform the skeleton of the syllabus with the peculiar dates for the semester (e.g. conference travel days, semester holidays).
  2. Seamlessly render bibliographic citations for required readings and course material assigned in a given week.

R Markdown can do both these things and more. The syllabus template I designed will generate a fancy LaTeX syllabus (in PDF form) with just a few R packages and custom functions. I’ll start first with a description of the YAML metadata.

The YAML Metadata

The YAML metadata starts every R Markdown document and provides basic information for the document the user wants to generate. My template (svm-latex-syllabus.tex) adds a few other custom fields as well.

    keep_tex: true
    fig_caption: yes
    latex_engine: pdflatex
    template: ~/Dropbox/miscelanea/svm-r-markdown-templates/svm-latex-syllabus.tex
geometry: margin=1in

title: "POSC 0000: A Class with an R Markdown Syllabus"
author: Steven V. Miller
date: "Fall 2016"

email: ""
web: ""
officehours: "W 09:00-11:30 a.m."
office: "230A Brackett Hall"
classroom: "*online*"
classhours: "TR 02:00-03:45 p.m."

fontfamily: mathpazo
fontsize: 11pt
   - \linespread{1.05}

The entries after output: are fairly standard and some are optional. I prefer to set keep_tex: true to generate a raw .tex file with the finished PDF because I find it useful for debugging. I also like to make sure latex_engine is set to pdflatex even if it’s probably default with the pdf_document option. I also like to make sure the margins are set to one inch on all sides with the geometry entry.

The next three entries coincide with what LaTeX users will recognize as the \maketitle call for a PDF document. title is the title of the course. I prefer to keep the department initials and course number in it as well. author should be the name of the professor while date should be the semester.

The next six fields coincide with entries in a table shortly after the title, author, and date. These should be intuitive. Put the professor’s e-mail, course website, office hours, office, classroom, and class hours to fill out the basic course information. It will eventually look like this.

The title of my R Markdown syllabus template.
The title of my R Markdown syllabus template.

The final three entries are optional as well. I prefer the mathpazo font family for LaTeX and like to set the size of the font to 11pt. mathpazo also looks better with a linespread of 1.05, which is why I set to include that in the header.

Automatically Render Dates in R Markdown

My previous LaTeX syllabi included LaTeX hacks to automatically render dates in the syllabus. It’s even easier to do it in R and R Markdown. It also requires less markup.

Put the following code in an R “chunk” somewhere in your R Markdown document (preferably near the top).

mon <- as.Date("2016-08-15")

advdate <- function(obj, adv) {
 tmon <- obj + 7*(adv-1)
 tfri <- obj + 4 + 7*(adv-1)
 tmon <- format(tmon, format="%m/%d")
 tfri <- format(tfri, format="%m/%d")
 zadv <- sprintf("%02d", adv)
 tmp <- paste("Week ",zadv,sep='',", ", tmon," - ",tfri)

The code itself is fairly simple. First set the first Monday of the first week of the semester. This is August 15, 2016 of the upcoming fall semester for me at Clemson University. Whatever it is for you, set it in YYYY-MM-DD format.

The advdate function I wrote is a simple hack. It identifies the date object you give it, jumps ahead however many weeks you want, and advances it five days (which should be Friday if you set it at Monday). It returns a character object that will say something like Week 01, 08/15 - 08/19.

Notice what I do with this function within my R Markdown syllabus. I hide it in a subsection block, follow it with a colon and a description of the week’s readings. Here’s the actual code in my R Markdown document.

##  `r advdate(mon, 6)`: Keep

##  `r advdate(mon, 7)`: Going

##  `r advdate(mon, 8)`: Down

##  `r advdate(mon, 9)`: the

##  `r advdate(mon, 10)`: Line

##  `r advdate(mon, 11)`: Until

##  `r advdate(mon, 12)`: You

## `r advdate(mon, 13)`: Are

##  `r advdate(mon, 14)`: Done

##  `r advdate(mon, 15)`: with

##  `r advdate(mon, 16)`: your

##  `r advdate(mon, 17)`: Syllabus 

The reader can see what this will look like in the PDF I embed at the end of the post. It’s also available on my Github repository.

Render Bibliographic Citations with Your .bib File

LaTeX’ virtue is its ability to flawlessly handle end-of-the-paper references. It curiously struggles with full mid-document bibliographic citations like professors typically want in their syllabi. bibentry is the package to use in these situations but it works with so few styles.

RefManageR is a lot more flexible. It also requires minimal markup.

Here’s what it looks like with my personal .bib file. Place the following code as an R chunk somewhere in your R Markdown document. You can place it in the same chunk as the advdate function.

bib <- ReadBib("~/Dropbox/master.bib") # Change to whatever is your .bib file
myopts <- BibOptions( = "authoryear", style="latex", first.inits=FALSE, max.names = 20)

The syntax to use it is fairly simple. Let’s say my syllabus has required readings of R. Harrison Wagner’s (2007) War and the State and John Vasquez’ (2009) The War Puzzle Revisited. Telling my students that in my syllabus is as easy as finding the two bibtexkeys in my .bib file and telling R to print/display them from the BibEntry object (i.e. bib).

## Required Readings

```{r, echo = FALSE, results="asis"} 
bib["vasquez2009twp", "wagner2007ws"]

This will generate the following LaTeX code that R Markdown will ultimately compile into your finished PDF.

\section{Required Readings}\label{required-readings}

\inputencoding{utf8} Vasquez, John A (2009).
\emph{The War Puzzle Revisited}. New York, NY: Cambridge University

\inputencoding{utf8} Wagner, R. Harrison (2007).
\emph{War and the State: The Theory of International Politics}. Ann
Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

RefManageR is useful for those of us wedded to our .bib files but it’s far from a panacea. RefManageR has a limited number of styles too, which may not satisfy political scientists (in particular) who want APSA style citations. rcrossref can do this but it requires (to the best of my knowledge) DOI numbers and it will not know how to italicize things like the book or journal title.

Do Even More in R Markdown

The reader can see some of the other things I do with R Markdown in my syllabus. I prominently embed some R code to model the bivariate relationship between attendance and grades to induce my students to attend class. You can see how I dynamically report this relationship in the .Rmd file I upload to my Github.

Here’s what a finished PDF syllabus will look like with my template.