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Research Cartoons

I greatly enjoy cartoons describing research. One of my favorites is a view of a home’s entryway with a wife greeting her husband returning from work. Behind them, in another room at the dining room sits a man with glasses and a dark beard, in a three-piece suit, bent over some papers. The caption above the wife’s head says, “I don’t know, he said he was a visiting scholar and sat down at the table and just started working.”

Cartoons about research almost always show men, generally older, and often frumpy. Cartoons about natural science research always seem to have men in white coats, with lots of devices on the laboratory bench. Another favorite picture is a man at a blackboard, filled with incomprehensible equations. Then, there are astronomers, always peering into a telescope. Even there, the researcher sometimes wears a white coat. There are a lot of white coats.

The social science cartoons often portray a research interviewer on a doorstep. These too are men, often holding a clipboard. The householder greeting the interviewer is most often a woman. The joke is usually generated by a stupid question from the interviewer or a sarcastic answer from the householder. I’ve seen a few anthropology cartoons, generally a picture of a westerner asking a question of a villager outside a hut. The health sciences seem to be often represented by clinical scenes rather than research images. The computational sciences seem to be placed inside large, old-style mainframe settings or data farms.

One interesting feature that the cartoons often get right is that they show researchers at work, clearly self-motivated and passionate about their labors. In fact, hyper-passion of the researcher is sometimes the brunt of the humor.

One wonders how these stereotypes emerged. The obvious gender bias is grating. The formal dress belies the pervasive academic ethic that not wearing a suit is a badge of honor and, we all know, only administrators wear suits. The “absentmindedness” theme in many of the cartoons breeds a notion of one removed from the real world. The common theme of irrelevance in the actions of the researcher doesn’t fit with how fields are organized.

Perhaps the most telling omission is that the cartoon scenes rarely portray the link between the act of research and the beneficial outcomes of research. They are great at shining a funny spotlight on the doing of research but not the impact of research.

We’re living in a time when the value of investments in science are questioned. The value of many other spheres of higher education are even more threatened. But, higher education is fundamental to expanding understanding of the basic questions of humanity.

In thinking about our students, I am convinced that we need to show them as frequently as possible our research lives as well as our instructional lives. We educate our students for a life of self-teaching, not just their first job. The content of our teaching has a shorter shelf life than our methods of inquiry and research. It is these that will arm our students with the ability to transform themselves when their field of work is fully disrupted by innovation we cannot now anticipate. We dearly need enhanced awareness of the link between higher education’s research activities and beneficial innovation research produces.

I wish I had cartoon-drawing talent.

3 thoughts on “Research Cartoons

  1. Ah, I love research cartoons. A few years ago, when I was in charge of the Psychology Department colloquium series, we had Bob Mankoff down to give a talk. Most know that Bob was the cartoon editor at the New Yorker for many years; fewer know that he has a strong interest in theories of humor and would have a PhD in Psychology if only he had finished his dissertation. His talk was at the perfect time of the year–the end of the semester–and his PowerPoints were very funny.

    Here, for your collection, is one of my favorite research cartoons, a classic by J. B. Handelsman:

  2. Here’s the classic “Far Side” cartoon illustrating the point (commonly portrayed as rural smarts trumping urban sophistication):

    Reminds me of how we (at the International Food Policy Research Institute) were tempted to include a dummy variable to distinguish households that had participated in a previous household welfare study in which participant households had been gifted with plastic bowls and other plastic containers. A classic case of previous or current observation affecting future observation of the phenomena being observed.

  3. I have never considered the gender bias in these cartoons, but I honestly cannot think of a single exception to the trends you mentioned of men being the scientists and researchers. That is really interesting!

    I’m not convinced though that these cartoons reveal a questioning of science and research. Perhaps research is so revered that people find humor in imagining researchers to be silly and absentminded.

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