Title text: If you think this is too hard on literary criticism, read the Wikipedia article on deconstruction.
While the comic is ostensibly about grad students, it is really Randall's way of poking fun at the relative rigor of different fields, reminiscent of 435: Purity. In the comic, Cueball attempts to pose as an expert in a given field (a recurring pastime of his) and sees how long it takes before the real experts detect his nonsense.
The first panel shows Cueball discussing an engineering problem with Ponytail. Ponytail is talking about an immediate practical problem involving heat dissipation. Cueball suggests 'using logarithms' to solve it; logarithms are a mathematical tool used for expressing an exponential relationship as a linear one. While logarithms have many uses in engineering, they are an abstract mathematical concept, and not a method of dissipating heat, so in the context of the conversation, it makes no sense and outs Cueball as having grabbed a random word he knows engineers use and thrown it in to sound smart. With the engineer's conversation focusing on an immediate practical application, it only takes 48 seconds before he exposes himself.
The second panel shows a conversation with linguistic grad students who are apparently discussing the Finno-Ugric language family (a family of related languages that includes Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian). Cueball asks if Klingon is included in this family. The linguists instantly recognize the meaninglessness of the statement — either because Klingon is a constructed language, designed to sound "alien" to avoid sounding like any human language (thus it cannot be part of any real linguistic family), or because "Klingon" is a recognizable pop-culture reference. Either way he has exposed himself after only 63 seconds of conversation. That all being said, the inventors of the Klingon language took the word order from the Finno-Ugric languages after research showed that the order of "predicate, subject, object" is least common in human languages, so there are at least some roots of Klingon language to analyze.
In the third panel, the humor comes from the fact that the idea of sociology existing to rank human beings on some arbitrary intrinsic value is not only ridiculous in a scientific context, but also politically offensive. Cueball unknowingly recreates the logic behind some of the worst crimes in human history, a problem sociologists are trained to be very aware of. However, it may be something that a less educated non-sociologist would assume could pass within the field. When he describes his unscientific and offensive approach, we see one of the sociology grad students facepalming in exasperation. Because a non-expert may be able to sound somewhat educated in sociology before making such a slip-up, it is four minutes into the conversation before he is detected.
In the final panel, he attempts to pass as an expert in literary criticism. This field notoriously uses a great deal of impenetrable jargon, so when Cueball makes up seemingly meaningless sentences, no one notices. His quip at "deconstructing the self" may be a meta joke about the field itself failing under deconstruction... (or this sentence may be a meta-meta- example of someone applying literary criticism standards to the analysis of this specific comic). We find that rather than being caught out within minutes as in the other fields, he has now published 8 papers and 2 books. The humor comes from the fact that he has accidentally made himself into a recognized authority in the field, despite not having any idea what he was talking about. In this panel, Cueball is sitting in an armchair in the position of an expert lecturing to a student, who sits at his feet apparently absorbing his inane statement.
This implies that the field itself has published a great deal of meaningless things that only superficially look meaningful through the impenetrability of the jargon. The title text challenges the audience to take a look at the Wikipedia article for literary deconstruction if they don't believe this criticism applies - the Wikipedia article in question is almost constantly flagged for "clean-up" on the grounds that it's a jumbled mess. An archive of the article as it was when this comic was published is available here.
- [Caption above the panels:]
- My Hobby:
- Sitting down with grad students and timing how long it takes them to figure out that I'm not actually an expert in their field.
- [For all four panels below, there are two frames crossing the border of each panel. The ones at the top left have a caption, and the one below right has the result of the timing.]
- [Ponytail and Cueball are sitting across from each other in office chairs.]
- Ponytail: Our big problem is heat dissipation
- Cueball: Have you tried logarithms?
- 48 seconds
- [Cueball is sitting in a chair at the center of a table looking left at another Cueball-like guy. To the right is a long black-haired girl.]
- Cueball: Ah, so does this Finno-Ugric family include, say, Klingon?
- 63 seconds
- [Cueball is standing with his hands up talking to another Cueball-like guy and Megan who has lifted her arm to palm her face.]
- Cueball: Yeah, my latest work is on ranking people from best to worst.
- 4 minutes
- [Cueball is sitting in an armchair with another Cueball-like guy sitting attentively in front of him on the floor.]
- Literary Criticism:
- Cueball: You see, the deconstruction is inextricable from not only the text, but also the self.
- Eight papers and two books and they haven't caught on.
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