December 08, 2011
Christopher Taylor (Class of 2014), Robert Burrows (Class of 2013) and Zachary Baldwin (Class of 2013) dust for prints. (Photo by Laura J. Cole)
Zachary Baldwin (Class of 2013) and his classmates arrived to class with the pieces of trash they were asked to collect. The empty soda cans, water bottles and Dorito bags were their evidence, and they, the students, were playing the role of forensic scientists.
For most Americans, the term forensics conjures up images of characters like Temperance Brennan in a perfectly tailored white lab coat or Dexter Morgan with his neatly arranged microscope slides. The process is sterile and organized, not to mention a bit glamorous, and its promise is certain. While dusting and lifting prints that day, Baldwin discovered that forensics is a bit, well, messier—both in the extraction and in the truth it offers.
“Fingerprinting is exponentially more difficult than what television would have us believe,” said Baldwin, who was unable to successfully lift a print from a ceramic mug. “Prints are easily smudged. After staring at the close lines of a print for an extended period of time, the curves begin to blend together. While prints can be used to determine the identity of the person grasping the object, they are by no means the ‘slam-dunk’ piece of evidence that CSI portrays.”
Baldwin’s analysis lies at the heart of the honors course, titled The Culture and Chemistry of Crime. Bridging the sciences and the humanities and team-taught by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Laurel Goj and Assistant Professor of English Emily Russell, the course asks students to explore how the explosion of forensics in our courtrooms and mass culture has changed the way we understand the limits and possibilities of science, justice and discovering the truth.
Mackenzie Gill (Class of 2014) and Morgan Gill (Class of 2014) dust a bottle for prints.(Photo by Laura J. Cole)
The students in The Culture and Chemistry of Crime are not forensic scientists and the course is not intended for them to become so. In fact, most students in the course are not even science majors. They represent fields as diverse as anthropology, art history, economics, English, international business and political science. Interdisciplinary by design, the course focuses on big ideas—crime, violence, death, detection and justice—that are subjects of examination in both science and the humanities. In so doing, it privileges discussions that require a diversity of approaches while providing a foundation for those students who might otherwise shy away from the sciences.
English major Mackenzie Gill (Class of 2014), for example, was hesitant about signing up for a class with chemistry in the title. “I was worried that chemical equations and mathematical formulas would comprise the bulk of the material in the class. However, that is certainly not the case,” said Gill. “The class is more of a critical analysis of criminal behavior through the lens of society (as represented by texts, articles and television shows). Culture and chemistry combine to make a stimulating duo that is surprisingly accessible to any student.”
That’s precisely what Goj and Russell intended. The course examines classic works, such as Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Mark Twain’s The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, with contemporary court cases, such as the OJ Simpson and Casey Anthony trials. It pairs these studies with hands-on experience of DNA modeling and fingerprinting and discussions about the scientific method, limits of forensic instrumentation and the gaps between how science is practiced and how science is represented. “We’re setting aside a very thorough grounding in a discipline and instead privileging discussions that require a diversity of approaches,” said Russell. “We want the students to take risks in their arguments, to think critically about the interwoven nature of problem solving, to be better jurors and citizens and to think reflexively about how their own major might approach questions we’re studying.”
For Baldwin, an art history major, the impact of the class has already begun to trickle over to how he thinks about the art he’s studying. “This class has given me the ability to use pathology as a means to reevaluate Van Gogh’s final works before he died,” said Baldwin. “A recent study has looked at the possibility that Van Gogh was murdered (as opposed to committing suicide). His final works have largely been interpreted as having suicidal undertones. If he was murdered, then new interpretations need to be developed as Van Gogh likely would not have been aware of his impending death. I think the great thing about this class is that it has helped me to see how pathology touches on more than criminal prosecution.”
By combining the two areas of study, the course is allowing students to think differently about their academic majors but it’s also enabling them to think critically about their role as informed and responsible citizens.
In its promise to deliver case-breaking evidence, CSI has altered the landscape of how the public views court cases and what jurors and society expect during trials. Called “The CSI Effect,” this cultural phenomenon “theorizes that the portrayal of forensics on television has led to an increased demand among jurors for forensic evidence presented at trials and raised the standard of proof for prosecutors,” said Goj.
During the course of the semester, students began to uncover and more fully realize the fallacy in this promise. “In general, I feel that shows like CSI have a negative effect on jurors in the sense that they expect DNA evidence as the end-all-be-all for a conviction,” said economics major Christopher Taylor (Class of 2014). “However, I don’t think forensics always delivers on the promise of identification. This course has made me realize that there is often a lot more left up to interpretation than the evidence displayed in the courtroom.”
Whether encouraging students to think critically about material presented in the courtroom or the classroom, the course delivers on the promise of a liberal arts education, which aims to open students’ eyes to the bigger picture while showing how all areas of knowledge are connected. For Baldwin and the other students in the course, that day spent trying to lift fingerprints from discarded items—in addition to the days spent discussing the first fictional description of fingerprinting (found in Twain’s novel) and the benefits and drawbacks of DNA profiling—has complicated the reality of criminal investigations and enabled them to reconsider how culture has influenced our collective understanding of science.
By Laura J. Cole
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