CSI? More Like CS-Why

Recently, I had the interesting opportunity to attend the Ontario Universities Fair in Toronto, representing the University at which I am a professor. The fair is something relatively new. It certainly wasn’t around when I was a high school student. It’s an opportunity for senior high school students to hear the pitches of various Universities and colleges in their vicinity and thus, in theory, make a more informed choice about their career paths.

In Ontario’s somewhat socialized system of publicly funded education, I’m not completely comfortable with the idea of being called upon to “sell” my institution to potential “clients”. I don’t view education as a product, but more as an opportunity of which every citizen should avail himself. But that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that I was more than willing to discuss career options with young people, and to offer the unique qualities of our institution where appropriate.

What was interesting, and not particularly surprising, was the extent to which mass media had overly influenced students’ expectations of their careers.

When I was their age, the big TV shows were things like “L.A. Law”, and the big movies were the various John Grisham adaptations. This continued for some years. Indeed, I recall having several despondent discussions with my fellow science grad students years later about how our society had become “law obsessed”. The rush to law schools was fairly evident, as was the resultant glut of underemployed law grads.

In more recent years, TV has brought us the return of the sexy medical drama. Shows like “E.R.”, “Gray’s Anatomy” and “House” top the ratings. So most of my current students –and pretty much all of the high school students I met at the fair– are convinced that they are destined for medical school. My interviews with the latter suggest, however, that few have any idea what life as a doctor really involves. It’s informed in large part by what they see on television.

Moreover, their inability to separate medical life in the USA –which is what is portrayed on their favourite TV shows– and the realities of life in Canada’s socialized system is quite telling. It suggests a dramatic overwhelming of Canadian identity, at least with respect to expectations of lifestyles pertaining to the professional class, by foreign media.

This is most evident when you consider the recent annoying trend of the medical crime drama. “CSI”, “Cold Case”, “Bones”, “Crossing Jordan” and a score of other shows have come, gone, lingered or transcended in recent years. Not surprisingly, a very large number of senior high school students approached me at the fair with the very saddening question, “How do I become a CSI?”

where to begin? As far as I can tell, “CSI” is an American term that is only relevant in certain cities. The educational backgrounds and certification requirements of crime scene investigators vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some are police officers. Some are medical examiners with MDs. Some are specially trained by law enforcement institutions, like the FBI. And some are recruited directly by municipalities.

Indeed, fresh out of graduate school, I actually once had a job interview to become a “forensic pathologist” in Toronto, a position that would have involved collecting biological samples at crime scenes and performing laboratory tests to assist in police investigations. The interview took place in a court room and involved a simulated cross-examination.

It was sort of fun. But I was wise to the reality of the job. Despite what the TV shows might suggest, crime scene investigators aren’t 20-something hard bodies dressed in Gucci, working in softly lit highrise offices and engaged in mob hits and terrorist plots when they’re not off having whirlwind romances with casino bosses and deputy mayors. In truth, they’re average-looking, very hard-working middle-aged dudes and dudettes in stained lab coats, working in a dank basement with a single 60 watt lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. They’re barely paid enough to afford their one-bedroom downtown apartments, let alone to buy Gucci. And the samples they collect aren’t always bullet fragments and blood drops; they’re often pools of diarrhea, vomit and bile.

With student after student interrogating me about the appropriate crime scene investigation education path, one question kept occurring to me: What exactly are high school guidance counsellors doing these days? Are they simply showing kids DVDs of “CSI Miami” and leaving the room? Hmm, maybe I should teach my classes the same way.