The holiday vacation is for me, as for many academics, a time when I complete much-needed fieldwork for projects; in my case, completing a documentary on the bayous of Louisiana. After driving across the country, my partner and I were nearing the end of a long, road trip, passing through I-57 in southern Illinois. (I bet you can guess what happens next…)
I had just crossed the state line and was driving through a work zone when the speed reduced from 65 to 55 MPH. (No workers were around.) Even though I slowed down with other traffic, a police officer ‘radared’ my vehicle at 67 MPH. My partner—who has personal knowledge of these matters—knew it was bad news when he saw the sirens. “The fine is doubled in a work zone,” he said. But it was worse than that. The kind, 'older' cop notified me that I would have to appear in court next month before a judge for a work zone ticket. I was shocked. Mound City, Illinois is five hours away from my home in Chicago. And my court date was at 9:00 AM on a three-hour teaching day.
“You can have a legal representative stand in for you,” the officer answered to my dismayed questions. “And get your court date changed.”
Even though I generally support the idea of professors keeping their personal politics out of the classroom, I will at times include anecdotes in the classroom, particularly if they are related to a national news story and assist with teaching research and critical thinking skills. The story  that I have in mind relates to the state of Illinois's budget woes and the legislative vote to raise taxes. “Where do I call?” I asked the officer, since the ticket had no phone number or address on it. “Where do I go? Will they send me a letter?”
Then I mumbled something about ‘speed trap’ under my breath. Thoughts of Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison” were running through my head, particularly after I called the courthouse and discovered on their answering machine that they had a particular selection for people who had received traffic tickets and needed the number of an attorney to appear in court for them. I called one of the numbers and shared a half-hearted laugh with the administrative assistant about how often her attorney does these traffic cases. I stopped laughing when I learned that court costs could run me $750 in addition to the $300 legal costs and the $150 ticket. Total potential costs for my speeding ticket: $1200.
I was starting to wonder what country I was in… Oh yes. The United States--a country with world-renowned universities, but with states that can’t pay their local, public school teachers. Illinois is one of the states most in debt right now with budget deficits in the billions. The police officers are underpaid, can’t retire at appropriate ages, and small towns like Mound City resort to speed traps on the nearby interstate to pay their bills.
Since I was considering spending the night in the area to appear in court, I was curious about Mound City’s history, as well as its financial situation. After doing a little research, I discovered that the area shares much in common with my current documentary on Louisiana's bayou region. Flood control is an issue—Mound City sits next to the Ohio river, close to the Mississippi. And native American artifacts—the earthwork mounds of Illinois—abound in the area. There are not enough people or tax dollars in either region to adequately support the upkeep of levee infrastructures and barely enough to support the historic. No wonder these areas need to figure out how to raise their own funds.
What’s the educational lesson about critical thinking in this case?
In a time when state budgets are in the red, raising taxes is unpopular, and police officers are underpaid, speed traps will probably increase, particularly in rural areas.
What’s the political lesson here? Slow down in Mound City …