By Shakthi Jothianandan
Angus Johnston, historian, writer and diligent digital chronicler of American student activism, has up and taken to Google-mapping national student activism of the current 2009-2010 academic year. So far he's highlighted a modest number of recent building occupations, demonstrations and strikes over a range of issues including tuition hikes, campus newspaper misogyny and resistance to administrative disciplinary tactics. In October, for instance, the whole of the University of Puerto Rico system was closed amidst island-wide student protests. Co-eds at the U. of North Texas in late November opposed a referendum granting same-sex Homecoming courts. Johnston also notes instances of student arrests. His work, however, won't simply be a one-dimensional snapshot of the current student activist landscape, as he is launching what will be a long-term sustained effort to log student actions. "I'm going to be updating this map indefinitely going forward," he told The Nation. "The big thing that I want to do is provide a real time, live tracking of what's going on on a national level."
Luddites, skeptics and even apathetics may question the value of a map festooned with just a smattering of pins illustrating disparate instances of student protest. The map has the potential to serve as a peer-to-peer network for fledgling activists seeking advice, camaraderie or logistical know-how. The functional component of Johnston's map lies in the fact that Johnston will be linking to extant Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and websites. Says Johnston, "That's one of the great things about it being a map-- you can look and see what's going on in your neck of the woods, you can look and see what's going on on your campus, on the campus nearby you."
What's more, Johnston is hoping to raise the profile of student activist undertakings. "As a historian, a question I always get asked is 'why isn't there more student activism right now?'" he says. "There is a lot of student activism and folks don't know about it and students get discouraged...I think that letting people know how much is going on nationally and beyond that letting them know what kind of stuff is going on, what the scope and diversity of student activism is, I think it's useful for everybody."
Hopefully Johnston will not be going it alone, as he's encouraging readers to write any news, events or actions that have flown below his radar in the comments section.
While it remains to be seen what actual dynamism Johnston's map will bring to activist spheres, his project is in the vein of public service and demonstrates yet again that the simplest of technological applications can be significant documentary tools. Of the students currently engaged in activism Johnston says, "They don't have time to be creating Twitter lists, creating Google maps and blogging about stuff that's going on all over the country. That's not where their focus is and that's not where their focus should be. For me as a historian who has a bit of distance and who is not in the heat of things, this is a useful thing that I can do that's not likely to happen otherwise."