Drs. Ben Cater and James Wicks are stoked about the new Point Loma Nazarene University course they’re co-teaching: LIT/HIS4090 – Surfing History and Culture. This isn’t surprising given they’re both wave riders.
“This is a work in progress,” noted Cater about the first-time surfing class now underway. “It’s more of a conversation right now. But I’d say the conversation is making a statement.”
“Surf culture and history is an established field that is as rich as any tradition,” noted Wicks, a Taiwanese native with a Ph.D. in literature from UC San Diego whose focus is on Chinese cinema. “It warrants our attention and analyses in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, and transnational connections among even more approaches (art, kinesiology, theology, business, and politics). Of course, it's fun, too, which is the most serious reason to study any subject.”
LIT/HIS4090 introduces students to the history and culture of surfing from the early 19th century to the present. It explores the origin and evolution of riding waves as it developed in Polynesia before spreading to Southern California, Australia, and beyond to become a global cultural phenomenon.
Readings, films, and discussions focus on the key people, places, ideas, and events that precipitated, embodied, or reflected changes in surfing.
“Since the history and culture of wave riding are rich and broad enough to constitute a major course of study, this class serves only to introduce students to a vast ocean of knowledge. Our hope is that you will wade in, paddle out, and catch a few waves, not just now but for the rest of your life,” said the course co-instructors.
Wicks said the surf class grew from a conversation he and Cater had on the PLNU campus.
“I told him, ‘I would love to teach a surf film class,’ and both our friendship, and the class, evolved in following conversations and planning sessions in and out of the water.”
Each instructor teaches half of the 16-week course. The first eight weeks by Cater analyze the history of surfing. Wicks’ focus for the second eight weeks, including finals, is a historical survey of surf cinema from the 1950s to the present.
“We focus on the production, style, and aesthetics of this genre that raises important questions about representation, identity, and ideology,” Wicks said.
Surfing students watch Hollywood movies like “Gidget,” “Morning of the Earth” and documentaries of the present such as “The Wave I Ride,” director Devyn Bisson's 2015 film on big-wave surfer Paige Alms.
Alongside watching films, students read excerpts from texts such as “The Critical Surf Studies Reader” and “American Subcultures.” Also watched are short online documentaries such as:
Danielle Burt: Chapter Two – an above knee amputee who surfs and talks about surfing: youtube.com/watch?v=LFW6zBGPMVc&feature=emb_logo.
Cater, an associate dean who is director of PLNU’s Humanities Honors Program noted Point Loma is a perfect place to teach a surfing history and literature course since the community “is widely recognized as a very good surf spot with really good breaks.” And he added Sunset Cliffs “has produced a lot of very important individuals for the sport and culture.”
Will we see a surfing history and culture major, a full-blown surf studies curriculum, or a surfing Ph.D. any time soon?
“The enthusiastic response to LIT/HIS 4090: Surfing History and Culture, demonstrated by having more than 40 students sign up for the first iteration of the class, shows the potential for this class to expand further,” said Wicks.
"If students would like to see a surfing major become a reality, I would encourage them to reach out to their department chairs and deans to voice their point of view. And I’d add that a surfing major could work alongside our existing majors on campus, rather than in competition with majors, or at the expense of established majors already in place.”