Surfing course at Point Loma Nazarene University offers new ways to view a favorite San Diego pastime

Professor James Wicks is co-teaching "The History and Culture of Surfing" at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Professor James Wicks, seen surfing in Taiwan, is co-teaching “The History and Culture of Surfing” at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Students at Point Loma Nazarene University have been flocking in waves this semester to a new elective course — “The History and Culture of Surfing.”

The course, co-taught by professors Ben Cater and James Wicks, focuses on the history of surfing and the ways surf culture has permeated society.

While there is no certainty the course will return beyond the fall semester, its popularity seems to show that students are interested in its less-traditional take on the subject.

In a place like San Diego, and specifically at Point Loma Nazarene, which boasts a surf team that has been ranked as one of the top programs in the nation, there’s an intense interest in surfing.

PLNU junior Lauren O’Brien, a multimedia journalism student, is enrolled in the class. She believes surfing is part of the university’s lifeblood.

“[Surfing] is the subculture of Point Loma. People come to Point Loma because of the location, because the surf culture is so great and because the surf history is so rich,” she said. “Whether people realize it or not, we have shapers and pro surfers who come out of our breaks, our surf spots. So it’s basically a hub for surfing.

“I have been surfing for a while, but I didn’t know a ton about surf culture or history. It’s something I’m super interested in because you feel connected to the culture on a different level if you understand it. I was sick of just surfing and not being able to relate to friends about surfing. It was just an activity. ... This is a super cool way to not only learn about it in an academic light but also immerse myself in it more, not have it be so compartmentalized in my life.”

Whether or not one identifies as a surfer isn’t important for the elective, but an interest in surfing is helpful, O’Brien said. “I don’t think [success in the course] has anything to do with your surfing skill. I know a lot of people who are taking this class who have never surfed before or have surfed once. But I do think that if you’re not interested in surfing, then you’re not going to see the point.”

Professor Ben Cater co-teaches "The History and Culture of Surfing" at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Professor Ben Cater co-teaches “The History and Culture of Surfing” at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Cater and Wicks have personal histories with surfing that inspired them to create the course. Cater grew up surfing in Orange County before enrolling at PLNU in the 1990s. Wicks grew up in Taiwan and went to the ocean “as frequently as possible.”

Both professors recognize that, at face value, a course focused on surfing might not seem valuable. But when you dig deeper into the coursework and materials, the elective’s benefits defy the limitations of a traditional class, they say. Surfing is an interdisciplinary activity that touches on a wide range of subjects, from race and gender to sports and culture.

“We’re a liberal arts university, so what we really emphasize is, because life is interdisciplinary and cannot be reduced to a department or a major or a specific academic discipline, it’s really best to have a broad education,” said Cater, an assistant professor of history, associate dean of foundational explorations and director of the humanities honors program.

Wicks concurred.

“Almost every class, I can’t help but mention at least once with the students what a pleasure it is to be able to bring all these facets together, both in terms of personal interest and hobby as well as the academic approach to really serious issues involving culture,” said Wicks, a professor of literature and film studies and chairman of the Department of Literature, Journalism, Writing & Languages. “But I really believe it’s eye-opening for our students as well. We have students who are surfers who are seeing their participation in the ocean in new perspectives, in global perspectives, as well as students who are taking this for general education and finding that whether one surfs or not, it provides such an incredible inroad into really important topics.”

Cater feels that PLNU is the ideal campus for such a course. One reason is that nearby Sunset Cliffs is a “veritable surf haven,” he said. “There’s a rich tradition here.” Well-known surfers and board shapers who have come out of this area include Steve Lis, Skip Frye and Chris Christenson.

The course is divided into two sections — one on history and one on culture. Students are required to watch surf films, read poetry and surf textbooks and even produce their own surf film.

When asked what kinds of occupations students in the course might be best suited for, Wicks expanded on the idea that there is no specific path and that the skills obtained could be useful in a variety of careers.

“One of the requirements is students make their own surf films, so they’re not only analyzing, but they’re also producing,” he said. “And the analytical and creative components of that academic activity prepares our students to be the most flexible, the most sensitive, the most well-rounded as they enter into the workforce. So I tell my students, ‘Hey, if you’re an accounting major, this can work to your advantage. If you’re heading into a creative industry, you’re going to have so much more knowledge as you approach that.’

“So I’m a huge advocate for the way that this prepares our students for their upcoming careers specifically, and yet I can’t answer with a particular occupation.”

Surfing is creative, the professors say — it has metaphors that can be used through various aspects of life, from challenges to celebrations.

“If you think about surfing as a state of mind, it’s a habit of being, it’s a form of therapy — there’s clearly a moral therapeutic dimension to it,” Cater said. “It beckons so many different types of people.”


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