academia and surfing

Although tens of thousands of recreational surfers have enrolled in colleges and universities over the decades, and coastal-area college surf teams and clubs have been around since the mid-1960s, surfing and the academy have had little effect on each other, and connections between the two are still for the most part regarded as novel, quirky, or gently amusing. Just a small number of well-known surfers have earned graduate degrees of one kind or another, including Ricky Grigg (Ph.D., oceanography, Scripps Institution, 1970), Peter Cole (M.S., informational sciences, University of Hawaii, 1971), and Sarah Gerhardt (Pd.D, physical chemistry, UC Santa Cruz, 2003). UC Berkeley graduate Ben Finney went on to get an M.A. in anthropology from the University of Hawaii, and while there researched and wrote his 1966 book Surfing: the Sport of Hawaiian Kings, originally published in 1966.

The number of first-rate academics who also surf is proportionally small, and includes Kary Mullis, a San Diego longboarder and 1994 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry; the late Donald Cram, another San Diego surfer, who earned his chemistry Nobel in 1987; and Garrett Lisi, yet another San Diegan, and the brains behind the physics-based "Theory of Everything." It is estimated, meanwhile, that between one-third and one-half of the world pro tour's top 44 surfers in any given season are high school dropouts.

Colleges and universities have produced more than 500 surf-related thesis papers, and a much smaller number of journal articles, with titles including "A Study of the Growth of a Deviant Subculture" (1962), "Legends of the Surfer Subculture" (1976), "Waves of Semiosis: Surfing Iconic Progression" (1987), and "Ambiguities in Pleasure and Discipline: The Development of Competitive Surfing" (1995). Surfing Subcultures of Australia and New Zealand, a doctoral thesis by University of Queensland sociology professor Kent Pearson, became a minor surf world curiosity when it was published as a 213-page hardcover book in 1979. "[Surfboard] design development," Pearson writes in the desiccated academic prose style familiar to all grad students, "took place in accord with objectives of maneuverability and wave-riding performance by persons primarily interested in surfing pleasure." Nick Ford and David Brown, researchers at England's University of Exeter, released Surfing and Social Theory: Experience, Embodiment, and Narrative of the Dream Glide in 2006, a book that made use of a decidedly complicated social science lexicon to discuss the physical and mental pleasures associated with the surfing experience.

"Surfing: American Culture or Subculture?", a 2000-founded honors course taught by assistant professor Patrick Moser at Missouri's Drury University, explored through readings and film "the positive side of surfing as an idealistic escape from modern-industrialized society, and its darker residence squarely within American imperialistic practices." One year earlier, Plymouth University in southwest England began offering a three-year B.S. in surf science and technology—designed primarily as a surf industry vocational program—with course requirements including Meteorology and Waves, Competitive Surfing and Event Management, Biology and Human Performance, Advanced Surf Dynamics, and Contemporary Issues in Surfing. In 2001, Edith Cowan University in Western Australia began offering a degree similar to that at Plymouth; "The Endless Summer Revisited: Surfing in American Culture and Thought" was offered for the first time at the University of California Santa Cruz in 2003. San Diego State University launched the Center for Surf Research in 2011, an academic research program focusing on sustainable surf tourism. Called a "serious attempt to understand the culture and economic power of a $7 billion global industry" by the Los Angeles Times, the program kicked off with a symposium titled "The Audacity of Stoke."

The first annual Surfing, Arts, Science and Issues Conference (better known as SASIC I), organized by the Oxnard-based Groundswell Society and formatted on the lines of an academic seminar, was held on October 27, 2001, in Ventura, California. SASIC I featured 14 symposiums and seminars, led by surfing environmentalists, artists, lawyers, writer/publishers, and others.