Journalism professor Keith Plocek's Shoot the Curl surf journalism class at USC, a first for the school, takes students beyond the clichés of board-riding reportage. That's an honorable aim. Surfing is no longer treated like a bubble-gum sport, as it was in the early ’60s, but it remains important for journalists to keep its crucial role in the history of American culture accurate and alive.
That was my message to more than a dozen of Plocek's students when I recently spoke to them inside the dreamy, tech media oasis of Wallis Annenberg Hall. The wired-to-the-hilt surroundings at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism accommodate video-heavy, social media–driven journalism. That's a perfect fit for surfing. If a photo can only begin to transmit the feeling, words are even more detached.
The great Tom Wolfe documented the subculture for the ages in 1968’s The Pump House Gang, and the graffiti reaction from his subjects at Windansea in La Jolla was, “Tom Wolfe is a dork.” The locals, however, reserved surfing’s greatest insult for New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan, whose 2016 surf memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, won a Pulitzer Prize. The peanut gallery’s graffiti declared, “Finnegan is a kook.” Tough crowd. The point is that even the most revered reporters can be seen as failures from the lineup. Journalists who take on surfing should aim high with the knowledge that the critics don't play.
Plocek, an L.A. Weekly contributor who will accept finals May 9 and then look forward to another edition of the class next spring, says via email, “I'm encouraging my students to go deep in their coverage of the pastime, but with a critical eye to the larger issues surrounding it.”
My take on covering surfing is that it should be framed as a symbol of both Western leisure and postwar youth rebellion. It's the rock ’n’ roll of sports, compete with white appropriation of a minority pastime. Its roots are inarguably found in Polynesia, where walking on water once provided transportation, sustenance and recreation. The 1960s surf culture explosion in Southern California reflected much of what young Americans treasured — leisure time, rebellion and outcast fashion.
DIY hot-rodders, at-home garage rockers and cottage-industry T-shirt makers all shared the spirit of the outcast embraced by SoCal surf culture pioneers like Bob Simmons, a loner who helped create the modern surfboard. He was, perhaps, the Carol Shelby of surfing. Today's surf heroes, like Santa Monica's Strider Wasilewski, retain that mission to blaze a trail of recreation — to charge, and chill, as no man or woman has before.
My message to the future historians at USC was that surfing is instrumental to the postwar abbondanza and tension that also gave us skateboarding, hot-rodding, rock, hip-hop, DJ culture, lowriding, graffiti art and street fashion. And it deserves to be documented with due reverence and criticism.
Plocek wrote the piece “The Secret History of The Endless Summer, the Most Influential Surf Movie Ever” for L.A. Weekly back in February 2016, so he drinks from the same well. But he also wants his students to consider “the environment, property rights and neocolonial concerns.”
And he wants them to explore how new technology can help tell the story of wave riding. “We're looking at existing coverage with a critical eye, and we're heading to beach communities and trying to innovate with coverage of our own,” he says. “That might include GoPro or drone footage, or a Snapchat story, or 3,000 words of thoughtful text. The story dictates the format.”
The professor says you don't have to surf to take the class. A wetsuit and GoPro would come in handy, but they're not required. Just so long as you abide by the golden rule of surfing, and show some respect.