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Professor hopes course in popular sport will get students interested in geography




Santa Barbara News-Press Staff Writer

Stuart Sweeney at Campus Point.
Photo by Steve Malone,
News-Press Staff Photographer

Say "surf's up" at UCSB and it's a sure bet that some students will cut class, grab their boards and rush to catch the waves. But starting today, for the first time, "hanging" at the beach will actually be classwork.

At least it will for those who beat the flood of students to enroll in possibly the first university science class in the nation to focus on the sport of surfing.

Surfing naturally conjures images of fun in the sun and sea -- a vision that's especially vivid at a campus with a picture postcard oceanside location, including a surfing "point break" that any resort would kill for.

But the class is not what it may seem, says assistant professor Stuart Sweeney, who came up with the idea for "The Geography of Surfing."

The university's geography faculty hopes the class is the answer to a crucial question in times of fading undergraduate enrollments: How do you get students, many of them reared in coastal California, excited about the science of geography?

It's not easy, "if you're droning about technology among farmers in Sweden," said Mr. Sweeney. "But if you can put geography on a level students already are interested in, they're inclined to pay attention."

With surfing in the title, students were definitely interested at enrollment time.

The class filled fast, and then some. "We get a lot of people who come here because they want to surf," Mr. Sweeney said. "I'm letting (the class) creep up to the fire marshal's limit on the room, which is 100 people. I'm still getting e-mails from people who didn't get in. One said, 'I'm on the surfing team, please let me in,' another said, 'I'm teaching surfing this summer, so please let me in.'"

But the class won't be an "endless summer" of surfing safaris in search of the perfect wave, he said. In fact, students won't surf at all -- at least in class.

At UCSB, he explained, "geography is not about just rivers and mountains and naming them," or something just to be put to use on TV's "Jeopardy."

"We think more in terms of physical and human processes," and as a phenomenon to explore, surfing nicely fits the bill, he said.

Mr. Sweeney should know what he's talking about. He's been surfing since his boyhood in Palos Verdes when he traded competitive swimming at age 8 to become a goofy-foot grommet. In surfer parlance, that's a beginner who stands on a board with his right foot forward instead of the other way around.

He said the class will examine all aspects of the sport -- its origins, the events and people responsible for spreading surfing around the world, the development of global surfing-related industries from board and wax to wet suits; the physics of weather, wind and tides; and how the ocean floor and shoreline shape the surf itself.

Mr. Sweeney said he could find only one other class with surfing in the title: a one-hour seminar on the physics, at Scripps Institute.

His students might be surprised to find out there's serious surfing science in the sport's "spatial diffusion," as well as the "environmental attitude" and the "spatial cognition" of its participants, he said. "I think some people think this is going to be a cakewalk."

Yet, with no textbook, and no handy scholarly journals on surfing, the class will be a little unusual, he said.

For instance, students will see some surfing movies. They'll also study news accounts of brawls and worse between surfers trying to keep strangers off their waves.

And there are those mandatory visits to the sea, which conveniently laps the shore of Campus Point just a stone's throw from UCSB classrooms and residence halls.

Every student must go to the beach at least twice a week to check out conditions and keep a log, Mr. Sweeney said.

"It's a valid form of field research. You can get very much in tune with the tides, daily patterns of people going and coming, wind patterns, and where the swell is coming from. This is something you couldn't do at UCLA."

© Copyright 2004 Santa Barbara News-Press

Article posted with permission of the News-Press,
restricted to non-profit use by a non-profit school and
distribution to UCSB-affiliated persons
(email correspondence with Casstina Cara, 3/31/04)

April 1, 2004