A Critical Analysis of “Surf Music”

Education commentator John Taylor Gatto contends that “Close reading of tough-minded writing is still the best, cheapest, and quickest method known for learning to think for yourself.” It is with such a premise in mind that I want you to complete this final Blogpost of the semester, which should (I hope) be both fun and thought-provoking. You are completing this assignment during our pop culture unit, and in some ways we have been gearing you up for this assignment all semester via our classic “Thursday Tunes.” For this Blogpost you will select a specific piece of “surf music” to examine and analyze — in other words, a surf-related song (and one that you will likely choose from our class material on 4/15). To mix it up a little bit and variously practice/apply your critical thinking skills, you will conduct a three-part analysis of your chosen song, as outlined below.

Part One – Summary: Listen to your chosen song several times, and take a look at the lyrics online (assuming there are lyrics). Then, summarize it by briefly telling its surf-related story. What, in general, is the song about? The answer to that question should not be an interpretation, but a short, basic explanation of the contents of the song. To help write this summary, you could possibly consider working with/using the 5Ws and H idea made famous by journalists (who, what, where, when, why, how).

Part Two – Synthesis:  To synthesize means to combine or connect, and in this section I want you to synthesize the contents of your piece of surf music with key ideas and premises that we have covered so far this semester.  Put another way, I want you to draw specific connections between your chosen song and specific social, historical, scientific, commercial, or political topics that we have covered in class this spring.  How does your song relate to our coursework, and what do these connections highlight or reveal to us as “consumers” of surf culture?

Part Three – Interpretation: Most of us tend to think of music in terms of its entertainment value, but the fact is that music – especially music with lyrics – is emotionally riveting and deeply meaningful, much like literature. Hence, in this section, I want you to analyze and interpret the meaning of your chosen song. To do so, you must break down the song’s lyrics and focus on specific details that might have deeper significance. Therefore, you might take into consideration such things as: the “theme” of the song; the historical, cultural, and technological context of the music; the songwriter’s background and experience; the genre of the music and its importance; the implications of key images, words, metaphors, or other minute details found in the lyrics. Reflecting on these details, what does your song “mean,” and/or what does it say about surfing and its place(s) in society?

Is Surfing Really a Sport (or just a Pastime), and Why Does this Matter?

Due to COVID-19, the Olympic debut of surfing did not occur in the summer of 2020.  But this year, spectators at the Tokyo Olympics will finally get to see surfers in the water, competing for gold medal glory. While many professional surfers have praised this new contest, others see it as being unnecessary and problematic, potentially leading to more overcrowded line-ups around the world and, in general, continuing recent trends of commercializing the sport. But IS surfing really a sport? In an article assigned for class on 3/30, Brian Blickenstaff notes that many of the best surfers on earth do not enter competitive events organized by the World Surfing League, and that the judging of these competitions has often been seen as subjective and questionable. In addition, there are issues of gender, race, and sexism on tour, and “the clothing and apparel industry that banks on the surfing culture is far, far bigger than the actual professional surfing economy.”  Of course, these issues do not necessarily mean that surfing is not a sport. For this Blogpost, then, I would like you to enter into the fray on this topic, a debate that has been raging in the world of surfing for at least 50 years, and is only intensifying with the Olympics finally upon us. What do you think: IS surfing a sport, or just a fun pastime? In the “sport vs. art” debate, is it true that artistry, the relationship with nature, and individual expression on the waves has taken a back seat to professionalized competition and commercialization? Why do you think the way that you do? And, ultimately, why is this question so important, to “soul surfers” and competitive surfers alike?

On the Roots of Racism in America

In Alex Haley’s influential novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, he tells the tale of an African man who is captured in his native land as a boy, sold into slavery and transported to America, where he lives out his days working on the plantation. The book goes on to tell the story of his children and grandchildren, who face many trials and tribulations but eventually go on to find happiness and success in the country that was forced upon their family as a home. For class Wednesday, we are going to trace the history and “roots” of slavery and racism in the United States, and some of Haley’s words in the novel certainly provide some interesting food-for-thought. Looking back at the past, for example, one character wonders what another’s “true name had been – the name of his African forefathers – and to what tribe they had belonged. He wondered if the gardener himself had known. More likely he died as he had lived – without ever learning who he really was.”  Another character “thought that it was impossible for a ‘massa’ to perceive that being owned by anyone could never be enjoyable,” while another “was weeping for all of history’s incredible atrocities against fellowmen, which seems to be mankind’s greatest flaw.” Through the plight of centuries of slaves and their families, Haley powerfully shows the reader the sad, deplorable truism that “It is the way of the world that goodness is often repaid by badness.”

This is nowhere more clearly seen for those of us living in the United States than in our sickening history of slavery and racism.  On the one hand, the early years of our nation are a wondrous and inspiring tale of growth, innovation, and development, as our founding fathers essentially created a grand new experiment in democracy, freedom, and nation-building.  On the other hand, that very edifice – the very foundation of our country – was literally and figuratively built on the backs of slaves like those depicted in Haley’s novel.  For this blogpost, I want you to write two paragraphs, in which you share your thoughts about the nation’s roots in slavery.  I actually don’t have a specific question or prompt in mind here, but want YOU to respond to what you are assigned for class today as you see fit.  For instance, you might think about new issues and ideas that you never knew about before, you might consider how the videos assigned for class are somehow revealing about issues in our education system or the politicians who run our society, you might connect the assigned material to the historical ideas and issues we have covered so far this semester, or perhaps draw specific connections to Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and our current political moment.  In other words, just “riff” a bit and offer us something that we, in turn, might think about as we work together to explore the slave “roots” of America. 

Thoughts About Witches and Witch Hunts, Past and Present

On Thursday (2/13), you are going to be reading about the witch hunts that exploded in Europe and America during the Early Modern period. These were officially-sanctioned searches, inquisitions, and trials of individuals (mostly women) who were quite literally accused of being witches. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a witch hunt is “a searching out for persecution of those accused of witchcraft.” Central to this definition is the notion that those who were accused were, in turn, persecuted – typically because the accused were generally assumed to be guilty in such cases. Since the time of these historical witch hunts, the phrase has taken on a slightly different connotation in colloquial English usage, and especially in the realm of politics. The dictionary also defines witch hunt as “the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views.” For this blogpost, we are going to try something a little different by having you work with our assigned sources about real-life witch hunts and then seeking to connect them to some modern-day “witch hunt” (in the non-literal sense of the term implied by Webster’s second definition).

In your post, then, I’d like you to draw out an interesting idea, a statement, or a specific quotation from your assigned sources on witch trials for Thursday. Explain why you think that notion is important to our understanding of the persecution of witches, who are some of the most famous human “monsters” of all time. Then, I’d like you to use/apply your chosen idea to some twenty-first century “witch hunt” that you know about, whether it involves a controversial politician, a fallen celebrity, or something from your own experience. For most of you, the topic that will come to mind is the recent impeachment trial of Donald Trump, which the president has frequently labeled as a “witch hunt.” But that subject is almost too easy, too obvious, too cliché at this point – so I would prefer that you avoid using it as an example. Whatever example(s) you do ultimately choose, the idea here is to carefully consider some of the ideologies and “group thinking” that defines witch hunts, and to connect the real-life inquisitions of the Early Modern period to certain closed-minded events and activities from our own day.

On the Historical Growth, Globalization, and Politicization of Surfing

Since your first Blogpost of the semester, our class has covered a lot of historical territory (literally and figuratively speaking). This second Blogpost is designed to encourage you to think more about key aspects of that history, and to view it in a new and different light. It is also aimed to invite you to think visually a bit, something you will be doing soon for your first Middle Stakes writing of the semester (due the following week). For this Blogpost, then, you will bridge the past and the present, and think historically and visually, by doing the following:

1) Pick two historical topics covered since our last Blog that you think are interesting/important. You may choose from the following list, subjects which you may want/need to narrow a bit in order to have something thoughtful to say about them: Alexander Hume Ford, the Outrigger Club, Duke Kahanamoku, the Hui Nalu Club, the “Massie affair,” surfing & Apartheid, Tom Carroll, California’s “surf Nazis”, Aboriginal surfers, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, South China Sea Surf Club, Michael February, or Surfers 4 Peace.

2) Write at least one robust paragraph about both of the historical topics you choose (so, two paragraphs minimum). In each paragraph, you should explore the meaning and broader significance of your subject, and draw some conclusions about it in terms of the history of surfing. To do so, you must offer: a) A quotation that somehow encapsulates and addresses your subject. You should not only find and present this quote, but somehow use and interrogate it in your discussion. b) An image or video that represents your subject. You can offer us this simply by providing a link. Then, here again, you should tell us what is notable about that image, and discuss how/why it illustrates key issues related to your topic(s) and its role in the history of surfing.

Thoughts About the Birth, “Death,” and Rebirth of Surfing

‘Surfing and Society’ is a course that will deeply explore the history, politics, and development of surfing in America, and beyond. So far, our class has focused on the development and early history of surfing, and for your first Blogpost of the semester you will be asked to do a few (relatively) simple things to get you thinking about the assigned reading for 1/30, and ways in which it connects up to what we did in the previous two classes. For this initial trial run, there are three options for you to choose from, and you should choose two of these prompts and respond to them (with your writing amounting to at least two robust paragraphs overall):

1)  One of the very first things we did on our first day together was define and discuss “the stoke.” For this option, you should apply your notions of “the stoke” to one of our recent readings. It would certainly be sensible to articulate how “the stoke” is seen, articulated, and examined in one of the literary/historical accounts we have read so far (by Captain Cook, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Jack London). But if you would like to apply this premise to a historical event or colonial topic mentioned in ‘The World in the Curl’ instead, that would be fine.  Whatever text or topic you wish to discuss, you should explain where and how “the stoke” is seen, and why this particular reference serves as an important and illuminating example of the early history of surfing.

2) The four historical/literary texts listed above (by Cook, Melville, Twain, and London) are fun and quirky and provide an interesting window into the premodern world of surfing. But there is a darkness lurking beneath the surface when it is realized that they are also products of colonialist expansion and exploitation in Hawaii, and the islands nearby. For this option, then, you should choose one of these works and consider it as a kind of political document, a text about war and peace, kingship and rule, imperialism, xenophobic hatred, and so on. To do so, you should focus on a particular passage where issues of power and authority are quietly at issue. How does your chosen passage bring to the page such notions as violence, religion, hatred, justice, misunderstanding, authority, and/or negotiation? Place the passage specifically within the colonial context of the day, consider its meaning and significance, and by all means free to offer some thoughts about what YOU think about the topic, text, and theme in question.

3) An important intellectual skill is comparison, and in fact one of the things we will do frequently in class is compare ideas, sources, places, and people from the broad culture of surfing. So for the third and final option, you might do some comparing and contrasting and see what comes of it. For example, you might compare and contrast such things as: Christian missionaries vs. Hawaiian religious leaders; native surfers vs. the white settler population; the morals of Polynesians vs. the morals of tourists; the US government vs. Hawaiian kings; surfing in Hawaii in the early twentieth century vs. surfing in California and other mainland locales; and/or premodern surf techniques and ideals vs. the “modern” notions of the sport that arose in the United States. Whatever topics or ideas you choose to compare, your paragraph should articulate some of the notable similarities and differences but, more to the point, what is learned through the comparison. What does your comparison reveal about early surfers and the rise, “death,” and rebirth of surfing?

It will be very interesting to see what you all have to offer in this first Blogpost of the semester!!

On Pliny the Elder and the Monstrous (Natural) History of the “Plinian Races”

For students in my ‘Meaning of Monsters’ course, the time has come for your
first Blogpost of the semester. In this initial trial run, I want you to do a
few simple things to get you thinking about the assigned reading for 1/30, and
also to do some additional work with the important “monster theory” of Jeffrey
Jerome Cohen.  More specifically, I’d like you to do two specific things
(which should amount to at least two robust paragraphs overall):

1)  In his chapter on “The Plinian Races,” John Block Friedman makes
some interesting comments about the (supposed) monsters of the ancient world,
particularly from the perspective of the Greeks.  He includes a variety of
examples of human groups (from India and Ethiopia) who are (mis)understood by
ancient authors as having mysterious, monstrous qualities.  He also offers
some analysis of these beings, and draws some interesting conclusions about
them.  For part one of your Blogpost, then, I’d simply like you to offer a
specific quotation from Friedman’s discussion that you feel is especially
interesting or important.  Then, discuss it by explaining what you find so
intriguing about your chosen quote?  Why does it seem so noteworthy as a
window into the culture (and monsters) of ancient Greece and Rome (or India and

2)  For part two of your response, I’d like to do a bit more work with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s crucially important essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”. Here, I’d like you to apply ONE of Cohen’s theses to ONE monster outlined by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. If you apply and use Cohen’s ideas as a way to explore or understand Pliny’s varied discussion of monsters found both on land and in the oceans, what
connections or ideas arise by using Cohen’s model? The point here is to
further enhance your understanding of Cohen’s complex essay by working closely with it and using it to help you understand another complex piece of monstrous writing.

I’ll be curious to see what you all have to say for this first Blogpost of
the semester!!