A love of life and scholarship

I first knew Phillipa Stein as the little girl Pippa, beautiful and highly intelligent, a sign of the qualities that were to be fulfilled bountifully when she grew up.

Later, she and Malcolm Purkey, who was to become her husband, were friends of my son when Pippa and Malcolm were members of the group of talented young white and black men and women living and working together on projects in the arts, defiant of racist laws in their mini-commune, Junction Avenue, Parktown.

Literature was her passion long before she became a distinguished academic in the field of linguistics and related disciplines belonging to the infinite aspects of the word, but her active and compelling interest in theatre and the visual arts meant that she took on any opportunity that might be needed in furthering a wide genre of creativity.

Her academic career began at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1980s as a lecturer in the department of applied English language studies, and was marked by her vision of education as a teaching responsibility also for the social change to which she was dedicated.

She initiated the Soweto English Language Project as a grass-roots beginning, and out of this grew her innovative series of textbooks for the teaching of English on which, always an invigorating team worker, she collaborated with a team of like-minded progressive thinkers in English language pedagogy. She has been aptly called “a researcher of meaning-making in all its forms”.

Her publications encompass educational and semiotic theory and practice but also arts and culture, from her early Sophiatown Speaks to a recent book on the artist Deborah Bell, and guest editorship with Denise Newfield of English Studies in Africa.

She was joint leader of the Wits Multiliteracies Research Project, and joint organiser of the highly successful 14th International Conference of Learning in June 2007.

When Wits instituted in my name an honour that is usually posthumous, an annual public lecture, Pippa Stein occupied herself with unsparing organisational exigence to create a vision of an annual event that would bring together the university and a nation-wide audience to define the meaning of a university in the wider community. She virtually hosted, in all their diverse and sometimes taxing needs, the great thinkers and writers, Susan Sontag, Carlos Fuentes and Amartya Sen, who were the lecturers in the first three years of the lectureship, which were under her inspiration and direction.

Love of life and scholarship were one, in Dr Phillipa Stein and Pippa Stein. This remarkable synthesis produced demanding energy, after a brave encounter with cancer, to complete her PhD at the University of London, the thesis Multinational Pedagogies in Diverse Classrooms: Rights, Representations and Resources, published in this, the last year of her life. It has been highly praised, one reviewer declaring “the book breathed life into theory”.

For the author herself, this woman of such intellectual achievement, human warmth, generous of her personal gifts used in the service of others, loved by her students, treasured by her man Malcolm, their son Benjy, family and friends, a better epitaph could not be found. She breathed life into every situation and circumstance in which she was involved.—Nadine Gordimer

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