South African HIV/AIDS Action Researcher Receives Honorary Degree
Reporting by Peter Richmond, M.A.T. Fellow
South African educator and researcher Lesley Wood embraces the difficult tasks that lay before her.
“I like a challenge,” she told an audience at her on-campus talk, titled “Action Research for the Social Change: Some ‘Out of Africa’ Experience.” As part of the April 10 lecture, Moravian College presented Wood with an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, which coincided with her week as Action Researcher in Residence within the College’s Education Department.
Wood, a research professor at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, faces many trials and tribulations in a country where rural schools are in such disrepair that many have been condemned structurally, but are still in use. Wood spoke passionately of a nation that marginalizes females, where teenage pregnancy is common, and where the HIV/AIDS epidemic is rampant. In fact, in some schools, 80 percent of the students have been affected by the disease and “nation-wide HIV/AIDS preventive education for disadvantaged children is rare,” she said.
Wood’s work to prevent the spread of the HIV virus among disadvantaged youth has earned her global recognition, tirelessly spreading the message she shared to her Moravian audience. “This is not a medical issue,” she explained. “It is a social and education issue, and too many teachers don’t know how to deal with it.” But the prevention of the spread of the virus, while emblematic of her goal of trying to better a society by seeing its young through an action-research lens, is hardly the only goal on Wood’s radar. She is determined to knock down the notion of a global ivory tower that has shackled education scholarship: that of “Educator as Expert.”
“You must not trust elitist versions of history,” Wood said. “Do not depend solely on your culture to interpret facts. Recover local values, traits, beliefs and arts for action with the research organizations ... (and) let the learners have a voice. It can’t be, ‘This is what you must learn to be relevant to your lives.’”
ABOVE: Grigsby (from left), Wood and Shosh pose together following the presentation of Wood's honorary degree.
ABOVE: Following the April 10 event, Wood talks with Gordon Weil, vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty.
While Wood has published more than 40 definitive articles in peer-reviewed journals, her paper trail is hardly a feat of which she is particularly proud. When she is not taking action in South African schools, she is doing her best to convince the global academic-scholar community to accept that “action research” is not only actual research but, more importantly, is an essential component of a future in which teaching must equate not only with learning for the student, but also for the teacher.
“Academics have the monopoly on education ... (but) we can’t continue to write only in these flowery academic tomes and journals,” she said. “The knowledge we co-create must be disseminated through ways that the community understand, including blogs and community newsletters.”
“Society is evolving,” Wood continued. “We have to flexible and adapt. We have to interpret life and respond to life and realize that everybody has something worthwhile to give, not just people with degrees – everybody.”
Her advice to action-research teachers? “Let the learners have a voice. Not tell them, ‘This is what you must learn to be relevant to your lives.’ Do not impose arrogantly your techniques,” she cautions. “Combine your skills ... with the knowledge of, and respect for, the grassroots communities, taking them in as full partners and co-researchers.”
And how can the “action research” model contribute? “By understanding that action research is not just for social change ... it is social change,” she explained.
When President Bryon L. Grigsby ‘90 bestowed one of Moravian’s highest honors on Wood, her message was revealed and opened to a wider audience, in an era when taking action in the educational process promises a path toward a more enlightened future.
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