UA history professor headed to semester of teaching and learning at the Sorbonne


As she does each fall, Dr. Martha Santos will be watching the leaves on the trees turn color from her classroom windows. It’s just that this fall, her classroom will be about 4,000 miles from Akron.

Santos, an associate professor of history, will be an invited scholar at the Institut de hautes études del’Amerique latine (Institute of Latin American Studies) at the Université Sorbonne, Nouvelle-Paris.

Dr. Martha Santos

Dr. Martha Santos

“I will be responsible for teaching two undergraduate courses in my fields of expertise and practice, which are the history of gender, including the history of masculinities and women’s history in Latin America, and the history of salsa dance,” says Santos. “I will also be performing research activities related to my current book project, which focuses on the lives of enslaved mothers and children in the remote hinterlands of the Brazilian Northeast during the second half of the 19th century.

Many opportunities await

“One of the perks of being an invited scholar at the Institut de hautes études del’Amerique latine (IHEAL) includes participating in the academic life of the other departments of the Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris University,” continues Santos, who was approved for an unpaid leave to accept the opportunity. “I will also have access to the Sorbonne’s wonderful libraries and collections, and perhaps I might even participate in academic events in other French and European institutions with which the IHEAL collaborates.”

It was the focus on undergraduate teaching that drew her to the opportunity.

“I think that the experience of teaching in a completely different environment and to a completely different student body will help me to become a more versatile undergraduate teacher,” adds Santos, who, until recently, worked with graduate students. “I hope to gain a different understanding of how to relate to, dialogue with, teach to and learn from undergraduate students. This will help me gain experience in adapting myself and my teaching to different cultural, geographic and even linguistic contexts. I also know I will benefit immensely, both in my teaching and research, from interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration with the other invited scholars who will be at the IHEAL and with the Sorbonne faculty whom I will meet during my time in residence there.

“Of course, I was also attracted to this position because the idea of spending one semester teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris seemed to me like a dream,” says Santos with a smile. “Ever since I was a teenager, I knew that the Sorbonne was one of the oldest and most prestigious European universities.”

Benefits gained from first visiting scholar role 

This will be the second experience Santos has had as a visiting scholar. She spent the 2013-14 academic year in residence at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. During the year, which she describes as “one of the best of my life,” she did research in Harvard’s library collections, analyzed sources and wrote.

At Harvard, Santos met American and Latin American scholars working on topics related to her own. She published two scholarly articles on the topics of enslaved women, motherhood and reproduction in 19th century Brazil — articles now part of her current book project. The opportunity led to her participation in the international research network on Mothering Slaves: Comparative Perspectives on Motherhood, Childlessness and the Care of Children in Atlantic Slave Societies in 2015 and 2016. This research network brought together scholars from England, Brazil the United States and Cuba, who shared, developed and published cutting-edge research on slavery and gender in the Americas.

“As a result of the work done at Harvard, I have been able to incorporate different sources, images, ideas and ways of thinking about slavery and race into my teaching to the students at UA,” notes Santos.

Santos hopes that the interdisciplinarity experiences she gains at the Sorbonne will benefit her as she designs future courses for students at UA, and for when she collaborates with colleagues in other departments. She has already designed and taught an interdisciplinary unclass for UA’s EXL Center that focused on the history of salsa dance from the perspectives and practices of history and dance.

“The time spent in France will allow for some travel around the country,” says Santos. “I hope to be able to deepen my dance practice, not only of salsa, but also of other African-based dances, since I know that many very good Caribbean, West African and North African dance instructors live and teach in Paris. And I also hope to eat very good bread and cheese daily!”

“Finally, I hope to be able to make a contribution to the intellectual and teaching life at the IHEAL and the Sorbonne, from my place as an Ecuadorian professor, who specializes in Brazilian and Latin American history, who teachers at The University of Akron, and who has made the practice of dance, especially African-derived dances, a central part of her life and increasingly of her teaching,” notes Santos.

Due to travel restrictions to the European Union related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Martha Santos might not be able to travel to France this fall. In that case, her visiting professor position at the Sorbonne will be postponed to the fall of 2021.