Published: April 11, 2019

Scholars to use awards to support research of imperial legacy on standardized testing in the Middle East and adult adoptions and family formation in Japan 


Two University of Colorado Boulder historians have won prestigious fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the group announced this month. 

Yonemoto and Kalisman

Marcia Yonemoto and Hilary Falb Kalisman.

The fellows from CU Boulder are Hilary Falb Kalisman, assistant professor of history and endowed professor of Israel/Palestine Studies in the Program of Jewish Studies, and Marcia Yonemoto, professor of history and director of the CU Boulder Graduate Teacher Program. They are among 81 fellows chosen from a pool of 1,100 applicants.

“The 2019 ACLS fellows exemplify ACLS’s inclusive vision of excellence in the humanities and humanistic social sciences,” Matthew Goldfeder, director of fellowship programs at ACLS, said in a prepared statement

ACLS fellowships afford scholars the opportunity to spend six to 12 months researching and writing full time. The program awards fellowships of up to $70,000 each.

Each of CU Boulder’s ACLS fellows recently discussed the focus of their fellowship-supported work.

Kalisman’s research project is titled “Standardized Testing: An Imperial Legacy of the Modern Middle East.” She characterized standardized testing as a means of social control in the Middle East, a region where this educational tool has had one of the “most significant impacts on students’ lives and futures.”

Kalisman’s work focuses on Britain’s Middle Eastern Mandates: the areas that became Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Palestine/the Occupied Territories. After World War I, the League of Nations charged Britain to facilitate the transition of the Mandate areas from imperial holdings to nation-states. 

The British sought to postpone independence and strove to use standardized testing “as a way of neutralizing or even repressing anti-imperial politics,” she said, noting that local populations sought to retain the tests even after British rule ended.

Kalisman’s research will focus on the reasons for that development: 

“Could these exams, despite their creators' best efforts, actually offer the social mobility and political conflict that colonial officials feared? What was the relationship between the spread of standardized testing and that of English in the region?  Why and how did the governments of Iraq, Jordan and Israel take up the standardized testing norms of the Mandates? Finally, how does privatization and competition over national and international exams shape the effects of standardized testing?” 

Kalisman said becoming an ACLS fellow is an “incredible opportunity for me, particularly at this stage in my career.” She is now finishing a book on public school teachers, state- and nation-building in the Middle East, and she can now immediately begin a second book that grew “organically” out of the first, she said 

One goal of her work, she said, is to counter the stereotype that rote memorization is a product of local religious schools where children learn to read, write and memorize the Qur’an. 

“By analyzing countries which experienced British colonialism, including Islamic and non-Islamic polities through the lens of examinations, this book will break out of the limiting binaries of East and West, which have shadowed accounts of both schooling and culture.”

Yonemoto’s research focus is “The Ties that Bind: Adult Adoption and Family Formation in Japan, 1700-1925.She became interested in adoption while researching her first book, The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan.

As she read about women’s roles in households and about family formation in the early modern period, she was struck by how many families engaged in adoption, she said. Further, many adoptions were not of young children but rather late adolescents or adults, “usually boys or men, and usually for purposes of securing an heir,” she said, adding:

“Particularly common, though, was the adoption of a daughter’s husband (such men were called muko yōshi, literally “husband adoptee”); such men would take their wives’ surnames and assume household headship upon the death or retirement of their fathers/fathers-in-law.” Japan’s family system was and is patrilineal by law and custom, she said, “so a family had to have a male heir or it would cease to exist.” 

By adopting a single adult male or a daughter’s husband, Japanese families were able to preserve a theoretically unbroken lineage in which household and family headship could be transmitted from generation to generation, regardless of the presence or absence of biological male offspring, she said, noting the practice was crucial in early modern Japan, “when overall fertility was relatively low.”

Adult and son-in-law adoption remained common throughout the period encompassed by Yonemoto’s study and is still by far the most frequently practiced form of adoption in Japan today, she said. 

But the motives and meanings of such adoptions shifted dramatically in the late 19thand early 20thcentury due to changes in the legal system and in social norms regarding “modern” forms of marriage and family relations, she said. 

“My project explores why and how this shift in practices and attitudes toward adoption occurred, and examines its legal, social, and cultural ramifications across the early modern-modern divide,” Yonemoto said, adding she also wants to examine Japan’s adoption practices in comparative context, both regionally and globally. 

Noting that she is “so very grateful for the ACLS fellowship,” she said such support is invaluable because it gives scholars time to do the “fundamental research work (reading, thinking, writing) that ultimately expands knowledge and contributes to our fields of study.”

Paul Sutter, professor of history and chair of the department, said the department has had good success winning ACLS fellowships; historians Mithi Mukherjee and Miriam Kingsberg Kadia won in recent years. 

“But to receive two such highly competitive fellowships in the same year is quite a coup for us, and it speaks to the compelling research projects of Hilary Falb Kalisman and Marcia Yonemoto,” Sutter said. 

Nan Goodman, director of the Program in Jewish Studies, said she and her colleagues are “delighted” by the ACLS award. “A year off from teaching will allow Professor Kalisman to make considerable progress on her new book project and bring innovative ideas back into her classes on Israel and Palestine.”