Challenge and triumph

The epic story of the 333 History term paper.

By
Sarah Pruitt '95
July 26, 2022

You wake with a start, uncertain of where you are. A sharp ache in your neck reminds you — at your desk, slumped over its scratched surface, your laptop pushed to the side. When you poke at the keyboard to wake it from its own slumber, your bleary eyes dart immediately to the clock: 2:15 a.m. Panic surges through your body and you’re instantly, painfully awake. You take in your surroundings: Books — so many books — laid out on the bed, the desk, the floor. Some with their spines flattened, others bristling with tiny Post-its in neon hues. Your internet browser tabs contain a dozen more scholarly articles, not to mention those newspaper stories from the 1920s you painstakingly tracked down during hours spent in the Class of 1945 Library.

And, of course, you see the hard copy of your rough draft, marked with your teacher’s nearly illegible scrawl. Your thesis was vague, your argument meandered, you used the wrong format for footnotes and bibliography. And the draft is only six pages long.

Willing the panic to subside, you walk to the window, push it open and peer into the darkness. The night air still carries a chill, but you can see cherry blossoms on a few nearby trees. Then you notice a light in a neighboring dorm, and two more in the dorm next to that. You have no idea whose rooms these are, yet in that moment you imagine other students at different points around campus, seated at their own desks. You are not alone. They too are in the midst of that classic Exonian rite of spring: writing the U.S. history term paper commonly known as “the 333.”

It’s that very challenge — the feeling of owning your work, of pushing your limits ... that makes [the 333] such an enduring, and important, part of the Exeter experience.”

I remember my own experience with the assignment well. As the daughter of an Exeter emeritus history instructor — my father, Bruce Pruitt, taught from 1973 to 2009 — I inherited his love of the subject matter, but I also inherited his perfectionism, and the related (as I now, years later, understand it) tendency to procrastinate. I composed the final draft of my 333 largely in the wee morning hours of the due date, without the help of the internet, on a clunky Toshiba laptop that was thrillingly high-tech to me at the time. The rough draft was in fact only six pages long, and I’m certain that at one point I did not believe I would ever be able to get it done.

Yet despite the History 333 term paper’s fearsome  reputation, and despite any individual struggles, I think most Exonians would agree with me: It’s that very challenge — the feeling of owning your work, of pushing your limits and achieving something that once seemed impossible — that makes it such an enduring, and important, part of the Exeter experience.

While many high school history curricula are organized around preparation for Advanced Placement exams or other standardized tests, studying history at the Academy involves little memorization of dates or battle locations or branches of royal family trees. Instead, the Harkness approach to history centers on in-depth critical reading and independent thinking, combined with classroom discussions that often draw meaningful connections between past and present. Writing is an essential part of that approach, as is giving students a solid grounding in how to do research and craft an analytical argument.

The 333 is the capstone assignment of the three-term U.S. history sequence, a requirement for graduation that is most often taken in a student’s upper year. In the fall term, students focus on the nation’s colonial origins up to the outbreak of the Civil War and complete a library research assignment. In the winter, they build upon that experience, learn about the period between 1861 and 1941, and write a short research paper of five to seven pages. By spring term, devoted to U.S. history after 1941, they are ready to confront the 333 — known prior to the 1986-87 school year as “the 32.”

Though it is unquestionably the longest paper that most students will write during their time at the Academy, the required length of the 333 has been adjusted over the years. Currently, it is 12 to 15 pages, or approximately 4,000 words, along with footnotes and a bibliography — heavy on the primary sources. “It’s become more involved,” says Bill Jordan, longtime history instructor and director of the Washington Intern Program. “The availability of sources has dramatically expanded. You used to have to go down and use the microfilm to read The New York Times, and now you just press a button and you’ve got a million articles right there.”

“If there’s one piece of the Exeter experience that gives students the best preparation for writing papers, it’s the 333,” says Betsy Dolan, dean of college counseling. In addition to preparing students for the rigors of college academics, the process of writing the paper offers students an opportunity to take ownership of their work in a way that remains rare among high school assignments, she says. From choosing a topic to tracking down sources to finding the perfect pointed research question, she adds, the 333 requires significant agency, self-knowledge and self-discipline. The term paper’s very length and difficulty also contributes to the unique feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that students get at the end. Looking back on their 333 experience, many students view it as a process of learning not just about a particular historical topic but about themselves. For some, the experience leaves a more lasting mark, fueling a calling to a future career. “When you go to alumni events, virtually every-body remembers what they wrote their 333 about, and they love talking about it,” says Emeritus History Instructor Jack Herney ’46, ’69, ’71, ’74, ’92, ’95 (Hon.).

Layne Erickson ’18 certainly recalls finding such meaning in the process of writing her 333 — albeit by accident. When all the books for her first-choice topic (the use of animals for military purposes) were taken, she picked another book at random off the shelf to see where that led her. The book was Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point by Stephen E. Ambrose, and it included a section on the first women to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1980.

That paper, along with my senior thesis at Princeton and my Ph.D. dissertation, were kind of the pillars of my educational evolution."

Erickson ended up writing her 333 on the classes of 1980 at the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy, all of which made the decision to admit women in 1976. As a senior, she applied to all three service academies, and this spring she became the first Exeter alumna to graduate from West Point. “Upon doing that research, I saw not only the darker side of the challenge, where these women were being faced with a lot of disrespect and unfairness and genuine harassment, but I was really inspired by the steps that they took to push through it,” Erickson says. “I thought, someone really does need to take on that challenge to be the next group. Every year, somebody’s got to be next.”

The process of writing the 333 itself pushed her limits, as Erickson was forced to restructure her entire draft based on feedback from her teacher. “I rewrote that whole thing in three or four days,” she says. “I would not say I look back on the 333 fondly, but I do look back on it with respect, as quite the challenge.”

Peter Orszag ’87 won a Negley Prize (see sidebar, “The Negley Prize Explained”), given to one of the year’s best American history essays by an Exeter student, for his History 32 term paper, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Need for Reform.” Orszag, who later served as director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in the administration of President Barack Obama, says the experience of researching and writing his paper — combined with his participation in the Washington Intern Program during his senior year — helped propel him toward a career in public service. “That paper, along with my senior thesis at Princeton and my Ph.D. dissertation, were kind of the pillars of my educational evolution,” Orszag says. “The attractiveness of public service was part of the educational ethos at some of the schools I attended before Exeter, but it really was turbocharged while I was there.”

The process also helped build Orszag’s love of writing. Currently CEO of financial advisory at the investment bank Lazard, he has maintained a sideline, writing columns for Bloomberg News. “I’ve always found it clarifying for the thought process when you have to put something down ‘on paper,’” Orszag says. “The experience associated with the History 32 paper was beneficial because it reinforced the importance of writing clearly and well, and that’s something I’ve continued to enjoy to this day.”

As with Orszag and Erickson, the process of writing her 333 taught Flora MacIvor ’03 about herself, as much as about the topic she chose: the anti-Communist crusades and mass arrests that peaked in the years after World War I. “I had this idea in my mind of what I was going to say and what I was going to argue,” MacIvor recalls. “But then when I started researching, the research did not support what I believed personally.”

Having never worked with primary sources before arriving at Exeter her lower year, MacIvor dove into those she found in the library, and let them guide her to a conclusion different from the one she had initially assumed. “I think that’s something that’s stuck with me my whole life,” she says. “It’s great to have a personal opinion, but then when you actually start to look at what the facts are, you have to be ready to admit that you’re wrong.”

MacIvor’s experience also gave her the confidence to take on the yearlong challenge of writing a thesis, an option but not a requirement for her as a history major at Duke. She went on to earn a master’s in cultural studies at the University of Toulon in France and is now a professor of English as a foreign language at Aix-Marseille University.

Research and analytical writing, along with Harkness discussion, have always been the pillars of Exeter’s history curriculum, but a single lengthy term paper was not always given as much prominence. Herney, who joined the faculty in 1968, says that while assigning a U.S. history term paper was established tradition by the early 1970s, “it didn’t have the cachet, or the notoriety, that it later had.”

The change seems to have occurred sometime in the early 1980s, when the U.S history course was divided into two semesters: History 31 and History 32. At the end of the second course, the final term paper became known as the 32. Beginning with the 1986-87 school year, when the Academy began operating on a three-term system, History 31 and 32 became History 331, 332 and 333.

It’s great to have a personal opinion, but then when you actually start to look at what the facts are, you have to be ready to admit that you’re wrong."

Over the next three decades, articles chronicling the struggle and satisfaction of producing the 333 would become springtime fixtures in The Exonian. “Every Upper’s Nightmare,” read one headline from 1994 (the year I completed my 333). “The 333 is hell,” the paper’s board opined in 1996. “Do you really think it’s a coincidence that 333 is half of 666?” In a 2005 article headlined “The Terrors and Triumphs of the 333,” Hyan Park ’06 spoke with a number of current seniors who looked back on the paper as “a milestone of their Exeter careers” and “a valuable and meaningful experience.”

When the U.S. history courses were renumbered in 2016 to more accurately reflect their academic rigor, the change didn’t sit well with some students. “I remember we insisted on continuing to call [the term paper] the 333, because the 333 meant something,” says Erickson, who was among the first students to take History 430. “I don’t even remember the number they changed it to.”

“We were all told we had to call [the paper] ‘the 430,’ but students just couldn’t move on from it,” recalls Reference and Instruction Librarian Kate Lennon Walker, who has helped students conduct research for their U.S. history term papers for the past 14 years. “I think they will always write a 333, no matter what the course number is.”

Given how large the 333 has loomed over the years, it’s not surprising that, six years after the course number change, the brand endures. “I remember being a prep and a lot of the uppers in my dorm at the time talking about staying up late nights writing their 333s,” says Keanen Andrews ’23, who wrote his term paper this spring on the rise of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street, and its destruction at the hands of white rioters in 1921 for History Instructor Nolan Lincoln’s 430 class. “It was in the back of my mind when I was a younger student and, now that it’s done, I know it was difficult and challenging, but I do feel complete. I put everything into the paper, and I enjoyed it.” 

 

 

The Negley Prize explained

On June 17, 1946, Richard V.W. Negley of the class of 1906 wrote from his home in San Antonio, Texas, to E.S. Wells Kerr, then serving as the Academy’s first dean. The subject of his letter was a somber one: Negley’s two sons, Albert Sidney Burleson Negley ’31 and Richard Van Wyck Negley Jr. ’33, had both died in World War II. Richard Jr. was killed in action in the Pacific, while Albert was reported to have perished while being held as a Japanese prisoner of war.

“When the government was proceeding to the settlement of [Richard Jr.’s] account at the War Department, it seemed to Mrs. Negley that it would be appropriate to use some portion of the money due him to establish a small endowment at Exeter in his memory,” Negley wrote. “Later on, Albert had to be included in the plan … for he was as devoted to Exeter as Dick.”

With the $2,640 in “New York exchange” that was included with the letter, the Negleys endowed the Albert Sidney Burleson Negley 1931 and Richard Van Wyck Negley Jr. 1933 Memorial Fund, to be used for one of three purposes: purchasing books for the Academy Library; rewarding members of the Golden Branch, a literary society that sponsored debates; or as a prize for an outstanding history essay written by an Academy student.

The first Negley Prize was awarded to Stewart Brand ’56, who as a senior wrote a paper on “The Army and the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge” for a
U.S. history course then called History 4. Brand went on to create The Whole Earth Catalog, a forward-looking bible of 1960s and ’70s counterculture that would be cited as an inspiration by Apple founder Steve Jobs and other tech visionaries.

Today the Negley Prize is an annual tradition, awarded for the year’s best essays in American history. Teachers in the History Department submit term papers they find exceptional to be considered for the honor each year. The winning essays — sometimes two or three, sometimes as many as six — are selected by a committee based on writing style, scope and quality of research, and are announced in the fall following the spring in which they are completed.

Prize-winning 333s

Since 1998, the winning Negley Prize papers from each year have been bound in a single volume and stored in the Center for Archives and Special Collections in the Class of 1945 Library. We have chosen 12 intriguing titles that reflect the wide-ranging interests of Exeter students, and their willingness to delve deeply into issues that remain all too relevant in the present day.

“Illusions of Immortality: U.S. Public Health Authorities and the Spanish Flu Pandemic, 1918-1919” Diana Gentry ’01

“Scandal and Sabotage: Richard  Nixon’s Theft of the 1968 Election” — Tom Langer ’04

“From Ambivalence to Acceptance: American Attitudes Towards Linguistic and National Identity” — Sally Pei ’06

“The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: A Medical Experiment Swept  Under the Rug” — Hillary Fitzgerald ’07

“They Bit the Hand That Fed Them: How the United States Spawned Global Terrorism During the Soviet-Afghan War” — Kevin Chen ’11

“The Equal Rights Amendment: How the ERA Lost the Ratification Battle and Remained a Triumph for the Women’s Movement Despite Its Death” — Alero Egbe ’13

“‘A Battle Royal’: The Role of Religion and Politics in the Brandeis Confirmation Struggle” — Rohan Pavuluri ’14

“Psychiatry’s Own ‘Wonder Drug’: Chlorpromazine and Its Portrayal  in the 1950s Media” — Arianna Serafini ’16

“Medicine as Social Control: Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and the Classification of Homosexuality” — Elliot Diaz ’19

“Packing Heat: How the National Rifle Association Shaped the Interpretation of the Second Amendment” — Sam Farnsworth ’20

“A Legacy of Black Empowerment: The Unseen Triumph of the Harlem Renaissance” — Osiris Russell-Delano ’21

“Guantanamo’s Role in the War on Terror: Exception or the Norm?” —  Samantha Moore ’22

 

This story first appeared in the summer 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin. 

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