History instructor Lawrence Smith gazes down the table in an alcove of the Class of 1945 Library. It is a balmy day in April, and the uppers poised to begin research for their 333 papers have arrived for class laden with books, notebooks, scrap paper—the tools of their trade for the next few weeks. What they don’t know, until now, is that they will also be using index cards. “I have found—and I’ve done it many different ways—that this is the best way to conduct historical research, despite technological innovations,” Smith tells the students. “Every year I have at least one student who says, ‘I don’t do notecards,’ and I say, ‘Yes, you do.’”
Reference Librarian Jane Boesch helps students with research.
For more than 40 years, the History 333 (formerly known as the History 32) paper has been a rite of passage at Exeter. Or, as the editors of The Historical Review, a new student publication, put it: “The 333 has long been considered the milestone of an Exeter career, testing the student’s abilities at research, analysis, and organization.” Today students have access to reams of material via the Internet, and their topics range from McKinley and U.S. imperialism in the Philippines in the late 1800s to the Watts riots of 1965. The papers have also become shorter—approximately 3,000 words versus the 6,000-word essays of earlier eras—and research and writing take place in an intensive three-week blitz rather than over the course of the semester. Yet the emphasis on primary research and scholarly presentation, familiar to past generations of American history students at Exeter, remains very much the same.
On this April morning, Smith concludes his pep talk (“If you make 1,000 notecards and throw out 600, that’s okay.”) and sends students off to discover whether their topics are viable. Dan Morash ’00 is interested in researching some aspect of the Gettysburg battle or the Alger Hiss case. He goes straight to Biblion, the Academy’s online card catalog. “When you search the Internet, there’s so much junk that gets turned up,” he explains. “It’s not worth it.” Other students do make use of the Internet—Chris Brown ’99 looks for material on African Americans who served in the Revolutionary War, and Caitlin Church ’00 researches Ku Klux Klan activity in the Midwest in the 1950s. After all three have found a few sources, they return to consult with their teacher.
“You need to come up with a question, not just a topic,” Smith explains to each in turn. “What is your question about Gettysburg?” he asks Dan Morash. “You need to find a question or thesis you can explore using primary source materials. There are thousands of primary source materials about Gettysburg. This is a plus. The negative is that it’s been written about a great deal.”
The students go back to Biblion and further searching. Caitlin Church thinks she will stick with the Ku Klux Klan. “It’s an interesting topic I would like to read about. I’m from Indiana and I’d like to know what happened there in the 1950s, with the re-emergence of the KKK. But I need to narrow my topic. Mr. Smith says I need to find out if the Klan actually re-emerged. And why did they re-emerge versus other organizations?”
Anything the students have studied in United States history, a required course, is fair game for the 333. Many come up with unique approaches to familiar subjects or delve into areas little covered in historical literature. Smith cites the student a few years ago who obtained Japanese documents connected to Pearl Harbor and translated them. Through the translation, he discovered that the United States did not correctly interpret the documents at the time, a mistake that had an impact on the outbreak of war. That paper was “spectacular,” Smith acknowledges. Others have continued work on their 333 topics in college. Lam Nguyen ’94 completed a senior thesis at Harvard on Vietnamese intellectuals at the time of the first Indochina war, a topic that grew out of her 333 paper. Enmi Sung ’95 and Sarah Pruitt ’95 had their papers accepted for publication in The Concord Review, a national journal of history papers by high school students. The papers were titled, respectively, “The Costly Victory of the League of Nations” and “Walter Lippmann and Woodrow Wilson.”
In 1956, the first Negley Prize for a paper in American history was awarded to Stewart Brand ’56 for “The Army and the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.” A citation attached to a copy of the essay in the Academy archives reads: “This essay is remarkable for careful assessment of arguments and evidence pro and con in a highly controversial issue.” The essay’s opening sheds light on the issue explored, one that seems surprisingly contemporary to a 1990s reader: “One of the most tragic chapters in American history is the story of the gradual and perhaps unpreventible depletion of North American wildlife . . .” (Stewart Brand went on to become a leading figure in the counterculture of the sixties with publication of his Whole Earth Catalog. He has published numerous books.) Other papers from the 1930s to the 1950s collected in the archives focus on more traditional topics, from a history of the Central Pacific railroad (1932) to the aftermath of Reconstruction (1954). Today’s students continue to find the Civil War and World Wars I and II rich ground for research. However, many choose to focus on social history and political movements. History instructor Marcia Carlisle notes, “We are more likely to get papers on Asian exclusion now than Andrew Jackson and the bank, though we spend far more time on Jackson in class.”