333: The true number of the beast?

Exeter's most dreaded history paper is back for another spring term.

Sarah Pruitt '95
May 18, 2022

Students gather in the Library Commons to work on their History 430 term papers.

As spring unfolds on Exeter’s campus, nearly 300 students are confronting one of the most daunting academic challenges presented them during their time at the Academy: the “333.” The notorious U.S. history term paper, with a required length of 12 to 15 pages — or approximately 4,000 words — is meant to train students in the type of independent research, critical thinking, analytical writing and time management skills they will need in their college careers.

Uppers, along with some seniors and a few ambitious lowers, take on the assignment as the capstone of the final course in the History Department’s three-term American history sequence. Since 2016, this course has been called History 430: U.S. History 1941–Present, but before that it was known for three decades as History 333. While the numbering change was intended to reflect the academic rigor of the course, the 333 term paper was by then considered an integral rite of passage at the school — and the name stuck.

The famous Louis Khan-designed Class of 1945 Library serves as the students’ hulking home base during the four weeks they spend working on their 333s. Roughly 15 class sessions of History 430 are devoted to the project, with students spending most of that class time working independently or conferencing one-on-one with their teachers.

It’s the school’s most infamous paper, so obviously everyone’s going to have some anxiety around it."
Arya Palla ’23

To help students avoid last-minute, late-night writing binges, History 430 teachers set careful guidelines along the way, including notes, detailed outlines and a rough draft. The timely completion of these mini-assignments factor into the final grade for the paper, which comprises 40% of a student’s grade for the course.

“A lot of students can sit down and fire out a four-to-five-page paper at the last minute,” says Instructor in History Sally Komarek, who is teaching four sections of 430 this term. “But the longer the paper gets, you need an outline, and you need to think about how things are organized. We try to get them to build those habits now.”

The 333 process begins with pre-research, or some “low-stakes perusing,” as Komarek puts it. The students can write on any topic related to U.S history; she tries to get students to choose topics they are passionate about, to make the project easier and more enjoyable. After taking copious notes — some students use Google Docs, or a software program called Noodle Tools, while others rely on old-fashioned index cards — the students settle on a single-focused research question and are required to hand in a detailed outline. Students need a minimum of eight to 10 sources for their 333’s bibliography, including reference books, secondary sources, periodicals and scholarly articles, and the majority is expected to be made up of primary sources.

One of Komarek’s students, Arya Palla ’23, is writing about U.S. intervention in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and the public perception versus the reality of America’s activities there. He’s making good use of the many archived newspapers and other online resources the Library provides access to, and has found that completing the smaller assignments along the way have relieved much of the pressure inherent in the term paper.

“It’s the school’s most infamous paper, so obviously everyone’s going to have some anxiety around it,” Palla says. “But since it’s so structured, I think it becomes a lot easier to go through the process. Before you know it, you’ve kind of already written the paper through your notes.

I don’t think it’s as scary as people make it out to be. But I also haven’t finished it yet."
Lally Lavin ’23

For her topic, Lally Lavin ’23 chose the 1995 self-help book The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. “It’s a little bit more recent, but the authors address a lot of changing social norms throughout the 1900s,” she explains. “I’ve used it as an opportunity to explore what’s going on with feminism, women entering the workforce, education rates and all of that from the 1960s to the ’90s.”

Though aware of the paper’s fearsome reputation, Lavin is pleasantly surprised — so far — at the reality. “I don’t think it’s as scary as people make it out to be,” she says. “But I also haven’t finished it yet.”

Because not all sections of History 430 can meet in the library at once, and many teachers teaching multiple sections need to manage their own workload, the students are completing their term papers in waves. By early May, while Palla, Lavin and their classmates are buckling down for some serious writing, Komarek’s other two sections are just beginning the process. And other students are basking in the warmer weather, along with the knowledge that they have made it through this Exeter milestone.

“I remember being a prep and a lot of the uppers in my dorm at the time talking about the 333,” says Keanen Andrews ’23, who wrote his paper 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.”