The Program Era Project: Limning the Iowa Writers' Workshop's literary influence

Loren Glass, professor and chair of English, leads the first computational investigation of the program next door.
Thursday, April 22, 2021

person with marked-up paperIf you were to mention "Iowa" to someone who has never visited the state, chances are good that their first association would be "Writers' Workshop"—especially if they love American literature.

The Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa is the premier creative writing MFA program in the nation, and has graduated U.S. poets laureate, Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction and poetry, National Book Award winners, and other recipients of the nation's highest literary honors. In 2021 alone, Writers' Workshop alumni and a former professor won seven top awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, including the Gold Medal for Poetry, the academy’s highest honor for excellence in the arts, awarded to Rita Dove (1977 MFA). It is safe to say that the Workshop is the university's, and perhaps the state's, proudest and best-known achievement.

Loren Glass
Loren Glass

It's no surprise, then, that the first computational investigation into the Workshop's primary influence on American literature would also happen at Iowa. Loren Glass, professor and chair of the university's Department of English, has teamed up with former PhD student Nicholas M. Kelly, now assistant professor at New Mexico Tech, and digital humanities librarian Nichole White to create the Program Era Project.

The Program Era Project, or PEP, uses data visualization and other computer-assisted methods to track the aesthetic and cultural influence of the Workshop since its founding in 1936. In particular, writers affiliated with the Workshop, both as alumni and/or professors, have gone on to found or teach at many other creative writing programs around the nation. This has imprinted the program's philosophies, values, and writing styles on thousands of students at hundreds of institutions, who in turn go on to write and teach, continuing the chain. The result is a lineage that points from all corners of American writing back to Iowa City and the Workshop. 

The PEP, supported by the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio at UI Libraries, has compiled extensive datasets that track those networks of Workshop-affiliated writers. To date, the datasets include the names, gender, and country of origin of students and teachers at the Workshop between 1941 and 2014; information on the program's graduates during that time span, including their theses and their advisors; and the titles of works by notable Workshop authors. The data are a historian's, scholar's, and literary obsessive's dream, and can be found at the Post45 Data Collective, a project of the Journal of Cultural Analytics.

booksThe team's work on the datasets was made possible by an Advanced Collaborative Support project grant from the HathiTrust Research Center. The grant provided dedicated HathiTrust Research Center staff time to support their research using texts in the HathiTrust Digital Library.

A stand-alone, peer-reviewed section of the Journal of Cultural Analytics, called Post45, is where the PEP has also published its first scholarly article, authored by Glass, Kelly, and White. Titled "Squatter Regionalism: Postwar Fiction, Geography, and the Program Era," the article uses computational methods to establish that the Program Era has altered the traditional understanding that a regionalist writer writes about the region in which they grew up. Using the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as an example, the authors prove—using maps, tables, and other visual tools—that many writers now instead write about the region to which they moved to study and/or teach creative writing.

book coverWhile the PEP is just starting to publish articles, scholarship about the Workshop is familiar terrain for Glass. In 2017, the University of Iowa Press published his first book on the subject, After the Program Era: The Past, Present, and Future of Creative Writing in the University.

For some 80 years, the University of Iowa has shaped the American literary landscape through the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Now, with the work of Glass and the first publications of the Program Era Project, Iowa scholars in the Department of English are beginning to understand the depth of that influence, using the tools of a new era, the digital humanities.

The PEP makes it clear—in both the creation of literature and the study of literature, Iowa is where compelling stories are born.

—by Nic Arp

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers about 70 majors across the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. About 15,000 undergraduate and nearly 2,000 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by faculty at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all Iowa undergraduates through the college's general education program, CLAS CORE. About 80 percent of all Iowa undergraduates begin their academic journey in CLAS. The college confers about 60 percent of the university's bachelor's degrees each academic year.