Mapping the Program Era: Sample Data Visualizations (Reposted from New Readia)


– The following first appeared on the NewReadia blog 10/18/15. It has been reposted here to document some of the Program Era Project’s ongoing experimentation with visualizing the data it has collected. For clarity, the project name has been updated. – NMK

Last week, University of Iowa Professor Loren Glass, University of Iowa librarian Nikki White, and I had the opportunity to give a talk at the University of Iowa’s Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio about a Digital Humanities project we began earlier this year called the Program Era Project Program Era. The Program Era Project employs data visualization software and network analysis tools to chart the growth of creative writing programs after the World War II, discerning, in the process, lines of aesthetic and institutional influence. Our initial efforts have centered on our home institution, the University of Iowa, and the influential Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For our talk, we presented sample visualizations drawn from a small-scale dataset on the Workshop the team assembled.

To provide a demonstration of the tremendous potential of the project, the team created a sample visualization in Gephi that served as a proof-of-concept for MEP. It illustrated the connections that could be seen even in a dataset that covered only a single moment in time. The origins of this dataset lay in research work conducted in 1976 by dissertation research work by English Ph.D. candidate Stephen Wilbers. For his 1978 dissertation, Emergence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop —later adapted to become The Iowa Writers’ Workshop—Wilbers attempted to assess the influence of the Workshop by finding out which Workshop graduates had helped found other creative writing programs or had become directors or instructors at creative writing programs outside the Workshop. To do this, Wilbers sent a survey to 125 creative writing programs across the United States. The list of programs was “compiled from the CEA Chap Book (1970), the Associated Writing Programs 1975 Catalog of Programs (including the directory at the end), and an ‘in-house’ list of 32 programs that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop staff recognizes as top programs” (from Emergence, page 203).

The survey responses, available in Iowa’s University Archives, provided a list of Workshop graduates and Workshop-affiliated writers connected to other creative writing programs. Going, again, to the Iowa’s libraries and looking at title pages of these graduates’ theses and dissertations offered a way to find the advisors connected to each graduate. Thus, connections between Workshop instructors, Workshop graduates, and other creative writing programs began to emerge. In Gephi, the visualizations could map the lines of connection.

(Edit 10/26/15) – Note: Again, these samples are only intended to demonstrate a proof-of-concept for what the project aims to do. The data was constructed using an intentionally limited and incomplete dataset and corrections may need to be made.


WilbersFullSurveyThis visualization demonstrates the full array of relationships in the proof-of-concept dataset. It shows the connections (the lines, or “edges”) from the Workshop itself (blue circle, or “node”) out to its instructors (orange circles). Then, the lines move from the instructors to the graduates they advised (green) and, finally, from graduates out to the institutions at which they were employed (yellow). Larger circles indicate nodes that with more edge connections. For instance, an instructor with more students mentioned in Wilbers’ survey or an institution with more workshop-affiliated faculty will be larger circle.

JusticeHere graduates connected to Donald Justice are specifically highlighted, with the years for graduates’ thesis/dissertation completion also marked. The visualization also demonstrates how, in some cases, Workshop graduates would themselves become Workshop instructors. The line between Justice and Paul Engle charts Engle’s status as Justice’s advisor. Justice advisee Eugene Garber (marked in orange, not green), was later listed as advisor for future Iowa graduates.

Paul Engle's Students with Graduation DatesThis image shows graduates connected to Paul Engle and lists other information the database tracks, such as if graduates were listed in Wilbers’ survey results as faculty members instrumental in founding a creative writing program. The image shows that half of Engle’s students listed in Wilbers’ survey data were considered significant founding figures at programs outside of the Workshop.

University of Massachusetts Amherst - Affiliated Faculty with Graduation DatesThis slide shows another way Program Era Project data can be visualized. Here, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is highlighted, showing that five different Workshop graduates were associated with the program at the time of Wilbers’ survey. Four of them are considered key in founding the creative writing component at Amherst.

MPEUSMapThis final image is a composite, assembled from a Gephi visualization placed on top of a map of the United States. It demonstrates the geographical distribution of Workshop graduates and looks forwards towards some of the other visualization options the Program Era Project team is exploring as we move forward and expand the project.

In the introduction to his study of the expansion of creative writing programs across the U.S., The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl writes “the rise of the creative writing program stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history” (ix) and adds,

We need to start documenting this phenomenon, moving out from the illustrious cases of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford University and a few others to grasp the reality of an enterprise that now numbers some 350 institutional participants and continues to grow. This enterprise is our literary history. (xii).

It is the aim of the Program Era Project team to document the growth and evolution of the creative writing enterprise. These samples offer a glimpse of the ways we are endeavoring to do that. The images above represent a snapshot of a specific historical moment and account for only specific individuals. They are produced by an incomplete and intentionally constrained dataset. However, they illustrate the enormous potential of the MPE project and they offer evidence of how data visualization tools might help us take a new look at the history of creative writing.

 – Nicholas M Kelly

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