Building the Program Era Project Database

We were invited last week to talk briefly about the sources and process of building up the database for the Program Era Project at the Digital Bridges Summer Institute co-hosted by Grinnell and the U of I.  Here I’ll give a more in-depth version of that talk.  If you note problems in our process that we haven’t considered or have suggestions of additional sources, let us know!  Building up and refining this dataset is proving to be a fascinating challenge with a lot of twists and turns.

When we first started out last fall we came up with a list of the sort of information we wanted to gather.  The obvious starting point was a list of Workshop graduates, ideally with their full name and year of graduation.  If possible we wanted to gather demographic information such as gender, race, and where they were from.  We wanted to know their thesis, whether they were Poetry or Fiction, and who their advisor was; and lastly, we wanted to know what they did after graduation.  Did they go on to teach at, direct, or found other writing centers?  Did they publish? Win awards?

So far we have found a variety of data sources that provide answers to some of these questions, with variable coverage and consistency.

sources timeline
Items with a black outline are digital; the lighter colored portions of bars are partial records; the striped bars are patchy, arbitrarily filled records.


We initially built up a foundation for the database using digital graduation records from the Office of the Registrar of English Masters degrees and MFA thesis records from the Libraries catalog.  Together these gave us a list of years, graduation dates, and usually thesis titles going back to the beginning of the period we wanted to examine to the present.  Records from the mid 1990s were reasonably complete in terms of providing actual program of study, thesis director, and thesis genre.  However, most of the dataset included students from other writing programs at Iowa, as well as students outside the writing programs – English criticism MAs and theatre MFAs, for example.  For the most part these were unmarked.

To filter out the records we don’t want and fill in the missing information, we’ve been checking this initial dataset against the commencement programs from graduation ceremonies, which are available in the University Archives.  In most cases the commencement programs are more specific about program of study, and usually also list the hometown of the student, which will make geographic analysis possible.

The Graduate College was able to supply us with thesis advisor information from index cards they have on file going back to the 1970s.  To fill in the remaining gaps we will need to consult the hard copies of the MFA theses.  This project is currently on the backburner while the Libraries moves its offline storage materials from one facility to another, but we have plenty to do in the meantime.

Wilbers Survey Response
A survey response from Wilbers’ dissertation work.

Two other Special Collections finds have supplied us with information on accomplishments of Iowa writing grads after graduation.

In the 1970s, as part of his dissertation research, Stephen Wilbers did a survey of writing programs to find Iowa grads that were now or had at some point directed those programs, and the original hand-filled survey responses are held in the Libraries.

Special Collections also holds records of a self-study performed by the Writers Workshop in 1992, as it was in the process of separating from the English Department.  The appendices of the report include lists of graduate accomplishments like writing programs founded elsewhere, publications, and writing awards.

The biggest challenge of the data so far has been determining just who should be in the dataset.  The vague and changing administrative status of the various writing programs over time is reflected in the records, and so determining what program (or sometimes programs) an individual graduated from in some cases requires cross-checking multiple sources.

All of this work would not be possible without our student workers, who have and continue to put patient hours into comparing lists of records in the archives.

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