The first creative writing class at the University of Iowa ("Verse-making") was offered in the spring semester of 1897. In 1922, Carl Seashore, dean of the Graduate College, introduced a new model for the academic study of the arts when he announced that the University of Iowa would accept creative work as theses for advanced degrees. The School of Letters began to offer regular courses in writing in which selected students were tutored by resident and visiting writers.
The Workshop was formally founded in 1936, with the gathering together of poets and fiction writers under the guidance of founding director Wilbur Schramm. "It seemed like an idea," said Schramm, "whose time had come."
From the outset the program enjoyed a series of distinguished visitors, among them Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Lowell. The early successes of some of the program's first graduates helped the program gain renown.
One of the first students to receive an M.A. in creative writing was the poet Paul Engle, who assumed the directorship of the Workshop in 1941. During the 24 years of his directorship, the Workshop gained a national reputation as the premier program of its kind. During World War II enrollment was no more than a dozen students, but after the war it grew, attaining in a few years a strength of over a hundred students, and dividing into the fiction and poetry sections which exist today.
The Workshop's prominence has continued through the directorships of George Starbuck (1966-1969), John Leggett (1970-1987), Frank Conroy (1987-2005), and Lan Samantha Chang (2006-present). During that time, thousands of writers of great promise and talent have graduated from the program.
For decades, Workshop classes were held in temporary, quonset-style army barracks near the Iowa River, where the Iowa Memorial Union stands today. In 1966, the program was moved to the English-Philosophy Building, and moved yet again in 1997 to its current administrative home, the Dey House, an historic, Victorian-era home adapted for reuse as an academic building. In 2006, the program expanded again, in the newly-built Glenn Schaeffer Library and Archives, a new addition to the Dey House that features a library and reading room, classrooms, and faculty offices.