When the University of Iowa was established in 1847, the idea of formally studying English-language literature, and especially that of America, was looked down upon as lowbrow by the academic elite, who favored the philological study of classical Greek and Latin. 

That began to change in 1861, when UI President Silas Totten organized the university into distinct departments, and taught the first English studies course. His successor, President Oliver M. Spencer—a professor of ancient and modern languages—then took over the course for several years. 

By the 1890s, a loosely organized English department had begun to take shape. Its chair, George W. Wauchope, took an iconoclastic approach to the study of English, writing in the 1895-96 course catalog that the department's courses treated English-language literature as "an expression in artistic form of the mind and soul of a great people.”

In 1900, President George MacLean created the College of Liberal Arts, with the Department of English Language and Literature at its core. Freshmen and sophomores were required to take composition and English literature courses, the seeds of Iowa’s General Education program.  

Many of today's most prominent UI programs grew out of what later became known as the Department of English. Under Graduate College Dean Carl Seashore, the university started accepting creative projects as theses for advanced degrees in 1922. Blending the academic study of literature with the teaching of creative writing—an expression of the "Iowa Idea" that brought the study of art history and the creation of art together in one program during this period—was revolutionary. Iowa started attracting students in poetry, fiction, and playwriting from across the country, eager to experience this innovation in creative writing. 

In 1936, the Writers' Workshop was established within the department; the program became an independent unit by the 1980s. In 1944, Iowa was among the first universities to formalize a required Communication Skills curriculum, foreshadowing the Department of Rhetoric and Iowa's 21st-century reputation for excellence in communication. 

Iowa remains at the forefront of the English studies and creative writing disciplines. Today's Department of English is the home to popular undergraduate and graduate programs that graduate outstanding scholars and creative writers. And students still flock to Iowa City to experience the Iowa Idea in action.