English Ph.D. Student Wins Prestigious Ben Rafoth Grant

Anna Cairney
May 6, 2019

English Ph.D. candidate Anna Cairney has been awarded the International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) Ben Rafoth Graduate Research Grant for her dissertation research, which focuses on editorial paradigms of writing support. Anna is interested in how advanced writing is nurtured in the university, specifically looking at the role of writing centers in supporting doctoral students. Nancy Alvarez ‘19PhD also won the Ben Rafoth Grant in 2017.

“Writing centers largely focus on serving undergraduate students, and graduate students end up in a kind of support limbo,” she said. “More than half of doctoral students never finish their dissertation, so there’s a great need there.”

At the 2019 Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC), Anna met Ben Rafoth and formally accepted the $1,000 award from IWCA. The grant will allow her to visit the special collections at Bryn Mawr College and view the editorial letters of Katharine S. White. White began her career as an editorial reader for The New Yorker, eventually becoming the magazine’s first fiction editor. White’s editorial guidance fostered the careers of aspiring writers including Nabokov, John Cheever, John Updike, John O’Hara, and others. Additionally, White worked behind the scenes as an editor for her husband, E.B. White.

During the 2016-2017 academic year, Anna worked in the St. John’s Writing Center as a Writing Consultant. Since 2018, she has served as Writing Specialist and Technology Consultant at the Molloy College Writing Center, working mostly with graduate nursing students. 

“Writing is always about structure, creativity, and support,” she said. “Working with students who are doing sustained writing projects has shown me how much these students need recursive support. An ongoing relationship with a writing consultant provides needed accountability and motivation.” 

Anna comes to St. John’s with a background in publishing, which has given her insight into the editing and peer-editing process. Before starting her Ph.D., Anna was an assistant and editorial reader at Writer’s House Literary Agency from 2014-2016. There, she learned that “writing thrives with intellectual input from a lot of sources.”

Anna was raised in a culture of writing; her mother was a travel journalist and her stepfather is a children’s book author. Originally from Oregon, Anna earned her B.A. in Communications from George Fox University in Newberg, OR. For a while, Anna worked as a researcher for an NBC affiliate, but soon realized her love of teaching. She earned an M.A.T, also from George Fox and became a High School English and Speech Teacher. After years of teaching, Anna joined a startup company for online curriculum development for English language learners. Now, as a doctoral student at St. John’s, she feels like she is where she needs to be. “I love learning, I love being a student,” she said.

“Anna Cairney’s enthusiasm, energy, and expertise have been tremendous assets for both our Writing Center and the First-Year Writing program,” said Anna's dissertation adviser Derek Owens, D.A. “Her dissertation, Unfailing Support and Imaginative Advice: An Editorial Paradigm, is a unique blend of composition theory, writing center praxis, and literary critique. It’s no surprise she was selected for this year’s International Writing Centers Association research grant.”