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Professor Sharon Alker Feels ‘More Alive When I’m Inside a Book’

Alker shares her love of literature, libraries and academic research with her students and sister

By Debbie Ritenour

Sharon Alker in front of a bookcase.

Sharon Alker is not exaggerating when she says she can get absorbed in a book.

“When I was about 8 years old, I was sitting in the kitchen, reading a book in front of the fire,” she says. “At one point, my mother rushed in, saying, ‘Sharon! Sharon! The room is on fire!’ I looked up, and the room was almost full of smoke. A log had rolled out of the fireplace, and I had been so absorbed in my book, I hadn’t even noticed.”

Today, Alker is sharing her passion for reading and researching with Whitman College students as the Mary A. Denny Professor of English and General Studies. Whether she is teaching Introduction to Fiction or spending hours in the archives of a library halfway around the globe, Alker is committed to exploring the power and pleasure of literature.

“To me, books feel more real than real life,” she says. “I feel more alive when I’m inside a book.”

A Gradual Unfolding

A native of Scotland, Alker moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, when she was 13. Despite her precocious reading habits— she learned to read at the age of 3 and was devouring Dickens by 10—Alker didn’t consider herself particularly smart. In fact, the idea of going to college never crossed her mind. Instead, she got married and began a career in business before moving to Hong Kong with her husband and two daughters. 

“I came back as a single mom in my early 30s. I was a little bit nervous about how I was going to support my children,” Alker says. “I decided I better get a degree, so I started with my bachelor’s and never stopped.”

Alker earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Humanities and her Master of Arts in English from Simon Fraser University. She completed her doctorate in English at the University of British Columbia and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto before joining the Whitman faculty in 2004.

“I interviewed with a series of colleges and universities in both Canada and the United States. Whitman was my first of five on-campus interviews,” Alker says. 


“As soon as I came here, I knew I wanted to stay, mostly because of the students. They were so smart, so engaged and so intellectually energetic that I realized I could do graduate-level work with them.”

Alker particularly enjoys involving students in her research. Students have traveled with her to the National Library of Scotland and the British Library to work in the archives, and she has received several grants that support faculty-student research.

“Whitman has a really strong teacher-scholar model. They want you to be the best teacher possible, and they recognize that means you have to be doing active research with your students,” she says.

Connections & Reflections

Alker feels a kinship with her favorite author, the 19th-century poet and novelist James Hogg. Both were born and raised in Scotland; both spent hours upon hours reading; and both found their true calling later in life than most. Hogg was a shepherd in the Scottish border country when he decided to walk to Edinburgh in his early 40s to become a writer.

Alker’s academic interest in Hogg has led to many successful collaborations with her sister, Holly Faith Nelson, a Professor of English at Trinity Western University. Alker and Nelson first presented together at a 2000 meeting of the James Hogg Society, of which Alker currently serves as Chair. They have gone on to write, present and publish dozens of papers together, as well as their book “Besieged: Early Modern British Siege Literature, 1642–1722.”

“Our process is really interactive. I might write three pages and send them to Holly. She rewrites them and sends back six pages. I then rewrite those and send back nine pages,” Alker says. “When we give papers at conferences, we each give half.”

Currently, Alker and Nelson are working on a series of articles on the representation of convicts in Scottish literature. Alker was interested in researching the transportation of convicts from Scotland to Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Nelson had discovered through her personal genealogy research that their great-great-great-grandfather had been convicted of burglary and was transported to what is now Tasmania. During a recent trip to the National Library of Australia, Alker asked a librarian for help reading the convict records and made an astounding discovery: The librarian also had an ancestor who had arrived on the same convict ship in the same year.

“For two minutes, we stood there and just looked at each other. Normally when I do scholarship, I’m in my scholarly brain, but my scholarly brain fell away,” Alker says. “It was me as a human facing her as a human whose ancestors had shared a difficult journey together. It was an incredibly powerful, intimate moment.”

Alker will be working with Chloe Hansen ’25 over the summer to organize all the material she brought back from Australia. She looks forward to mentoring Hansen and helping her develop her research skills.

“Whitman students are so excited about learning,” she says, “and I’m excited that I can involve undergraduates in my research in the way I would work with graduate students at a big research university.”

Published on May 24, 2024
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