Shankar Raman ’86 came to MIT thinking he had his studies in science and engineering clearly mapped out. “As a good student in India, I saw certain paths open to me, like engineering, law, and medicine. I didn’t see the humanities as a career option.” Now, as the head of the Institute’s Literature Section since July 2019, he’s hoping to recreate the environment he found on campus as an undergraduate in the late 1980s—one that prioritizes academic exploration, experimentation, and the integration of different disciplines.
Since humanities courses were only 9 credits at that time (as opposed to the 12 they are now, aligned with most STEM classes), Raman found space in his schedule to explore his many intellectual passions. In his first year, he took German, political science, introduction to poetry, and philosophy. He soon got involved in the student extracurricular club Dramashop and in filmmaking through the Department of Architecture. “One week during term, I attended a Hitchcock film festival in Harvard Square every night, and I think I saw about 14 of his films,” he remembers with a laugh. By the time he graduated, he had enough credits for a double major in computer science and architecture.
After proceeding as far as an MS toward a PhD in electrical engineering at UC Berkeley, he realized he’d rather build upon the literature courses he was still taking in parallel. He joined Berkeley’s English department and then transferred to Stanford, where he earned his PhD in English literature. In so doing, he consolidated a career path he hadn’t even entertained as a possibility when his college years began—one that exemplifies the interplay of the STEM and humanistic fields at MIT, and which ultimately led him to the MIT literature faculty in 1995.
“My research has always involved returning to and seeing my roots from the outside—I did this in my first book about colonialism, looking at India and the East,” he says. “That’s what working in different disciplines at MIT created a space for and encouraged. Getting a sense of the synergy among fields and how they weave into one another, when done well, incites curiosity, defamiliarizes the familiar, and helps you go beyond the obvious.”
My research has always involved returning to and seeing my roots from the outside. That’s what working in different disciplines at MIT created a space for and encouraged.
Raman is currently working on a new book, tentatively titled Before the Two Cultures: Literature and Mathematics in Early Modern Europe. The project grew out of his cocreation in 2006 with fellow MIT literature faculty—supported by the d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education—of a new class directly addressing the confluence of literature and science. His preparations included putting his student hat back on to attend an engineering class, 6.041 (Probabilistic Systems Analysis and Applied Probability). Not only did the subject matter complement his own studies of the Renaissance period, but it rekindled his love for the STEM fields.
Now confirmed as head of MIT’s Literature Section and recognized for his work with undergraduates as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, Raman is committed to creating a productive environment for rigorous interdisciplinary research and teaching collaborations and helping to further integrate the humanities into MIT disciplines. He is excited by the potential of computing in the field of literature to create new ways of reading critically, along with developing new reading tools and pedagogies.
Raman’s aim, as he puts it, is “to make evident literature’s consequentiality—and to champion the love of language and powerful humanistic ways of thinking. We’re trying to work the subject matter into STEM, recognizing that even those fields aren’t just about solving problems but evoke humanities-related questions as well—just as the humanities also articulate and solve problems, albeit of a different sort.”
Raman is equally passionate about bolstering inclusivity and diversity at MIT—making the Institute welcoming to the entire student body. Toward that end, he has supported the continuation of the Monday afternoon Literature Tea, open to all students interested in literature classes, so that they can drop in to talk to peers and faculty, and thus sustain the vibrant humanities community at MIT. To increase opportunities for students to interact with the Literature Section, its faculty will launch a four-week, nine-unit course in São Paulo this coming January during Independent Activities Period (IAP), focused on literary and filmic exchanges between Brazil and the United States. The experience builds on other popular overseas IAP offerings, Literary London and The Spanish Incubator (based in Madrid).
Raman’s own exploration-rich student experience remains a guiding force. “We want to sustain the spaces available for those already invested in the humanities, and to create new modes of engagement for those who are curious about, or merely open to, these subjects as well,” he says.
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Photo of Shankar Raman (above) by Jon Sachs.