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…
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.”