Joshua Robinson ’08 Recalls Monsters, Soup and Spec
Before joining the Journal and moving to London in 2012, Robinson worked in New York covering sports primarily for The New York Times. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and the Times of London. Robinson has been based in Paris since 2019.
What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
Like every College first-year, I arrived pretty well convinced that I knew everything. Luckily, the first few weeks cured me of that. But one thing turned out to be true: I knew that I wanted to join the college paper. So within days of arriving, I made a beeline for the Spectator office and listened as upperclassmen delivered their spiel on Spec’s intensive training program and how, eventually, I’d be allowed to write a story. While I was there, I also happened to have a chat with the sports section. Having grown up in Europe, I told them I was well versed in soccer. “You can write tomorrow,” I was told. “Tomorrow” turned out to last nearly two decades — 18 years later, I’m still writing about soccer.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
The smell of soup, mainly. At any given hour, on any given day, someone, somewhere in John Jay was microwaving soup — a scent so powerful that it seemed capable of wafting down the hall, taking the elevator and attending a morning class.
Beyond that, John Jay taught me new and previously unimagined ways of procrastinating. Four a.m. took on a unique ability for arriving immediately. Now that I think of it, the fact that one of my closest friends to this day lived a dozen doors down the hall might have been connected.
What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?
Monsters. My answer to this question is always “monsters.” Specifically, it was a seminar about Japanese monsters that fulfilled the Major Cultures requirement, taught in a basement room, where the conversation veered from the texture of Godzilla’s scales to precisely what made a lascivious being like Dracula so menacing to buttoned-up Victorian society. Of course, I apply this knowledge in my daily life constantly.
Well, not really. But that was the point. The Weekly Monster Hour was one of those classes that made me realize it really didn’t matter what the material was actually about. The skill that class taught was how to become an instant expert on the most esoteric topics imaginable. It’s something I think about often in my current life — when I end up at the Olympics, for instance, suddenly needing to say something creative and insightful about the high jump.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
Was the Spec office technically on campus? Because if it doesn’t count, then I spent far too much time off campus.
“Like” might be a strong term for a place that had ratty carpeting, slow computers, vermin issues and what can only be described as an unspeakable couch. But it was the central spot of my Columbia experience, where a few dozen of us could play at journalism every night and see an actual broadsheet newspaper out in the real world in the mornings. (In those days, Spectator still published a print edition Monday through Friday.) I think anyone else who lasted more than a couple of weeks at the paper would say the same, or at least some version of it. Spec became an extracurricular, a fraternity, a major, a place to nap and an occasional dining hall, all rolled into one.
In fact, it was such a natural place for me to go that I even haunted the office during reading weeks, when the libraries were packed, the newspaper was off and the desk in my room was far too close to my pillows. By my senior year, I think I was writing more papers and eating more meals in that place than anywhere else.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I took far too many serious classes. I know that might sound strange from the Japanese monsters guy. But early on, I wish someone had hammered into me that as long as I wasn’t hoping to become a brain surgeon or a central banker or a particle physicist, I was freer to follow what piqued my interest than I realized. I think everyone also wishes that they had been mature enough to manage their time more efficiently — or at least I do — but if I had, it wouldn’t have been college.
Only in my senior year was I finally able to combine my curiosity with efficient time management. For one semester, everything came together: Not only did I whittle down my schedule exclusively to interesting seminars, I also had five-day weekends.