Sonia Jaffe Robbins ’65

Interview by Christian Feuerstein ’94

Sonia Jaffe RobbinsIn a recent edition of A Buffalo Grazing, Duffy told the story of a foray current students made up to New York City. Among other alumni, they met Sonia Jaffe Robbins ’65, the managing editor at Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine for the bookselling and publishing industry. She took a moment from hosting student visitors and editing page proofs to talk about her time at Antioch College, which included hearing the Beatles for the first time, classes with Oliver Loud, and being a “normal control.”

What brought you to Antioch College?
I think my father heard about it from a colleague at work who called it “a red college.” I was intrigued by the co-op job program. I had grown up mostly in the suburbs and the only work I’d ever done was babysitting. I thought the job program would give me a chance to be away from home without necessarily being at school. And it was different.

Who were some of your favorite professors?
The one professor who really helped me was one not in my academic field at all—Oliver Loud. I took his course, Physical Science World Picture—aka, Physics for Poets—in my first semester and loved it. It was basically a history of science, in which we learned the ideas that people had about the physical world, and actually had to write in defense of those ideas, before we went on to learn the ideas that replaced them ... Then we had to conduct a very simple experiment to practice the process of gathering data and drawing conclusions.

This was interesting in and of itself, but what was most helpful to me happened a few years later when I had written a book report for a sociology class I was taking with Everett Wilson. Wilson gave a C on the report, with a note that seemed to indicate that he was giving me a C because he disapproved of my political stance in the report. … I went to Loud to find out whether my sense was correct. He told me I was probably right and then explained some of the history, which included that during the Red Scare, there was an attempt at Antioch to fire some professors who either were communists or were close to communists. Wilson was one of those who saw communism as a great threat to American education. Others, including Loud, thought firing professors for their ideas was giving in to the witch hunt. This was only ten or twelve years after those events, so it seemed the feelings were still rather raw.

What are some of your favorite memories of being on campus?
Hanging out at the Coffee Shop, saving up my meal tickets to eat a real dinner at the Inn, parties off campus, hearing the Beatles for the first time on the juke box at Com’s, twist parties in the common room at North Hall, walking across campus to the library in the winter of 1964 when the temperature was fourteen below zero, listening to jazz upstairs in the Student Union in the summer of 1961 while it thunder stormed every afternoon, fending off boys from neighborhood colleges who roamed the halls of the girls’ dorms on Saturday nights in the early ’60s.

Tell us about some of your memorable co-ops.
There were two that were the most fascinating. One was being a copy girl and editorial clerk at the New York Times in the fall of 1964—lots of exciting news events, but also seeing in real life some of the writers who went on to become famous and learning how persnickety some people could be (e.g., the foreign news editor insisted you paperclip the pieces of a story together with the small part of the clip in front). I also worked the night of the election, until 4 a.m., and still remember Tom Wicker in the back of the newsroom around 3 a.m. calling out, “Ah need a drink.” My duties as a copy girl was primarily to take the news stories, typed on paper, from the reporters or from the various copy desks, put them into a container, and send them via pneumatic tube to the printers, where men (and they were all men) sat at giant Linotype machines and turned the stories into hot type.

[My] other job was being a “normal control” at the National Institutes of Health. I had to … be available for any experiments for which a resident doctor needed a normal subject as a control. What was more fun was hanging out with the other normal controls: another Antioch student, a few men who were conscientious objectors (this was 1962), young people with mental disorders who were being studied at the clinical center, and some prisoners from minimum security prisons. We didn’t actually “hang out” with prisoners, but we did occasionally play baseball with them, with a couple of armed guards standing out in the outfield to make sure they didn’t try to run away.

What do you do at Publishers Weekly?
I am currently managing editor at Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine for the bookselling and publishing industry. What that means is that at the moment I am the only copy editor for the entire print magazine. I also put stories into our production software and read page proofs. I also contribute to the twice-yearly announcements issue by choosing books and writing an essay for one of the nineteen categories for which publishers submit their top forthcoming books—I’ve written about history and science. I love copy editing, and everyone here is fun to work with.

Any advice for the current students?
Our situations are so different. But this is what I’ve learned so far in life: Be open to new experiences. You can learn from anything, even when things go wrong or badly. Take notes/keep a journal. You think you’ll remember everything, but you probably won’t. Be flexible. Speak up when you think something isn’t working and don’t worry if no one pays attention.