Jonathan Robinson, Ph.D.
Deputy Chair and Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science
Lander College for Men
What His Students Say
“Professor Robinson is by far the best teacher I ever had. I would venture to claim, he is one of the best teachers you could ever have. He is kind, thoughtful, funny and not to mention—great at teaching. Professor Robinson really helps you understand how the world runs from a computer's point of view... Professor Robinson loves his students like a father loves his children. He loves watching them grow and develop into people who can go ahead and make their own decisions in life. All Professor Robinson wants is for his students to outgrow his teachings, to know so much that he is of no use to them. He challenges the students on a daily basis and allows each one to develop their skills in their own way. Professor Robinson is extremely knowledgeable in the computer world, but also in many other areas and this allows us to respect and relate to him in ways beyond the material. I have not met a student who did not like Professor Robinson. There are many that don't like the work he gives, but I think they are just scared of how he challenges them.”
— Edon Freiner
Dr. Jonathan Robinson dates his interest in computers back to when he was 11-years-old and his father, a physicist, gave him a book on programming.
“I was a tinkerer ever since I was a kid,” recalled Dr. Robinson, a professor of computer science at Lander College for Men (LCM). “I took things apart because I wanted to know what was behind them. Programming was an extension of that: each programming task is a riddle. Each task asks: How can I do this?”
During high school, Dr. Robinson launched a successful computer consulting company with some friends (he recalled JC Penny calling them up to request their services). Dr. Robinson put his budding computer career on hold after high school, so he could spend several years in Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah and Yeshiva Ohr Hachaim in Queens.
“I was influenced by my rabbis who taught me how to learn a subject rigorously,” said Dr. Robinson. “I was influenced by my fellow bochurim, students; they mentored me and showed me how much someone who isn’t from your family, someone who could be a total stranger to you, has a capacity to influence and shape who you become.”
Dr. Robinson attended Queens College for an undergraduate degree in computer science. He then pursued a master’s and Ph.D. in the field at the CUNY Graduate Center. He earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation on robotic vision. Asked whether he found the topic interesting, Dr. Robinson offered this answer, which might be a hallmark of his general outlook.
“Every topic is fascinating once you dive deep enough,” Dr. Robinson said. “Even corrugated cardboard, if you dive deep enough there’s a whole science to it. We’re not aware of the complexity of simple things.”
After teaching for several years at Queens College, Dr. Robinson heard about the opening of a new college that blended yeshiva education with secular studies. He applied and became one of the founding faculty members of LCM.
“It’s a great joy to teach interested students,” said Dr. Robinson. “We have a lot of common values, so I find that particularly compelling and rewarding. I love having my students over for Shabbat and being able to mentor them.”
Though his skills are in high demand in the private sector, Dr. Robinson said his wife correctly pointed out that no job in the private sector would give him the joy he receives from his students.
“I can’t say I always planned to be a professor,” said Dr. Robinson. “I thought I would end up in business, but I realized teaching was my calling as I was doing it.”
As for his teaching methodology, Dr. Robinson, who teaches a variety of high-level computer classes, says he maintains an outline of what he needs to teach, but how he teaches tends to differ based on the needs of his students.
“I tell my students that my goal as a professor is to make myself obsolete. The job of a teacher is to teach his students so that he’s not needed anymore and students can learn on their own."
“It’s like that old saying; I don’t give my students fish, but I teach them how to fish,” explained Dr. Robinson. “I tell my students that my goal as a professor is to make myself obsolete. The job of a teacher is to teach his students so that he’s not needed anymore and students can learn on their own.”
After graduating, Dr. Robinson’s students are well prepared for whatever position they find themselves in.
“I was definitely prepared because of my courses,” said LCM’s Moshe Losev who interned this past summer as a developer for the global wealth management firm Alliance Bernstein. “Dr. Robinson is one of the most talented professors I ever had. Not only did he help familiarize me with the technologies of the job, but he always integrated what he was talking about in lectures with real-life software development practices. Walking into the internship, I was pretty familiar with most of the technology stack that they were using. The learning curve was much easier than it could have been.”
Dr. Robinson recalled one exchange with a student with whom he is still in touch.
“I told him I’m not here in this job so that you like me,” said Dr. Robinson. “I’m here to teach you to become independent and if that causes you to not like me, well, that’s just the price I have to pay. My goal is not to be liked, but for my students to grow. He said that, in a strange way, it was the most touching thing I’d ever said to him.”
Many of Dr. Robinson’s students stay in touch with him, long after they graduate. Some wish him a good Shabbos, some a Happy New Year, and still more email him when they have a perplexing challenge at work and need his advice. Asked about why he receives such immense satisfaction from his job, Dr. Robinson seemed moderately puzzled by the question.
“What’s rewarding about helping your child walk?” Dr. Robinson mused. “What’s rewarding about helping a person understand something they didn’t understand before? What’s rewarding about having an impact on someone’s life? I’m not sure why something like that is rewarding but it is; it’s a result of the task. I’m being paid to do something that not only allows me to support my family, but allows me to help other people at the same time. What’s rewarding about helping other people strive, succeed, and be all they can be? I think it’s intrinsically rewarding.”
Dr. Robinson uses rags to wipe down the whiteboard and is known to jokingly throw said towel at students when he doesn’t think they are paying attention. Dr. Robinson refers to the towels as Robinson’s Rags. Last year, his students, in addition to buying him a set of the commentaries of the Rambam, presented him with a towel emblazoned with the words, “Robinson’s Rag.”
Necessary Skills for Developers
“I think you need to have a capacity to be analytical,” said Dr. Robinson about what he considers to be important traits for software developers. “You have to be able to take a complicated problem and break it up into smaller components. Complexity can be simplified. You need to be able to recognize patterns. Learning a computer language is like learning a foreign language.” Dr. Robinson also said that necessary but overlooked skills in the computer world are soft skills, like communication and writing abilities. “Those skills are really important if you want to move up the corporate ladder.”
Dr. Robinson has six children, three boys and three girls, ranging in age from nine to 19. Some share his interest in computers and some don’t. “With my children and my students, I’m not looking for them to be carbon copies of me,” said Dr. Robinson. “If I could paraphrase what the Mashgiach (leader) of the Slobodka Yeshiva said about his students: if they were to be identical to me, I would feel I failed. No two people are the same and everyone needs to find their own path.”