Professor works and sings to improve community

by Janet A. Steele

News Reporter

Sometimes she opens her classes with a song.

"She is a professor that comes to class with a set agenda. She doesn't follow a book because she knows the material so well," said former student Jana Messer.

Susan Robbins, a UH associate professor of Social Work, is an eclectic mix of teacher and musician who endeavors to find a way to improve the state of social work in America. Indeed, she has found a unique way.

"I was a bad kid who had bad social workers when I was growing up," Robbins said.

"When you're a middle-class Jewish kid in Brooklyn, you don't go to jail. Instead, you go to psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.

"I wanted to do something to change the social work field because what was done to me was unconscionable. Confidentialities were broken, and my parents were told things they weren't supposed to know. I was labeled the problem."

Robbins, 47, is a petite woman with henna-rinsed hair, a ready smile and piercing blue eyes. Her husky voice still carries traces of a Brooklyn accent.

Before embarking on her academic career in social work, Robbins lived a full musical life that many would envy.

"As a child, I was painfully shy. I could hardly answer the telephone," she said. "Performing was a way for me to overcome that."

Robbins, who sings under the name Susan Martin, has always been musically inclined and learned to play a ukulele at 15. During her boarding school years, she was introduced to the guitar, and the first seeds of her musical career were sown.

Robbins attended the University of Hartford because her parents hoped it would keep her away from the New York city night life. Nevertheless, she left after a year of college and moved to Greenwich Village.

"I played music in basket-houses, which means they didn't pay you. Entertainers would play short sets and pass the basket. Then the next entertainer would go," Robbins said.

Her music reflects a mix of blues, jazz, folk and ballads. Her selections can include jazzy "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" to "American Jerusalem," which describes the numerous social ills of city life.

While living in New York, Robbins performed regularly at local coffeehouses, such as the Four Winds and Folk City. She became a regular at the Gaslight, a famed Village coffeehouse she eventually managed.

Robbins said she was lucky to have lived in the Village during the '60s because she saw many blues greats. A few of her musical influences are Judy Henske, Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis and Bessie Smith.

Even though music dominated her life, social work was never far from Robbins' mind. After eight years in New York, she moved to Minnesota and completed her degrees in sociology and social work.

She eventually relocated to New Orleans, where she lived for four years and received her doctorate from Tulane University.

In 1980, the University of Houston offered Robbins a teaching opportunity she couldn't financially refuse.

She now teaches four primary classes in the Graduate School of Social Work: Gender/Culture/ Human Development, Mediation, Drugs in Society, and Confronting Oppression.

"Susan is very theatrical. Her classes were never boring," said former student Linda Schacht. "We had our final exam on her dining room table. It was a mediation class, and we were asked to settle a dispute between neighbors. I think it was her way of putting the students in a realistic situation."

When Robbins teaches her class on oppression, she may do a variation of the classic brown-eyed, blue-eyed experiment. She divides students alphabetically instead of by eye color.

"I will ignore half of the class for two-thirds of the lecture and watch the dynamics that occur between the two groups," Robbins said. "I think many of us do not see oppression even when it is happening to us and to others."

Robbins said she tries to inspire her students to think critically and encourages cooperative learning so that they are not competing for grades.

"She related to us on our level. She didn't want us to look at her as a professor with a doctorate," said former student Kelly Jones.

Robbins recently returned from Washington, where she gave two presentations for the Council on Social Work Education. One of the papers she presented explained a human behavior textbook she is writing. It speaks of incorporating political, ideological, and spiritual contents of human behavior.

Robbins also performed a musical presentation, "All Social Worker's Political," which she described as politically social songs that she and others wrote. She giggled when she remembered singing "Let's Neuter Newt."

Robbins said that many aspects of social work education are being addressed at this university.

"Social work needs to have a more overt political mission. We have sold out to psychotherapy for a long time. I think we have to go back to our roots, which started with the concern for the poor and disenfranchised," she said.

"We have to be concerned with government cutbacks for the neediest people in society, and an economic climate that is creating a larger gap between the rich and the poor."

In addition to her academic and musical careers, Robbins conducts a small social work practice from her Montrose home. She said that if she didn't work directly with people, her clinical skills would get rusty.

"I still play music professionally," she added with a hardy laugh.

Her next performance will be at Ovations, March 14.

"I used to play once a month; now it's once every four to six months," Robbins said.

She stood, shrugged her shoulders and said, "You can't do it all."

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