On Sarah Birdsall: The Divine Miss S. Retires

Sarah Birdsall with her students, circa 1998. Photograph by Stan Strembicki. 

Last week we feted my dear friend and colleague Sarah Birdsall, who has taught in the Communication Design program at the Fox School at Washington University for nearly 30 years. Heather Corcoran asked me to speak at the College of Art recognition ceremony to mark the occasion; I was delighted to have an opportunity to celebrate Sarah in public (if also a little nervous about keeping it together while doing so.)  

I was allotted five minutes. Below is what I said. I invite all–especially former students–who know Sarah to leave a comment. (Note: if you do so, please identify yourself in the body of your note, as the Squarespace comment function seems awkward on the issue of who's commenting. So I am told.) 

Graham Chapel, Washington University in St. Louis 
May 14, 2015

Graduates, parents, and colleagues: good evening! 

It is typical in religious services for a sermonist to pause at the outset to ask, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight.” A little grand for us, perhaps, but I invoke the sentiment (if not the divine) as I speak about a transition in the life of the College, and in the biography of Professor Sarah Birdsall. How am I to shape a few meager sentences to mark an occasion of such significance? How to get through this without sniffling?

Professor Birdsall came to what was then called the Washington University School of Fine Arts in 1986 from the St. Louis architecture firm PGAV. She did so at the invitation of Jeff Pike, whose ear she had blistered upon learning he taught there. What in the world, she had demanded to know, having reviewed her share of student portfolios, was going on in that typography program? In truth the exchange was somewhat saltier than that, but you get the gist. 

Challenged to fix that typography, Sarah has been at it for 29 years. But she has contributed a great deal more than good kerning. Sarah built the next generation graphic communications program along with Jeff, instituting a program-wide type requirement, laying the foundation for today’s synthetic design curriculum. She integrated the study of design history into her courses, and she created the first senior thesis experience, with required public presentations. That program was later mimicked by illustration faculty, leading to the integrated “capstone” experience of today. I should also note that Sarah has occupied administrative positions and accomplished much in those roles. 

But Professor Birdsall’s true impact on the culture of the program and the college can’t be captured structurally. She impressed–possibly detonated is a better word–a set of values. She demanded commitment, not infrequently from the top of a table. Her exhortations to push past the obvious became legendary. But she never blustered; she held students accountable. She burned with a desire to see her students achieve; diffidence about the work at hand was genuinely offensive to her. Her passion for design was contagious; so too was her belief in the power of design to advocate for social justice. Yet the power of Sarah’s teaching outstrips the motivational and the editorial. She has a rare ability to describe abstract visual form in language that students can understand; her criticism has always been precise, and as a result useful. Sarah’s tremendous impact, then, is attributable to a marriage of clear-headed vision and passionate investment–yielding engaged, acute, autonomous graduates. Her former students are devoted bunch, and a formidable legacy. 

Photograph by Stan Strembicki

Teaching and learning are at the center of what we do. Other aspects of university life take place beyond the classroom, and require faculty to engage in serious dialogue. Some tenured faculties can look a little like Monkey Island at the zoo: an artificially-constructed gang of primates clustered in a single space, marooned for the duration, pacing, chattering, glowering, dare I say poo-flinging. I hasten to add that our experience has been different. This [gesturing to assembled be-robed faculty] is a very collegial bunch. But disagreements do occur. My colleague Professor Stan Strembicki recently observed that whenever the fur flies, despite her considerable passion, you can be certain that Sarah will advocate from one core precept. Professor Birdsall always wants to know: what is best for the students

Sarah, I’m confident that you will find new frontiers in retirement. Rest assured you will leave a hole in our ranks that no one can fill. Your dedication to the realization of form, in the fullest of all possible senses—visual, pedagogical, and personal–will remain a part of us. We will remember and celebrate your profound decency and great personal courage. 

Your departmental nickname–Lucy–like a retired jersey number will go unassigned for all time. Our community will miss your outsized personality, ribald humor and explosive laugh. We’ll miss your salty jeremiads, your indifference to parking regulations, and your unsurpassed gift for inadvertent physical comedy. Tonight we console ourselves with the knowledge that you will remain in town, and that we may yet, every once in a great while, hear that unmistakable sound [delivered forte, and falsetto]: Yoo-hoo!

Thank you, Sarah, and congratulations to you. [Standing ovation followed.]

I'm happy to say that we sent her off in grand style. A few private celebrations remain, so we can get really loopy and maudlin.