Days of Future Passed

Important clarification: this title references the seminal Moody Blues 1967 album, and is NOT a mistyped X-Men title. The more you know!

There’s a pair of pendant paintings–both landscapes by Thomas Cole–at my museum that are always singled out as the gems of our collection. They’re beautifully installed in our central gallery, directly facing the entrance from the lobby: as soon as you cross over from mini-cafe to museum, you’re instantly greeted by two monumental paintings in glowing gold Rococo-revival frames.

Completed shortly after the success of Cole’s series The Course of Empire, these two paintings also follow the series’ same basic mission: in other words, being about as subtle about their ultimate moral as The Chronicles of Narnia. The first, The Past, presents a romanticized vision of the medieval world–a grand tournament, complete with a jousting match taking place in front of an audience of hundreds. Its partner, The Present, shows The Past’s same medieval castle centuries later, after the walls have begun to crumble and the forces of nature have claimed this once-thriving structure. 

This is the moment, of course, when you might think I’d draw some obvious connection between my past and present–but, let’s be real, as much as I’d love to stand in front of ruins as they’re perfectly illuminated by the dying sunlight just as the shepherd does in Cole’s The Presentmy present isn’t nearly so calm or contemplative. No indeed: as I’ve discovered, working at a college once school’s begun is basically a gigantic medieval party all the time. 

Metaphorically speaking, of course. (Although I could’ve really used a suit of armour a few weeks ago when the nearby massive university’s Important Sports Game swarmed the town with more overexcited, red-shirted people than an episode of Star Trek…)



Being a college staff member is, in a few ways, a lot like being a student–it doesn’t take long for you to fall into the routine of academia. I expected September to last forever, but it ended so quickly that (as my slightly belated blog post suggests!) I barely even realized October had begun until just now. (Apologies go out to the poor students in the ambassador program I run at our museum who had to endure me saying things like “And we’ll meet to work on the video project on September 12…” today!)

Although I sometimes miss the flexibility of my college schedule, I’ve come to cherish the little enjoyable moments of my new routine: regularly stopping by a free yoga class offered by the college; brainstorming new curriculum ideas with my interns; checking out my billionth book from our library system; and, of course, taking long leaf-peeping walks around our gorgeous campus during my lunch break…






As I tend to reiterate every blog post, I continue to marvel at how amazing my job is–I get to interact with college students, K-12 kids, and community members; plan events; and work in a place filled with phenomenal artistic treasures (with a collection of over 19,000 objects, most of which can be pulled from storage at a moment’s notice, there’s something for everyone!).

The biggest challenge I’ve encountered so far as a postgrad, then, is the issue of finding “extracurriculars” through which to meet like-minded, friend-type individuals. (My fondness for the phrase “friend-type individuals” surely is a great way for me to obtain more of them, no?) There’s no Club Fair after college: people aren’t constantly quarter-carding you and begging you to join the quirky organization of their choice.

I’ve got yoga and fitness classes to turn to already, and I’ve made efforts to go to various community events–a poetry festival held a few weeks ago was particularly exciting!–but I still find myself with a hole in my social experience.

And let’s be real, it’s an enormous music-shaped hole. 

In addition to being the first time I’ve been out of school for sixteen years, this is also the first time I’ve gone without a singing group in my life for over a decade. From my six years of “hippie choir” to a surprisingly legit high school choral career (Hey, did you know I did all-state honor choir and a NATS competition? I’D FORGOTTEN UNTIL TODAY!) to a brief stint in Cornell’s Chorus followed by three incredibly fun years of geekapella, I’m not used to a reality that doesn’t involve cathartic rehearsals a few times per week.

Is there a solution? I’m not quite sure. I don’t think community choir is my thing–especially if it’s too “serious–and a cappella groups on campus are probably not interested in an old staff member like me.

Maybe I’ll make like the indie-swoonworthy star of my new favorite movie of all time God Help the Girl and join a band: if I could sing with a group again and look as hipster-chic as Emily Browning, I would ask for nothing more.


Plus, these minor woes can be immediately chased away when I remind myself how lucky I am to work on such a beautiful campus. I’ve recently discovered that the college owns a large tract of hiking trails, which are basically the answer to all my forest-fairy dreams. If I can’t run circles around Beebe Lake in the midst of autumn anymore, this will have to suffice for now.


Also, last week we literally had a magical flying horse appear on campus with no explanation. Just saying.


Adaptive Strategies

As I begin my second official post as an post-grad blogger, I feel the need to make a very important confession. For the past three years, I’ve no doubt that all of my readers have been under the impression that I am, in fact, a normal, human college student–and I’d like to make it very clear to you that I’m actually a Tiktaalik, a Devonian era sort-of-fish-dude who rather embodies the evolutionary transition from marine to terrestrial life.

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Or, at least, that’s how my first two weeks at my new job have made me feel!

You don’t intern at a museum for three years without getting extremely well acquainted with the quotidian goings-on of the average education office. During my time at the Johnson, I watched as my supervisors and co-workers planned outreach projects, coordinated massive public programs, and dealt with literal scores of visiting middle schoolers in a single day. Because of my internship, I was, of course, inevitably involved in all these events: but always as an eager assistant only.

Still, I didn’t expect starting my new career–as an educator at another university museum, in case you missed my most recent post–to involve so many moments of clarity and joyous astonishment. In the four years in which I played a role at the Johnson, I helped (in my own small way!) the staff members to implement programming and outreach that always had a positive impact on the community members it affected. When I received my first major event-planning assignment last week, I was surprised to find myself almost getting legitimate chills of excitement: I’m intern no more, and it’s amazing! Transforming from a student to a real educator who might just be able to effect some small but notable change in the museum world or local community is a feeling like nothing else in the world–with the exception, maybe, of sliding up on land for the first time and stretching out your soggy almost-tetrapod-leg fins.


Well, that really got away from me, didn’t it?

In the interest of preventing any more mawkish evolution metaphors, I’ll close with a few stray observations about the early stages of transitioning from big-college-student to small-college-staff-member:

  • My greatest secret fear about starting work at a small liberal arts school was that I’d never see the inside of a “music library” again–yet I was delighted to discover that my new college does, in fact, boast a comprehensive collection of scores and recordings in addition to its more traditional library. (And if this music library can beat Cornell’s pitiful lack of panpipe scholarship, I may have to question my previously unshakeable loyalty to the Cox….)
  • Unsurprisingly, everyone with whom I have the awkward small-talk duty of sharing my life’s story always reacts to my mention of Cornell with some stereotypical wailing about the weather: Ithaca’s legacy stretches far and wide, it seems.
  • It takes approximately three or four minutes to walk from practically anywhere on campus into town–and although I appreciate the relative proximity of local restaurants, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t missing CTB and falafel from Aladdin’s like nobody’s business.
  • Having a museum education job is like working as a university academic and a kindergarten teacher at the same time (and I wouldn’t have it any other way!)
  • Library Update #2: Apparently, staff members like me can check out books for a year at a time. This, to me, is a privilege equivalent to earning a six-figure salary. I have already assembled a massive collection of fabulist novels, typography books, and catalogues of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art and can’t believe that I can keep reading them, adoring them, and rearranging them on my shelf while speaking to them in a Gollum voice until 2015.

Finally, no matter how many ridiculous blazers and strings of pearls I wear (or boring, un-youthful character traits I embody), I am inevitably mistaken for a college sophomore or junior.

I guess evolution really does take time.

(Yes, I’m terrible, but I promise next month’s post will be Tiktaalik-free! (Unlike TV’s Orphan Black, I do not intend on referencing Darwin with every update from here on out.) But in the spirit of delightful inhabitants of the Devonian,  here’s a little song to play you off.)

This blog goes ever on and on!

“So what are you going to do for a living?”

A quick read through Sarr Above the Busy Humming’s archives will prove that this question–the words of well-meaning acquaintances and small-talking strangers–has been tormenting me since my freshman year. As graduation grew closer and closer and I remained unsure of my future, I was forced to develop a kind of generic elevator speech to appease the masses.

“Well, my ideal career would involve museum education,” I’d tell the dentist, the hairdresser at MasterCuts, or the strangely talkative weirdo sitting next to me on my flight back to the Islands, “but I’m also exploring the broader field of arts education and outreach until I find the perfect match.” As post-grad career blurbs go, it served its purpose well, and saved me from tired jokes about teachers’ woeful salaries and the way in which art history majors are doomed to work only at fast food restaurants.

About a month ago, however, everything changed. After years of hearing about the dismal job prospects in the art world and the impossibility of supporting one’s self on an educator’s salary, I was finally able to look the bellhop, the airport taxi driver, or the distant relative in the eye, smile, and boast that I’d accepted the job of my dreams.

Trust me, I was about as shocked as "Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard" here.

Trust me, I was about as shocked as “Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard” here.

For the next few years, I will be working as an educator at the on-campus museum of a small liberal arts college–in other words, the non-Ithaca equivalent of my beloved Johnson Museum. Just like I did during my Johnson internship, in fact, I’ll get to give tours, help coordinate class visits, and brainstorm new ways to reach out to the nearby community: and I’ll be able to do it all full time!

Of course, perhaps you’re reading this and thinking to yourself something along the lines of “Nice humble-brag, Keely, but why bother posting it? DIDN’T YOU GRADUATE? Hasn’t Sarr Above the Busy Humming faded quietly into the west already?” 

Well, friend, I’m afraid this blog has a little more staying power than that.

(In other words: from the ashes a fire shall totally be woken.)

I’ve been invited to continue blogging as I transition from college student to college employee, allowing alumni, prospective students, and those Facebook “friends” who never speak to me (but still click on all the blog links I post?!?) to follow along on this particular Cornellian’s journey into the workforce. I’ll probably post monthly recaps of such adventures as adapting to life on a comparatively tiny campus (you mean there’s only one library?), navigating the hazards of driving in the snow for the first time (not everywhere’s as walkable as Ithaca!), and discovering how well Cornell’s curriculum prepared me for a museum career.

(Also, I get my own office, which I miiiight mention proudly from time to time.)


I realized recently that I neglected to post about graduation–in all honesty, the experience is such an indescribable whirlwind of crowds and noise and family happiness that I probably couldn’t really capture it in a few hundred words.

I will say this: in that moment when you enter Schoellkopf with your bizarre cap and borrowed, sweaty bat-robes, surrounded by a handful of friends and veritable thousands of people you’ve never met, it’s tempting to feel utterly inconsequential. Looking out at the genuine masses of people in the bleachers might make a graduate feel like the tiny “You are here!” dot on one of those maps of the universe that every curious kid had on his or her bedroom wall in the 90s.

 Yet even if universe maps often lead me into states of existential angst, it’s ultimately amazing to get a sense of the scale of the world (or galaxy, or college community) around you (a sentiment that my ol’ buddies Fleet Foxes express even more eloquently in the first verse of one of my favorite songs of all time).

That drivel above is really supposed to suggest that while this blog is about my story, there’s a veritable cosmos of Cornellians out there who are embarking on their own different postgrad quests at the same time–and there’s something kind of fantastic about that. So to any ’14ers out there who might happen upon this blog, you’re in my thoughts: and please chime in if you wish!

To everyone else: stop by again in July to hear about my first day of not school!

Rage against the machines

One of the most exciting aspects of Cornell is the way in which it’s constantly growing and changing (distinctly unlike the current season of Once Upon a Time). Forgive me if I’ve mentioned this before, but during my time here, I’ve seen the rise of Milstein Hall and the new Physical Sciences Building, a complete redevelopment of the Law School, and, of course, the addition of a spacious wing (with great acoustics and a beautiful Japanese garden!) to the Johnson Museum.

The flip side of this thrilling state of flux? Construction.

In case you’ve never been cursed with the misery of experiencing class in a room with boarded-up windows and the constant sound of machinery thumping about outside, the following figures from various pieces in the Western art historical canon (including the masterwork I’ve nicknamed “Simone Martini’s Cranky Pre-Teen Christ”) are here to help summarize my feelings on the subject.

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Here’s the thing you have to understand about studying the humanities at this institution–it’s highly likely that almost all of your classes will be in Goldwin Smith Hall. Now, I’m certainly not complaining about that: GWS was designed to serve as a kind of “temple to knowledge,” and its gorgeous architecture and prominent display of pieces from Cornell’s plaster cast collection sure beats a more austere design.

This semester, however, my initial joy at having multiple classes in a row in Goldwin Smith has been replaced with a sort of quiet fury, and it’s all thanks to the Klarman Hall construction project.

In the abstract, I am undoubtedly in favor of the new humanities building (slated to open in 2015), and I’m glad Cornell is showing their commitment to more sustainable building initiatives by seeking to make Klarman LEED Platinum Certified. The sleek modern design is a little too 2001: A Space Odyssey for my old-fashioned tastes, but I’m confident that the completion of Klarman will vastly improve the academic environment for Arts & Sciences students.

If only I were going to be around to see it finished!

For the time being, though, the embryonic Klarman is manifest only in windowless GWS rooms and, on occasion inescapable pounding sounds drowning out any student or professor who dares to use class time as an opportunity to, you know, speak. (Can you tell that two of my classes are held in the single classroom that is perhaps closest to the construction of all the Goldwin Smith spaces, and that noise has been an issue for the past few days?)

On a more positive note, perhaps the inevitable sonic consequences of construction are offering a rare opportunity to apply what I’ve learned in my Experimental Music class to a real-world situation! Instead of groaning and plugging my ears the next time a hammer or whatnot drowns out my learning experience, perhaps I should break out my equipment and make a field recording…