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Acanemia: A Memoir of Life in the Halls of Higher Learning by Lawrence E. Hussman

four stars

Lawrence E. Hussman’s Acanemia: A Memoir of Life in the Halls of Higher Learning is a detailed account of Hussman’s experiences as a professor of English, mainly at the Ohio branch campus of Wright State University. Hussman intersperses his personal and professional memories with current observations and analysis, a process that takes what could be a dry account to a higher level. The reader not only learns of Hussman’s early life and schooling, but also of his many adventures later in his career, such as his experiences teaching in Poland as a Fulbright scholar and his work with Sam Hall, self-proclaimed “counterterrorist.” The memoir also addresses the current state of American higher education. Hussman points to many of the usual suspects: ridiculously high salaries for university presidents and athletic coaches, an ongoing tendency to view higher education as a business, and, of course, American culture, which “for some time hasn’t been a culture that instills or honors bookishness.” Hussman reserves much of his ire, however, for university faculty members, whom he often considers cowards, unwilling to challenge the status quo and regain their rightful places as “guardians of integrity and standards.” Much of the memoir also details Hussman’s fascination with and scholarship on American literature, culminating in his magnum opus, Desire and Disillusionment: A Guide to American Fiction Since 1890, a text that explores the work of many of the most prominent early-to-mid twentieth century writers. Hussman is especially interested in what he sees as a theme running through these works, “the desire to have it all and the disappointment with what passes for the all when gained.” Hussman’s memoir follows a similar trajectory. Though he begins as a young man eager to join what he sees as “the greatest profession possible,” namely, becoming a professor of English, Hussman’s journey becomes an exploration of personal disillusionment, particularly in terms of what he expected from academia.

Hussman’s memoir is interesting and well told. There are a few missteps, however. Hussman’s assessment of the state of academia, for example, fails to consider the current, dismal job market and completely ignores the reality that the number of PhDs greatly exceeds the number of available tenure-track positions. An additional off note is sounded by Hussman’s treatment of women; he is often vaguely condescending and oblivious to his own male privilege. Indeed, he eventually reveals that he has a reputation as a “sexual harasser” because of his propensity to date female colleagues and grad students. Hussman defends his reputation by arguing that he “always treated them with respect, all were age appropriate (the youngest… being thirty-five), most had initiated the affair, and all but [one] became [his] good friends after the romance had faded.” Hussman’s blindness in this area leaves the reader with their own sense of disillusionment, but it does not diminish the allure of Hussman’s story or his insight into the state of higher education in America. Acanemia is ultimately the story of a brilliant and flawed human being, and one that most readers will find both engaging and enlightening.