Welcome to Harvard’s Economics Ph.D. Program! Now Watch This Boring Video

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In an earnest attempt to join the 21st century, two professors in Harvard’s economics department created a video welcoming potential students to its program. The result: brilliant, if unintentional, comedy for the masses, courtesy of YouTube.

Professors John Campbell and Ed Glaeser sit shoulder to shoulder before a wood-paneled wall. Campbell’s tie is distractingly askew, and Glaeser looks a lot like comedian Steve Carrell, circa the Daily Show years.

“We want you to come to Harvard,” says Campbell, in British. “But we particularly want you to be able to make a well-informed decision.” Glaeser, fingers interlocked over crossed knees, here looks over at Campbell–TV-anchor style–nods his head, smiling, then looks back at the camera.

YouTube has invaded the recruiting world, as we’ve seen with video resumes and job postings. (It’s also TIME’s de facto Person–or Thing, or Concept–of the Year.) The great thing about this medium is that not only does it allow us to disseminate, say, a job opening in a colorful, speedy and far-reaching manner, it also allows the hoi polloi to respond.

There were, of course, the reviews. “It’s like watching paint dry,” writes one viewer on YouTube.

“I don’t think it’s quite that exciting,” writes another.

But because it’s YouTube, some viewers responded with video parodies. Campbell and Glaeser are not handing out nearly enough homework, judging by the time and effort put into these efforts by their students.

“Harvard Economics Recruiting Video–Skit 2006″ begins with this message:

Female enrollment in the Harvard PhD program has been declining for years…In an effort to reverse this trend, Harvard has recruited two professors skilled in the art of seduction.

Then, set to the bonkety bonk of a BeeGees tune, its creators edited the original video so that the professors appear to be coming on to prospective students.

Glaeser: “We think we are superb economists.”

Campbell: “We are truly exceptional. And extremely strong. Now we need a little help from you. We’d like to date you on April 17th.

“We want you. But we particularly want to touch you.”

Glaeser: “…and we will of course coordinate rooms while you’re here.”

Another video, “Harvard Economics Outtakes,” features two students in the roles of Campbell and Glaeser, spouting economics mumbo jumbo and bickering. At one point, “Glaeser” makes “Campbell” cry by making fun of his inability to read a teleprompter.

“Campbell”: Ed, are you sure this is the best way to attract graduate students?

“Glaeser” (waving dismissively): Don’t be absurd.

Absurd is how the professors might have felt in the glare of their Internet ignominy, but Campbell, at least, is laughing–if a bit sheepishly. He says Glaeser came up with the idea of including a video on the web site created for prospective students accepted into the Ph.D. program as a way to make the site more personal. “We didn’t at first realize we were making the web site more pompous than personal,” Campbell writes via e-mail (“I’m a phoneophobe,” he says).

The video was posted for a short time on the departmental web site in the spring, from where it apparently made its rounds on campus. “Then I forgot about the whole debacle until this month.”

The creators of the video parodies are Ph.D. students in the economics department, “some of them first-year students who decided to come to Harvard despite viewing the video,” says Campbell. And who decided making fun of their professors was a good idea despite having yet to pass their midterms.

Campbell explains: “There is a long and honorable tradition by which students spoof the faculty at the annual Christmas party. The new twist is the way the spoofs can be created on video, and then shared with the world over the Internet.”

The spoofs, he adds, “are much better than the original!”

I asked if he would do it again. Campbell responds:

“I’ve realized I’m out of my depth in the video age. If I see a video camera pointed my way, I shall react like the New Yorker in Borat who is seen running away across a busy street.”

That’s too bad. The video did much for the cultural learnings of YouTube viewers for make benefit glorious university of Harvard.

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