Lecture Hop editor Pierce Stanley reports on a strange visitor in the hallowed halls of American history.

(Hi Daily Intelligencer!)

Recent semesters at Columbia have seen the arrival of some of the world’s brightest and most eloquent speakers at fair Alma, broadening academic discourse on campus in a very fruitful way. Unfortunately, for all of the good speakers that come to Columbia, some bad ones happen to slip through the cracks. Indeed, these years have also been witness to some of the most controversial, questionable, and even disgraceful speakers on campus in recent years.

The appearance this afternoon of Obama Girl (a.k.a. actress Amber Lee Ettinger) in Professor David Eisenbach’s American Presidency history course likely falls into the latter category, with Eisenbach’s choice of speaker being questionable at best.  Amber’s visit this evening to Mike Gravel’s Communications Director’s course (just in case you missed her live-chat on YouTube last night) sparked both interest in the topic at hand–the role of viral videos and the YouTube generation in determining the eventual outcome of the 2008 Presidential election–and it sparked much controversy as to whether a minor actress (who doesn’t even do her own singing, failed to vote in the last election, and claims that she does not even really have a crush on one of Columbia’s favorite alums) should receive such a reception in the hallowed halls of the classroom.  Many Columbia students left the classroom in IAB befuddled by Amber’s appearance and by Professor Eisenbach’s impromptu decision to hold such an event.  Some left not knowing quite what to make of Obama Girl’s appearance on campus.  Overheard: “Are we really paying $40,000 plus a year to line up and take pictures with her like shes Santa?  I feel like a five year old kid again.”

Amber spoke about a total of ten words this evening. This worked out well, because the mastermind behind the website barelypolitical.com, Ben Relles, handled the bulk of the class’s queries quite well, mixing videos from his site with a rather engaging explanation about the nature of his enterprise. Relles argued that hopefully viewers of the Obama Girl video will be able to gain some interest in the candidate and perhaps the political process as a whole. Relles indicated that while he is delighted that candidates are forced to actually watch and respond to these videos, his original intention was not to provoke political events. The video’s main goal, according to Relles, is to create an online culture of humor surrounding the political process.

University of Chicago senior Michael Stevens, the creator of the Barack O’Bollywood gem, characterized Internet video humor as emblematic of the next generation of voters. Eisenbach suggested that perhaps YouTube, viral videos in the vein of Obama Girl (and all of her competitors including the McCain Girls and Hott 4 Hill Girl), and even blogs are the future of American politics. They are one step ahead of traditional media sources and reach the younger generations, all a plus in a country that is increasingly apathetic about politics. But what does this all mean about the American public if the information that they get about politicians comes exclusively from satirical online video shorts?

While Professor Eisenbach’s email to the course last night seemed to indicate that the Obama Girl herself would field many of the questions, the event turned into a montage of all the videos that Relles had made for his website. Later, it became a photo-shoot with the budding young actress. However, most were left wondering whether they had just killed an hour and fifteen minutes watching YouTube videos that they would have come across anyway while they put off writing a paper.

Perhaps it is still far too early to tell the impact of this movement on elections, but Professor Eisenbach may have put it best when he asked a gushing Obama Girl, “What do you think of the prospect that college classes on the Presidency may be watching your very video a hundred years from now to demonstrate its lasting impact?” Obama Girl just smiled and replied coyly, “That’s why you’re a professor.”