Meet Shayla Stern, Recovering Professor

January 15, 2015

A little more than a week ago, I moved out of my secluded corner office filled with books and files on a university campus and showed up to a space where I work at a different spot at a communal table every day, bringing along only a laptop and lunch. As much as I loved that office, I could go a full day without speaking to another person on campus when I wasn’t teaching. So, for an extrovert like me, the change has been lovely.

For the decade or so before I started here, I was a college professor – first at DePaul University in Chicago and then at the University of Minnesota – where I taught coursework on digital media and culture and conducted research on the intersections of social media, gender and youth. I published two books (that you can feel free to purchase), From the Dance Hall to Facebook: Teen Girls, Mass Media and Moral Panicand Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of IM.  You’ve possibly seen me answering WCCO “Good Questions” or sitting on the couch on TPT’s “Almanac” chatting about this stuff at some point over the past several years.

My team at, my first internship/job after college. I'm in the lower left corner.

My team at, my first internship/job after college. I’m in the lower left corner.


Working at, 1996

Before academia, though, I was a dot-com boomer who graduated from college with a journalism degree and went straight to work on the brand new World Wide Web at a time when few people thought that was a viable medium. I started as an intern at the Chronicle of Higher Education in D.C. (and at that time, that meant we wrote, edited, coded our own pages in HTML and put together the site on Gopher). Then I joined the team that launched The Washington Post to the web in 1996 and served as the Music and Nightlife editor. After that, I had a string of different positions – community content editor at, marketing coordinator for at Georgetown, freelance writer for and Britannica, a affiliate relationship manager for 25 Gannett newspapers, senior content manager for an artificial intelligence based start-up, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

A nice grad school graduation picture with my mom

A nice grad school graduation picture with my mom

I found some quiet refuge after the dot-com bust and post-9/11 recession in graduate school. I went into that a little blindly, thinking that I’d be able to eventually teach online journalists and media workers, not realizing that getting a Ph.D. is all about conducting research – learning to ask strong research questions, determine validity, using multiple research methods and ensuring rigor. It’s also about learning the politics of academia, learning to be an “intrapreneur” in a huge organization, working autonomously and organizing your time. Despite all of that, I became a professor anyway, and after nearly ten years, earned tenure and promotion. I taught thousands of students through the years and (mostly) loved it.


My book launch last summer at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis (Photo by Chelsea Reynolds)

But like nearly every other child of the dot-com boom who thrived in that atmosphere, I long ago developed a taste for a collaborative, fast-paced environment with free Diet Coke and coffee and fun, smart, pop culture-savvy people — and I’ve landed in one at Fast Horse, where I bring my history of knowledge, research expertise and experience in digital media to the agency and our clients.

I realized it was a good fit from the first day of work, when our creative director/founder started the day blasting The Smiths — or the next day, when I was looped into an intense email exchange about the series finale of “Friday Night Lights” — but also because of the work projects to which I’ve already been assigned. The Fast Horse account teams approach the work strategically and with an intensity and energy that reminds me of the freewheeling heyday of the ’90s. Our clients are luckier than they know. And so am I.