Professor of the Year: Ryan Russell

Each year, Stukent® recognizes an outstanding educator who personifies Stukent’s core values and mission to help educators help students help the world.

The selection of the Stukent Professor of the Year is a rigorous, year-long process. In the weeks leading up to ProfCon — Stukent’s annual conference — we ask our course consultants and other educators, industry experts, and thought leaders from all over the country to vote on whom we should honor as our Stukent Professor of the Year.

Stukent’s Professor of the Year is Ryan Russell!

It’s easy to see why Ryan Russell is so beloved by his students: Warm, funny, and eloquent, Ryan talks about his “kids” (students) with an abundance of affection and genuine concern for their well-being. “This is my dream job,” Ryan says. “I get the better end of this deal than my students do — these students are learning these concepts for the first time. I get to see the ‘light bulbs’ going off in their heads.” 

“The greatest days of my life are the days I get to hear about my students’ first jobs,” Ryan continues. “We dance together, cry together, say bad words together … it’s just really meaningful.”

Ryan brings true enthusiasm into his classroom, merging real-world experience with cutting-edge concepts and theory. His marketing agency, Lift Media Group, not only challenges him to stay current with marketing trends, but also provides him with ample opportunities to involve his students in authentic, hands-on work.

We sat down with Ryan recently to talk about everything from his pedagogical philosophies to his love for the berry bushes in his backyard. Read on to learn more about this peerless educator!

To get started, why don’t you tell us how you got into teaching? We’ve heard that it’s a great story!

Well, I had just lost my first job in the marketing industry. At the time, I decided to grow a freelance business and received a call from an unknown number. I don’t usually pick those up, but I was in business growth mode and answering every call I got. 

On the other line, someone said, “Hi, Ryan, this is Beverly Brockman from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Did you speak to the American Marketing Association a year ago?”

And I thought, Oh, no, am I in trouble? Did I say a bad word? 

“Yes,” I said. “That’s me.”

“We’ve had a professor step down,” Beverly replied. “And when we were discussing potential replacements, your name came up. Are you interested?”

And I said, “Yes, absolutely, that sounds great,” even though I had no idea what it meant to be an adjunct professor. I thought it was a substitute teacher! So, I hung up the phone and Googled, What is an adjunct professor. I just about died when I realized what I’d gotten myself into! 

Thankfully, I’d used the Stukent Digital Marketing Simternship as a graduate student, so I knew who to call! I only had a few weeks to prepare my curriculum.

So, you had to jump right in as an adjunct! How did your first semester go?

It was frantic! I wasn’t using Stukent’s digital marketing courseware yet, so I would finish my lecture slide decks at 5:10 p.m., then run to get to a 5:30 class. I made up my own material, drawing from programs like Google Ad Certifications.  I found the “Digital Marketing Essentials” courseware later and thought, Oh my goodness, this lines up with my material and with the Digital Marketing Simternship! The courseware has only made my experience with the simulation better.

Now that you have more teaching experience under your belt, how would you describe your pedagogical style and philosophy?

After teaching as an adjunct professor for five semesters and completing my fourth year as a lecturer, the core of my teaching philosophy has remained true from the early lessons my mother taught me about education — your students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This never means asking less of my students. Rather, it means thinking enough of them to challenge them to achieve great things and walking alongside them to ensure they have the resources, knowledge, and passion for surpassing their own expectations for themselves. 

As my course load grew, my teaching philosophy continued to center around a deep love for my students. I want to ensure they gain the skills to enter a professional role in the marketing industry and become better at their chosen career path. I believe that modern marketers must remain lifelong learners in order to remain relevant. 

My curriculum centers around recent, relevant work that encourages students to think and strategize, not simply memorize and cram material that could become irrelevant quickly. To prepare workforce-ready students, my students gain a variety of third-party certifications and learning materials from Google, Meta, Mailchimp, The University of Copenhagen (Coursera), and more, as well as participating in the Stukent Digital Marketing Simternship. 

I regularly seek to involve my students, whether directly or indirectly, in the work of the marketing agency I own, Lift Media Group. I also leverage my network to bring in a strong variety of accomplished professionals as guest speakers. 

To encourage my students to remain lifelong learners, I have continued to operate my marketing agency alongside a partner. My students appreciate it because they know I have to remain on top of marketing trends and strategies in order to serve clients. 

You’ve been using Stukent Simternships and courseware since 2017 — how have these resources impacted the way you teach?

Tremendously! I first encountered Stukent materials as a graduate student and was a straightaway fan of the relevance of the material and the practicality of the Digital Marketing Simternship. 

With the Simternship, I could walk my students through what I was doing as a professional. I could literally walk them through a paid ads campaign rather than trying to have them bring in fake credit cards and try to build a campaign in Google Ads. (That doesn’t work, by the way!)

My course evaluations regularly show that the Simternship is among the most valuable components of my course. I teach at a school with many low-income students, and the Simternship has played a large role in providing practical learning opportunities for students who might not have had previous business connections. Because of Stukent’s materials, I’m able to become a better facilitator of students’ learning process. 

Can you tell us about Lift Media Group and how your experiences as owner and CEO impact your instructional approach?

It’s tough to imagine one of my careers without the other! Lift Media Group is a digital marketing and web agency where I’m blessed to serve as CEO. Lift’s vision is to be “The Most Trusted Team Member” of everyone we serve. We flourish in the void left unoccupied by traditional agencies, lone-wolf freelancers, and internal hires. We partner with and are mindful that at times we compete with each of these three groups. Lift Media Group has 10 full-time team members and is based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

When I was offered the opportunity to become a full-time lecturer at UTC, I had a decision to make with my freelancing business — one, quit and fire my clients; two, hire someone; or three, merge with an agency that had existing infrastructure. When Lift was small, I got along well with the man who is now my partner, Jasper Reynolds. We’re a healthy company and have a setup that allows me to pursue both of my professional passions — teaching students and entrepreneurship. 

You have an impressive background in industry. How have your past roles in social media, digital marketing, and public relations influenced the students you are teaching today?

My work as an entrepreneur and CEO of a marketing agency has had a massive impact on my instructional approach. Students know that I’m accountable to clients to remain on the cutting edge of marketing development. Because of my role, I’m able to bring clients and competitors into my classroom to help teach students and to help students network in the community.

What advice do you have for professors who want to improve their teaching and positively impact their students' learning?

First, decide to fall in love with your students. In a busy world and an industry that is constantly changing, I believe students need to know that you’re for them and that you genuinely care about them. 

Second, practice what you preach. Pursue new knowledge that will benefit your students and their careers as much as it benefits your publishing. Don’t be the “frozen chosen” that we’re often accused of being in this industry. Enjoy the process of staying fresh and learning about our exciting industry. 

Third, be vulnerable with your students and colleagues. For me, this has looked like saying the words “I don’t know, but I’ll learn” much more than I’m comfortable with saying. Additionally, I’ve taken time to ask former students about their marketing roles and learned from them by asking questions about how they do their job. 

I never intended to be in the higher education or teaching industry. I genuinely accepted my first role as an adjunct professor without knowing what an adjunct professor was or was supposed to do. This has influenced my curriculum significantly, and I often ask myself, “What do I wish I’d been taught prior to my first job as a social media strategist? What did my coworkers do?”

Because my background has been on both the brand side and agency side, I’m careful to include both in my teaching. When I learn new things at my agency, especially when I fail at something, I’m quick to bring it into the classroom to tell the students about what happened and learn alongside one another. I’m far from a finished product!

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I absolutely love spending time with my family. I’m a husband to my wonderful wife, Sarah Russell, and a dad of a nine-year-old little girl and a six-year-old little boy. 

Last year we decided to transform part of our backyard into a berry farm, so we’re now cultivators of 48 blueberry bushes and 15 raspberry and blackberry bushes. I’m trying my hand at winemaking with the fruit! 

I enjoy staying active by working out at Orangetheory Fitness and just finished the Ironman race that was hosted in Chattanooga. I cheer for my alma mater, the back-to-back National Champion Georgia Bulldogs. My family are also huge Liverpool Football Club fans and watch almost every game with our local supporters’ group. I’m an avid reader and Ernest Shackleton nerd.  

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Congratulations, Ryan! Thank you for everything you do to prepare your students for bright futures and to help them help the world!

Stukent is here to help educators help students help the world. To learn more about our first-in-the-world Simternships and courseware, or to get FREE instructor access to our products, visit our website.

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