My Most Difficult Q&A Session (Yet)

It was the end of an interesting but challenging Q&A session. I’d been getting a lot of questions about the ethical implications of my presented work on hookup/dating apps, and I was ready for the session to end.

Last question.

A man stood up in the back row of the room and looked me square in the eyes. I sat up, eager to hear what he would ask.

“I just have to say …”

Uh-oh. Something told me this was going to be a different kind of question than the rest.

I don’t remember exactly what he prefaced his question with. Something to do with the way society is changing with technological advancements and so forth. Then came his question:

“Society is degrading. We’re moving away from our morals and values … . What do you have to say about the general direction society is headed in?” [paraphrased]

He sat down.

I took a deep breath. What do I say?! This question isn’t about my research at all. Why did he ask that question to specifically me? Does he think my research is immoral? Does he think I’m immoral because I’m doing the research? Did he ask me this because I outed myself as gay in my presentation? Does he think being gay is immoral? These questions whirled through my brain, seemingly all at the same time.

I took another deep breath and then I cautiously tip-toed into my answer. “I think that’s a difficult question to answer, because the answer depends on how you define morals and values.

“I definitely understand the narrative around societal decline, and I think it’s one that is at times appealing and relatively easy to invoke. At the same time, I also think we can find examples of societal change that we can use to sort of push back against that narrative, because not all of the changes in society are bad.

“But in terms of what I think about the direction society is heading in, I can’t really answer that question. If you were to give me a specific set of values and morals, then I’d be able say whether or not society is moving away from or toward them, but without specifying which values and morals we’re talking about specifically, I don’t think I can answer that question for you.” (see note at end)

He nodded slightly, and with that the session ended. I let out a deep sigh, packed my bag and made my way over to my colleagues.

There’s a few things I’m taking away from this experience.

  1. When in doubt, respect and diplomacy are your best friend. Even when someone comes at you or your research with a question of morality and societal degradation, the best course of action is to be respectful and diplomatic in responding to their question.
  2. If you manage to do #1 well, people will notice. The amount of positive feedback I got from how I handled this man’s question was surprising to me, but highly affirming. I attribute that to the respect and diplomacy I showed in answering his potentially controversial question.
  3. The value of taking a deep breath before answering a difficult question cannot be overstated. It calms you down, allows you to center yourself, collect your thoughts, and then move ahead into your answer.
  4. Q&A periods are great opportunities to flesh out your work in ways a 15-minute presentation cannot. They can be terrifying, but they’re also exciting and great platforms to promote your work. Look forward to them!

In hindsight, this was the most challenging Q&A session I’ve experienced yet, but also one of the most enjoyable. I’m trying to learn to trust myself, to recognize that I know more than I acknowledge to myself, and that I have a good head on my shoulders and will probably be fine, even if I don’t know an answer to a question.


I paraphrased what I remember about my answer. The main gist of it was: Viewing society as declining, in terms of losing our sense of values and morals, depends on a very specific definition of “values” and “morals”, and without explicitly defining those values and morals, you can’t really say whether society is headed toward or away from them.


rethinking academic posters

I generally don’t enjoy presenting a poster. Few faculty tend to check them out and often only a handful of people actually ask about the work. At a convention the size of SPSP (just under 4000 people), posters can sometimes feel like a pointless exercise. Thankfully, this year was different.
I did some reading on how to design academic posters that draw people in to chat about your work. I consistently came across the same advice I’d heard from others: be concise; use as few words as possible; use images where possible; white space is your friend; etc. But I’d never really seen effective implementations of these design considerations. Enter Better Posters.
As I read through some of the posts (e.g., Critique: Sudden StopSubtle, gaudy, and bold), I came across this poster. I loved the bold use of colour, images, and the use of text as images. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but it was better than almost anything I’d ever seen at a conference, so I decided to try my hand at it.
Now, I’m no graphic designer, so I relied on some template help from I ended up deleting most of the template, but I’m the kind of person whose creativity works best when adapting and reinventing a product. I used ColorBrewer to find a colour theme for my poster and then I got to work.
I wanted my poster to be a conversation starter, not a stand-alone written piece. Following the advice at Better Posters, I decided to feature a large image in the centre as a focal point. I research people’s impressions of straight, gender atypical men’s sexuality as a function of the social environment they’re embedded in, so to get the conversation started, I headed over to Pexels to find an open-source image of a feminine-looking man. I settled on this one.

Focal image of my poster.

To portray my experimental conditions–a homophobic and non-homophobic social environment in a high school–I choose an image (from Pexels) of rainbow chalk to portray the LGBTQ* theme and school setting.

Colored chalk on a blackboard background
Photo by from Pexels

For the non-homophobic social environment, I simply cropped the image. For the homophobic social environment, I edited the image to be black and white, cropping it in the same way. After playing around with my introduction, I took my cue from the poster above and varied the size and colour of different parts of the text so they became pseudo images in and of themselves. I had to play around for awhile until I struck a tone between gaudy and bold that made sense to me (with my lack of design skills). I added my graphic visuals, changed the title to be attention grabbing in itself, and then played around with the details.
My SPSP 2018 poster

Ultimately, I came up with the poster above. It’s far from perfect, but I feel proud of the final product and I was excited to try it out and see if I noticed a difference in people’s interest. The short answer is, HELL YES! There were very few times throughout the poster session where I wasn’t surrounded by a small group of students and faculty interested in learning more about my research. The poster seemed to serve as a good conversation starter, provided enough information to pull people in, but withheld certain information that prompted people to ask me to clarify certain aspects/tell them more.
In hindsight, I think I may have left too much information off, and if people looked at the poster and left without asking me for more information, they might not have gotten it. But my impression was that few folks fell into this category.
I also got a lot of positive feedback on my poster. Many students commented on their love of the colour, the aesthetically pleasing design, and that each time they walked past the row of posters I was in, their eyes were drawn to mine. So in the end, was the risk in my design choices worth it? I’d say it definitely was. I will definitely continue to experiment with design ideas until I feel I’ve got the right handle on the balance between aesthetics and adequate information.