Dealing with Negative Feedback: A How-To Guide from a Professional Reject

Dear reader, it is that time of year. While we all hope for ‘accept, minor revision’ the reality is this time of year brings with it a lot of disappointment: Conference rejections, journal revises and resubmits, grant application abject failures, and, what I have most recently been coping with, scathing student evaluation feedback. Yes, the January blues for academics are a bitter, frustrating, and utterly depressing time of year… if you don’t know how to take feedback.

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about how bad reviews exist because no one teaches academics how to review. I’d like to think of this post as a companion piece about how no one really teaches academics how to read reviews of their work either. Most of the advice I was given in grad school amounted to “Well, if the journal says to revise your article, revise it. Or don’t, and fight them on why the suggested change is nonsense.” While well intentioned, this advice doesn’t work. It doesn’t work not only because it takes a combative- rather-than-collaborative stance and assumes your reviewers are your opponents and not your assistants, but also because not all feedback you get as an academic is revise-and-resubmit. Grants, for example, give you a huge REJECTION and very little feedback about what you could’ve done better. And deal with it, they say. In a similar vein, student end of semester evaluations have left me scratching my head on more than one occasion. I’ve gotten feedback so out of left field it made me question whether or not the student and I were ever in the same room! (We were, I take attendance.) 

Feedback on research and teaching is often perplexing, frustrating, and hard to not take personally. So what can we do about it? I’ve developed some sanity-preserving strategies to process even the most beastly feedback and listed them here. Now obviously I am no psychologist, so these strategies should not be taken as therapy, medical advice, or anything of the sort. Think of the advice listed here as if you and I were out for coffee and you asked about how I take bad reviews and I happened to have a list prepared of the following 5 easy steps:

1. Check your perspective

2. Take the good with the bad

3. Remember that all criticism is valid- to varying degrees

4. Summarise the takeaways- leave the rest

5. Drink a beer, pet a dog, commiserate with a trusted friend

1. Check your perspective 

I tend to focus on the negative. Not just in feedback, but also in life. (Goth4eva!!) But I think that’s relatable, no? We all know that we can have 10 people compliment our new jeans and one person say it makes our booty look flat and that’s a day ruiner. Not only a day ruiner, but we also might think about putting those trousers in the bin when we get home. 

Since I know I tend to focus on the negative, I know that I need to pull back and look at the big picture of the review as a whole. Rather than think, “It only takes one apple to spoil a whole bunch,” I focus less on the spoilage and more on the whole barrel of fruit. In the above example, the new jeans were a smash hit! If a product had 10 five star reviews on Amazon and only 1 one star review, would I still buy the product? Probably. I would probably disregard that one star review as a salty outlier- and rightly so.

But how do you gain perspective with journal article reviews, teaching evals, peer evals, comments from well-meaning-but-pushy relatives over Christmas? Well, my own personal answer is a spreadsheet because, ya know, data… No, seriously, I really do put all comments into a spreadsheet with the total positive, neutral, and negative comments at the top (I’ve included an example screenshot below). Why talk about the positives first? Well, I am glad you asked because that’s pro-tip #2! But we will get to that in a minute.

What do I do if the feedback isn’t written down? Like, what if I am in a verbal meeting and being given feedback? Well, I take notes. Taking notes in feedback meetings is vitally important- especially if it is a performance review- and generally considered to be good professional practice. You can type up the notes, any goals/guidelines and expectations and send them to whomever was giving you feedback to check for clarity and ensure no miscommunication has transpired. Plus, if you get feedback which you feel is unfair, unkind, or unprofessional, having a record of what was said and why it made you feel that way is very important if you go to file a formal complaint (but hopefully that will never happen).

2. Take the good with the bad.

I’m sure my very bright psychology colleagues and games user researcher friends (pinging Rachel Kowert, Ben Taels, Elizabeth Zelle) would have a fancy way of saying this, but I’ll be blunt: It is easier to hear a Nice Thing™ first and then a Bad Thing™. If I hear a Bad Thing™ first, then I focus on the bad thing while the Good Things™ are (hopefully) being said. If I hear a Good Thing™ first, then it colours the Bad Things™ as less Bad™. Make sense? No? Oooookay. Here’s a chart:

Actual feedback has been blurred to protect the innocent, but yes, this is an actual snippet of a course review.

Put another way, putting the positive feedback first in my chart (example above) not only helps me keep a balanced perspective (like we talked about in #1 above), but also helps me get through the stuff that’s less pleasant to hear. 

It is also just good practice. If you want to revise or revamp a course you are teaching, it is as important to keep the parts that are working as it is to change the parts that are broken. If you only listen to what’s bad, you may be at risk of messing up, changing, or removing the parts of the class that were very effective for learning.

3. Remember that all criticism is valid- to varying degrees.

This is the point I personally struggle with the most. Getting criticism on your work that comes out of nowhere, from a different paradigm, or feels completely irrelevant is frustrating and irritating. But we all know that you should never outright disagree with a review or be anything less than grateful for the feedback. Publicly. (We will get to what to do with bad feedback privately in #5).

Just last year I received a negative review of a paper I had submitted to an Unnamed-but-Well-Known conference. This Strongly Reject review claimed my paper should be, well, strongly rejected for a litany of sins. And although I do enjoy a good sin, I did not feel that the feedback in this specific case was warranted. In particular, the review claimed the paper lacked clear methodology. This review comes despite the fact I had a subheading entitled “Methods” where I detailed the methodology I used to collect the data for the study. If you cannot tell, dear reader, I am still salty about this review. 

Going back to my own points #1 and #2, I had to read through the other two ‘Accept’ reviews of the paper to gain adequate perspective. Yes, someone probably did piss in Strongly Reject’s cereal the morning they decided to tell me my paper is bad and I am a bad academic, but they had a point buried under all their unprofessional rhetoric. My paper did have a methods section that was very clearly written for anyone coming from a background in qualitative methods or pedagogical studies, but maybe it wasn’t clear to folks coming from a comp sci or a quantitative background. 

Now I can sit here and make the argument that Strongly Reject should have identified themselves as lacking expertise in the research method and asked for a paper reassignment. Or I can sit here and make the argument that Strongly Reject should have just Googled the #!@*$ing method. Or I can sit here and say Strongly Reject could have given me the benefit of the doubt that the method was appropriate considering it was well cited within top tier education journals. But I won’t. Nope, I won’t sit here and say any of that because the point still stands: if Strongly Reject was confused by how I described my methods then surely some of the conference audience would be too. I took this into consideration when I revised my paper and presentation for the conference and, honestly? My paper was much stronger thanks to Strongly Reject.

As an aside, I did complain about the review to the conference committee because it was worded in a genuinely negative way that bordered on abusive. The committee assured me they would speak to the reviewer. Hopefully they directed them to my blog post, but who knows. If you’re out there reading this Strongly Reject, it is okay. I forgive you. 😛

4. Summarise the takeaways- leave the rest.

Sometimes a review contains a phrase or sentence that’s a real dagger to the heart. Like, it is so inflammatory either because it is a straight-up personal attack or because it is the antithesis of what you tried to achieve with your work and it gets stuck playing in your head on repeat. For me, a particular phrase will join the chorus of other voices in my head telling me that I am trash, a fraud, and that I don’t belong in academia OR videogames. Oh, that’s right grad students and juniors, the self-doubt and imposter syndrome never goes away. It gets less frequent, sure, but it will never go away. You gotta learn how to manage it.

One of the ways in which I manage my imposter syndrome is by not giving it fuel. I summarise down my feedback to just a few short points (actually, not unlike how I teach my games user research students to summarise feedback for a videogame after a playtest). I use my own words to highlight the key takeaways and then prioritise them according the frequency in the feedback so that when I go to make changes I know how to prioritise. The image below is actual, genuine, bonafide key takeaways which came from a post mortem I did after Fall 2019 student course evals.

Putting the feedback in my own words might seem like an interesting choice. Grounded theory purists would say that using my own words instead of the students’, in the above example, runs the risk of polluting the data set by abstracting the takeaways too far from their original meaning. I counter this critique by saying “yeah, probably, but for my own sanity I can’t stare too long at the blackhole sun of disparaging comments so it is either this or I wont change my classes.” At the end of the day, data is meaningless unless it is actionable so ya gotta do whatcha gotta do.

5. Drink a beer, pet a dog, commiserate with a trusted friend.

On the note of putting feedback into an easier to swallow pill, let’s not forget the social/psychological effects of getting harsh critique. It sucks. It powerful sucks. If you don’t acknowledge that it sucks, you probably aren’t taking the feedback adequately on board. It is important to first emotionally deal with all the bad feels that come from having your work critiqued before you can gain the perspective necessary to make actionable changes. 

In fact, in terms of order of operations, I should probably put this pro-tip first in this blog post. I have chosen to put it last because I didn’t want students or colleagues reading this post to skim it and go, “Oh, Ashley is encouraging alcoholism as a way to deal with feedback. Cool.” 

I know much has been made about alcohol addiction amongst academics so I cautiously claim a pint as part of my coping strategy. From my years in The Shire (England) I learned that after a rough day there is really nothing better to lift the spirits than an ale, a packet of crisps, and a shoulder to whinge on. Sometimes that shoulder is a dog (or a cat for all you cat people out there) and sometimes it is a trusted friend or colleague. 

I highlight the word trusted here because I want to make a clear distinction. If you have a hard day kvetching to a partner, family member, or friend might make you feel better. I’ve found that if I complain about a conference rejection or unfair teaching evaluation to compadres not in academia or games I am met with total bewilderment or well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice. 

“Who does that journal think they are to tell you your paper was anything less than amazing?” -My Nan.

Great. Thanks Nana. The sentiment is appreciated, but helpful you are not.

In these cases having a wonderful work buddy to QQ at is one of the most beautiful things in the world. In my case this is the amazingly supportive Dr. Kelly Boudreau, former co-lecturer and current bestie. Kelly and I worked together for a couple years back in 2014. She is a games academic with industry experience so she’s seen both sides of the coin and has also seen me at my best and worst. She is the perfect person to talk to about a shitty review because she understands, can relate, and (MOST IMPORTANT) is discrete. 

Here’s the part of this blog post that makes me hesitate pushing that post button. Look, let’s be real. We all complain from time-to-time about all sorts of stuff. Even if you have your absolute dream job and are happy 99.9% of the time, there is still going to be that .01% of yuck that you have to deal with and having friends you can talk to about it makes life more bearable. Especially if you are an extrovert like me that needs to process things with other people. 

So it seems like everyone complains about their job from time-to-time but everyone also agrees that complaining about work is unprofessional. Here’s my argument: there is a professional way to complain about your profession. To be professional about your unprofessional behavior consider the following components to a successful whinge session: time, place and people. Make sure you are complaining at the right time (AFTER you have had time to process the good and bad parts of the feedback); at the right place (NOT at a venue where concerned parties might overhear); and with the right people (NOT those that might fuel the gossip engine or look down on you/your work/school/journal/conference as a result).

Here’s a handy list (because I love lists!) of dos and don’ts to make your complaining profesh:

Don’t make yourself (or your company, family, friends, teachers, etc) look bad by complaining about something in public. If you are at a restaurant, assume the table next to you knows the editor of the journal you want to complain about. If you are on public transit, assume the person next to you is on the institutional review board for your university and will take offense if they overhear you calling their colleagues fools for rejecting your study. This includes the internet! Please, for all of us, think twice before tweeting.

Don’t complain to the first person you see immediately after getting feedback. I’m very guilty of walking into a co-worker’s office and blowing up about some turd of a review that’s just plopped into my inbox. Learn from my fails and just don’t. Please? Give yourself time to gain perspective and take the good with the bad before you start complaining. 

Don’t exaggerate the situation for extra sympathy. “The reviewer actually said you are worse at writing than an untrained monkey?! What journal was this again? I never want to submit there!” Bad reviews are bad enough. Exaggerations and embellishments often drift into accusations about wrong-doings and abusive behaviour. Abusive or unprofessional behaviour should be taken extremely seriously. If the feedback was abusive- which while rare does unfortunately happen from time-to-time- then the appropriate authorities need to be made aware. 

Do call a trusted friend on the phone from the privacy of your own home/room/office. You should trust this friend to not be a gossip or explicitly ask them not to share the information contained in your rant.

Do pat a doggo or a kitty. You can also rant to them all ya want. They are great listeners. 

Do report reviews/reviewers who are abusive. As a counter to the above point about not exaggerating feedback, it is very important to accurately report abusive reviews to the appropriate authorities. If it is a journal, look up the editor’s contact information and send them an email with the offending review attached. If it is a conference, contact the content chair and inform them. If it is a supervisor/manager giving inappropriate feedback in a verbal performance review take your notes (hooray for writing stuff down!) to their direct supervisor or human resources manager and file a formal complaint.

There. That’s how I cope with bad reviews of my work. If you have anything to add to the list or if you’d like to give me a bad review on my review of bad reviews, then please do! I love getting conversations started and talking about the stuff in academia which is oh so rarely written down. 

Until next time (I have a soap box to stand on),


Module Guide for Introduction to Game Studies

I recently discovered that my module guides remain my intellectual property- meaning I can freely share them. So, I am putting here my week-by-weeks with suggested readings for Game Studies 1: Introduction to Game Studies (1st year Game Design BA module for our degree programme here at Brunel). This module has been designed to introduce first year university students from a variety of backgrounds and interests to Game Studies as part of their overall Game Design undergraduate degree.

This is nearly a copy-paste from this year’s guides, but I have tried to provide context where possible. A quick glance will show that the reading list consists of nearly 100% texts which can be classified as Game Studies, but the lectures themselves draw on other theories and readings from interdisciplinary sources to give a more well-rounded approach to the field.

Please feel free to use as much or as little of these guides as you want. Likewise, I am open to feedback. If any of you reading this teach a similar class, I’d love to have a cup of coffee (or virtual coffee) and a chat to see what has worked for you and what hasn’t. Next week I’ll post Game Studies 3: Socio-Cultural Contexts (3rd year Game Design BA module).

Game Studies 1: Introduction to Game Studies

Introduction, aims, background

  • Introduce students to foundational concepts, themes and theories from within the field of Games Studies.
  • Study games and play using three perspectives: philosophy; media and cultural studies; and socio-cultural studies.
  • Develop understanding of foundational theories relating to the study of games and develop critical and analytical skills in the application of these theories to specific examples of games.

Methods of Teaching

  • The module will follow the pattern of an interactive seminar (3 hours) which will include short lectures combined with exercises and activities aimed at generating discussion through critical thinking.
  • Students will be required to work in small groups during class time to discuss and critique academic studies of games and apply knowledge learned in class and through reading to specific examples.
  • Formative assessment will take the form of oral feedback given during seminars. Summative assessment will take the form of a presentation and an essay.
Week 1


Introduction to module and topic

This introductory lecture will go over the module aims, goals, assessments and expectations. It is an important opportunity to discuss the aim and scope of the class and to situate it within larger contexts of not only the degree programme, but also the importance of studying games as a serious academic endeavour. This class will also cover essential skills needed to do well in the module, such as how to breakdown and read dense academic texts.

Essential Reading:

  • Mäyrä, F. 2008. An Introduction to Game Studies. Sage: London. Chapter 1: Introduction: What is game studies? Pages 1-12.

Seminar Questions:

The seminar this week will be a chance for us to get to know each other better.

Week 3


What is a game?

This week begins the core content of the class by looking at precisely what a game is. Although it may seem self-evident, this class will use academic research to breakdown the basic components of what a game is, how it is different than play, and why such definitions matter.

Essential Reading:

  • Juul, J. 2005. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. MIT Press: Cambridge. Chapter 2.

Secondary Readings:

  • Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. 2006. Rules of Play. MIT Press: Cambridge. Unit One 28-116.
  • Suits, B. 1990. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Godine/Nonpariel Books. Chapter 3.
  • Atkins, B. 2003. More than a Game. Manchester University Press: Manchester. Chapter 1.

 Seminar Questions:

  1. What is a game? What are the key components of a game?
  2. What are the roles of rules in games?
  3. How does the game industry shape what we might consider a game?
  4. Is Second Life a game? Are The Sims a game? Why or why not?
Week 5


Ludology and narratology

Most games have a narrative, but are they something more? Can games be studied like books? Or like films? Are they something else entirely? This week resurrects an old ‘debate’ within the field, but focuses on the importance of epistemology when approaching the study of games.

Essential Reading:

  • Atkins, B. 2003. More Than a Game. University of Manchester Press: Manchester. Chapter 1.

Secondary Readings:

  • Aarseth, E. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Chapter 2.
  • Wolf, M. 2001. ‘Narrative in the videogame’ in Mark JP Wolf (ed.) The Medium of the Videogame. Texas University Press: Austin.
  • Frasca, G. 2003. ‘Ludologists Love Stories Too: Notes from a debate that never took place’. Proceedings of DiGRA 2003. Accessed from:

Seminar Questions:

  1. In your opinion, which game has the best storyline? Why?
  2. Which game has the worst storyline and why?
  3. Do all games tell stories?
  4. What is the relationship between narrative and play?
  5. Which side would you take in the narratology vs. ludology debate?
Week 7


Week 8


Games and art

This week’s primary reading is a short editorial piece from film critic Roger Ebert. He infamously claimed, and received much backlash for, the comment ‘video games can never be art’. Games Studies can answer his editorial with a philosophical debate about the nature of art and media. To engage with this debate, I encourage you to read one or more of the secondary readings in addition to the primary reading.

Essential Reading:

Secondary Readings:

Seminar Questions:

  1. According to Roger Ebert, why aren’t video games art?
  2. Do you agree with his position?
  3. What is art?
  4. What’s an example of a video game you would consider to be art?
Week 10


Games and Music

Connecting to the previous discussions of the relationship video games have to other media and the arts, this week focuses on video games and music. We will focus on how the music of games contributes to their overall design and the overall affect felt by players. The role of the industry, and of convergence with other types of popular media, will also be discussed.

Essential Reading:

 Secondary Readings:

  • Collins, K. 2008. Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. Chapter 1.
  • Whalen, Z. 2004. ‘Play Along: An approach to videogame music’. The International Journal of Computer Game Research. 4(1). Accessed from:

Seminar Questions:

  1. What does music contribute to the design of video games?
  2. What about sound effects?
  3. What role does convergence play in the incorporation of popular music into video games?
  4.  How might we study music in games?
  5. How might we explain real-world symphonies playing video game theme songs?
Week 12 Presentations

We will spend the full day on presentations, so be sure to attend and be sure to support your peers! The presentations are worth 40% of total mark and are described in depth at the end of this document.

Weeks 14-16 Christmas Break
Week 18 Games and fandom

This class will serve as an introduction to studies of player communities by looking at the most visible groups of players- fans. Although there are many ways to define, categorise, and talk about players, looking at groups of fans and fan cultures is useful in thinking about games as a participatory culture in multiple ways.

Essential Reading:

  • Jenkins, H. 2006. Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Essays on Participatory Culture.  New York University Press, Chapter 2.

Secondary Readings:

  • Lamerichs, N. (2011). Stranger than Fiction: Fan Identity in Cosplay. Transformative Work and Cultures, 7.
  • Lamerichs, N. 2015. ‘Express Yourself: An affective analysis of game cosplayers’. Game Love: Essays on Play and Affection. MacFarland: Jefferson, North Carolina.
  • Burn, A. 2006. ‘Reworking the Text: Online Fandom’ in Carr, D.; Buckingham, D.; Burn, A.; Schott, G. (eds) Computer Games: Texts, Narrative, and Play. Polity Press.

Seminar Questions:

1.       What does it mean to be a ‘textual poacher’?

2.       What fan practices does Jenkins discuss in the chapter?

3.       Why should we study fans of games?

4.       Have you ever been to a fan convention? Have you ever cosplayed?

Week 20 Military and games

This week will be spent looking at the history of videogames and their (often close) ties to the military. From strategic war board games to the use of military technology to develop games, this week will highlight the close relationship between the military and games and raise questions about possible effects this might have on their design (and resulting controversies!).

Essential Reading:

  • Lukas, S. 2010. ‘Behind the Barrel’: Reading the Video Game Gun’, In Huntemann, N. and Payne, T. (eds.) Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games. Routledge: New York. Pp. 75-103.

Secondary Readings:

  • Martino, J. 2012. ‘Video Games and the Militarisation of Society: Towards a Theoretical and Conceptual Framework’, International Federation for Information Processing, 386. Pp.264-273.
  • Gagnon, F. 2010. ‘Invading Your Hearts and Minds: Call of Duty and the (Re)Writing of Militarism in US Digital Games and Popular Culture’, European Journal of American Studies, 5(3).
  • Cornell, TJ and Allen, TB 2002. War and Games. Boydell Press: Rochester, NY. Chapter 1.

Seminar Questions:

  1. How does Lukas compare Windows 95 Halloween party with the Columbine shooting?
  2. According to the chapter, what do guns symbolise?
  3. How is the culture of online competitive and team gaming like the military?
  4. How are videogames themed and why does this matter?
  5. How do games like America’s Army blur the line between games and reality?
Week 23 Identity and avatars

A guest lecture from Dr. Kelly Boudreau.

Essential Reading:

  • Waggoner, Z. 2009. Videogames, Avatars, and Identity: A brief history (pp. 3-20). In My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers.

Secondary Readings:

  • Gee, J.P. 2003. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Palgrave: Basingstoke. Chapter 3.
  • Tronstad, R. (2008). Character identification in World of Warcraft: The relationship between capacity and appearance. In Hilde G. Corneliussen & Jill Walker Rettberg (Eds.), Digital culture, play, and identity: A World of Warcraft reader (pp 249-264). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Seminar Questions:

  1. What are the different types of identity discussed in the readings?
  2. How does freedom of avatar creation affect gameplay?
  3. What type(s) of identity can occur in single-player games (narrative driven)?
  4. What possible issues arise when thinking about avatars and identity in video games?
Week 25 Violence and games

This is our last session with new content, but there is a review session in week 30. To round out the course, we will look at controversies about content in games- namely the violence debate. We consider both sides of the debate and think critically about the impact moral and media panics have on the industry.

Essential Reading:

  • Faltin, K. 2015. ‘Analysing Game Controversies: A Historical Approach to Moral Panics and Digital Games’ in Mortensen, T., Linderoth, J. and Brown, AML 2015. The Dark Side of Gameplay. Routledge: London.

Secondary Readings:

  • Bryce, J. and Rutter, J. 2006, ‘Digital Games and the Violence Debate’ in Understanding Digital Games, London: Sage.
  • Ferguson, C. 2013, ‘Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association’, American Psychological Association, 68(2), pp. 57-74.
  • Barker, M. and Petley, J. (eds.) 2001, Ill Effects: the media/violence debate, New York: Routledge.
  • Karlsen, F. 2014. ‘Analysing the History of Game Controversies’, Conference Proceedings of Digital Game Research Association Conference 2014. Accessed here:

Seminar Questions:

  1. How do debates about violent videogames effect the regulation of games?
  2. What role do moral panics play in such controversies?
  3. How have violent games affected statistics of violent crimes, according to the reading?
  4. Is violence still a controversial topic in videogames?
Week 30 Review


All the material covered this term will be reviewed in our final week. This is a good opportunity to ask questions and clarify understandings before the essay is due.