Stroking: critisism sandwiched between compliments

Sandwich Back to opinions

Some students wrote to me the other day for help with a colleague at Heriot-Watt. They needed more worked examples in his lectures but couldn’t find the words to ask him. How to communicate their needs firmly but constructively? I told them about stroking.

To stroke is to sandwich constructive critisism between two compliments. I was taught this as a technical term by Professor Cowan during a PGCAP training lecture on effective feedback — more on that shortly. As a public service I offer the following stroking template to all you students out there. Feel free to tailor it to your specific needs:

Dear Professor Branestawm,
(First compliment.)
We are now half-way through your Unworkable Gadgets course. We have found it very stimulating.
(Constructive critisism.)
We’re a bit at sea with some of the more mathematical material. It would help if you could do some worked examples on the board.
(Second compliment.)
We’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for telling us about unworkable gadgets; we’ve heard a lot about them from our undergraduate colleagues over the past two years and we had been looking forward to learning the material.

That’s stroking. Enjoy.


Some say that this kind of thing is unnecessary, people should be ‘professional’.

Nonsense. Professionals get emotionally invested in what they do and suffer a stress reaction at the thought that their investment was wasted. It’s as natural as worrying about missing the bus to work.

Stressed people are not good listeners, so you have to calm them down before and after. In any case — if you care enough to write, then what they’re doing is something you care about. Why not mention that?

A story

The same lecture that Professor Cowan taught me the word ‘stroking’ was the last lecture he ever gave in my course. The story why is itself a sorry tale of inadequate stroking.

The organisers of PGCAP are really big on feedback sheets, and they like to try out different formats. The feedback sheet for Professor Cowan’s lecture on effective feedback was a bunch of words scattered in faux random style on a sheet of A4 paper. You were supposed to highlight the words that (for you) applied to the talk.

Professor Cowan likes to tell real-life stories to illustrate his points, and the best ones tend to come round again. I think repetition in teaching is good, within reason, but some of my fellow students disagreed. One story, somebody said, should appear at most once. An ‘anti-repeated-story’ movement started in the class, but the feedback sheets only had words like ‘inspiring‘, ‘boring’, ‘repetitive’. They all highlighted ‘repetitive’ and ‘boring’. (I had a bad feeling about the whole thing and left mine blank.)

When Professor Cowan got his feedback sheets, he threw a complete wobbly — that’s English schoolboy slang for ‘a tantrum’, but without quite the same negative connotations. He wrote an e-mail expressing his fed-uppedness and swore never to teach us again. If we all found him so repetitive and boring, he said, then he wasn’t going to take the trouble to come in to lecture to us any more. Pity, but I don’t really blame him. I think that it was silly feedback, and an even sillier feedback sheet.

But why did it put Professor Cowan off the whole class for life? No stroking.

Another story

I knew about stroking before I learnt the technical term: I once got the sharp end of the non-stroking stick myself. I shan’t forget the experience.

I’ve spent time in several academic departments. On the very last day of one of my visits, a senior member of the department called me into his office. From behind his desk he read to me an itemised list of my faults, and how I had failed to live up to the department’s expectations. Then he invited me to leave (without seeing me to the door).

This was inappropriate at many levels. Part of it was a deliberate lack of stroking, and I believe I saw glints of enjoyment in his eyes at my discomfort. I fear that this is quite common and probably not just in academia: lack of stroking is often, I suspect, workplace bullying masquerading as faux professionalism.

I try to keep stroking. I believe it’s about more than being nice: it’s the mark of a pro.