Byrne seminar teaches students about complaining
Early morning classes, late night studying and crowded buses give Rutgers students plenty of reasons to complain.
They could still learn a thing from “‘It’s Not Fair!’: Complaining in Everyday Conversation,” a Byrne seminar offered to first-year students this semester.
The goal of the course is to give students a research perspective on a topic that is taken for granted: complaining. The course examines complaints in everyday conversation as well as the positive and negative social consequences that go along with complaining. Complaining, a very simple but also very complex phenomenon, is something people do every day, said Galina Bolden, who teaches the class.
“There are a lot of different social outcomes and consequences for how people complain and how people respond to others’ complaints,” said Bolden, an associate professor in the Department of Communication. “We thought it would be a good idea to [teach that] to students.”
Topics on the syllabus include complaining to someone’s face versus behind someone’s back, complaining to service providers and complaining to family members.
Unlike all other Byrne seminars, students meet in a double session period once a week, five times in total, as opposed to once a week for 10 weeks. The professors do not give out grades, but students fail the course if they do not attend every class session and complete each weekly assignment.
Class assignments all revolve around video recordings of naturally occurring social interactions, said Jenny Mandelbaum, a professor in the Department of Communication who also teaches the class.
Students are given a piece of data and are told to make observations about it, Bolden said. Through her own naturalistic observations, Mandelbaum studies how people complain in different environments. One of these settings is the family dinner table.
Many people think of a family setting as a place where people are the most upfront with one another, Mandelbaum said. This turns out not to be the case. People are less overt when it comes to complaining, even in a personal setting.
“You’ll get something like a person at Thanksgiving dinner asking for a spoon for the cold stuffing, rather than just [directly] complaining that the stuffing is cold,” Mandelbaum said. Choosing the proper ways to respond to others’ complaints involves inferential work. Complaints live “in a world of inference,” Mandelbaum said.
Bolden said one of the ways in which people complain about others is through “why” questions. For example, people often ask questions such as, “Why would she do that to me?”
Mandelbaum explained the social factors associated with complaining.
The person being complained to may get into "social" trouble, because if they "agree" with the complaint, they can be seen to be taking sides against the person being complained about, but if they resist the complaint, they may get into social trouble with the person doing the complaining, seeming to side with the person being complained about, Mandelbaum said.
First-year student Allyson Wagner said in a Mycentraljersey.com article that she has learned through this class how to change the wording of what she says to not make it sound like she is complaining.
Complaining is not always a negative thing, Bolden said. People sometimes complain about mishaps as a mechanism for seeking help.
Complaining can also be a way of finding unity with others, Mandelbaum said. For example, students at the bus stop might bond over not fitting onto overcrowded busses and being late to class.
On the first day of the class, the professors asked each student to bring a complaint to the table for discussion, one of their own or one they witnessed.
“At the beginning of the fall semester, first-year students have a lot of complaints, such as how hot is it in the dorms,” Mandelbaum said. “It is a good way for them to connect and build solidarity.”
In a large university that can be intimidating to new students, she said the small 20-person class gives students the opportunity to have their voices heard by others.
She said although the class might seem like it is geared toward communication or psychology majors, at least 50 percent of the class is engineering majors.
“These students have taken the very good advice of choosing a Byrne seminar outside of their areas of interest to challenge their brains a bit,” Mandelbaum said.