Captioning Hypnotoad—A Quest That Helped Define a Field: An Interview with Sean Zdenek
One of the most common and consistent ways that many educators, administrators, or students first encounter captioning is in relation with accessibility. Whether face-to-face or online, D/deaf, hard-of-hearing, and disabled students have the legal right to request captioning in order to facilitate their access, education, and understanding. (Readers new to captioning and/or disability studies and uses of the term disabled might want to explore Lennard Davis's  The Disability Studies Reader or one of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's informative, detailed, and thorough books about disability [1997, 2009; Snyder, Brueggemann, & Garland-Thompson, 2002].)
Access for students in a classroom setting may take place in the form of closed captioning with pre-recorded video through written text (usually at the bottom of the screen), or live captioning, where all the spoken dialogue in a class is typed up and projected on either a screen or device for the intended user. The core goal in using captioning is to enable disabled users to have equal access to audible information, be that speech or nonspeech information. When combined with most hearing users' limited exposure to captions—in many cases, these users have been exposed primarily to subtitles and conflate closed captions with subtitles—there is a consistent perception that captions exist only or primarily to support and provide access to the disabled. Similarly, and unfortunately, as Sean Zdenek (2014) pointed out in "More than Mere Transcription," users who are unfamiliar with captions often regard captions, particularly closed captions, as being limited to just what people say as opposed to all the meaningful sounds, such as doors shutting, dogs barking, or sarcasm.
One of this interview's goals is to explore and present some of the complexities and facets of closed captioning in order to support greater understanding of captioning—both in terms of caption users as well as application and research. This interview focuses on Zdenek's work. For 10 years, Zdenek has focused his research efforts on examining the closed captioning of popular culture media (i.e., captioning of post-production videos) through the lenses of rhetoric and accessibility.
Caption studies, the emerging field which Zdenek is helping to develop, is much like technical communication and usability: Caption studies bridges multiple other, more mature fields. While some initial work on closed captioning has been done in technical communication and composition, including work by Zdenek (2012, 2014, 2015), Amy Lueck (2013), Nicole Snell (2012), and Janine Butler (2016), that work is still quite limited in quantity. Colleagues researching captions through lenses of automated speech recognition (Hori & Furui, 2000; Saraclar, Riley, Bocchieri, & Goffin, 2002; Wactlar, Kanade, Smith, & Stevens, 1996; Wald, 2006), literacy (Davey & Parkhill, 2012; Gernsbacher, 2015; Gowhary, Pourhalashi, Jamalinesari, & Azizifar, 2015; Parkhill & Davey, 2014), and second language learning (Hsu, Hwang, Chang, & Chang, 2013; Markham, 1999; Mayer, Lee, & Peebles, 2014; Winke, Gass, & Sydorenko, 2013) have years, if not decades, more experience in researching and publishing on closed captions.
Caption studies, including Zdenek's work, brings a different but vitally important emphasis to the fore, something which technical communication, usability, accessibility, and composition researchers and practitioners have developed over decades of practice: emphases on meaning construction and user experience. Fortunately, current researchers appear equally interested in understanding how users engage with captions and create meaning. Thus the research is centered, and can be used to foster engagement with and authorship of closed captions (Butler, 2016; Lueck, 2013).
Caption studies is a field akin to usability and accessibility in that there are no clear lines and few clear definitions of where the field starts and ends. Captioning's role in and relationship with universal design becomes more obvious once we take into account technologies such as voice recognition and the plethora of platforms of delivery for visual media (i.e., live or streaming video on a diverse array of devices). It should be noted that mobile devices also enhance accessibility because instead of having to look at a screen on a wall in order to follow live captions, or wait for live events to be captioned after the fact, users can access events immediately and see live captions for presentations on their mobile devices—so long as live captioning is provided.
This interview is presented in several sections to support greater understanding of both captioning in general and caption studies specifically. Part of the caption studies page focuses the conversation on the ongoing emergence of caption studies as a field. Whether caption studies will fully develop into a recognized field as definitive as technical communication or usability or remain an interdisciplinary or interstitial research emphasis nobody knows; hopefully, though, this webtext helps to explore some of that territory. The caption studies page also explores core components of Zdenek's (2015) framing of caption studies in his book, Reading Sounds. Two more pages focus on his research into captions: both his research practice and then modeling of his research for students or others interested in caption studies. Considering how new a field caption studies is, the purpose here is to provide both a brief introduction to how Zdenek is currently framing and theorizing an approach to caption studies as well as to examine his tools, units of examination, and basic methods. As becomes clear, Zdenek has employed multiple rhetorical and media research methods in his approach. Ideally, this will encourage and inspire other academics, especially the praxis-oriented Kairos readership, to dabble in either researching or creating closed captions. Zdenek addresses this in part in the final section: future directions.
Reading Sounds is an important model for researchers looking to or considering researching captions and captioning. Zdenek’s book helps build an understanding of a specific digital literacy: closed captioning. Watching closed captions is more than just reading speech or sounds. Captioning literacy is signified in part by users' ability to articulate and discuss their experience with captions and how it impacts their experience and comprehension of the material.
Notable about Zdenek’s work, not only as an author but also as a presenter and educator, is his deep investment in closed captioning. He clearly cares. This trait is consistent in this nascent field, and it is akin to the passion one finds both in usability studies, for making sure that user concerns are not just understood but employed to inform design, and in accessibility studies, for assuring the greatest access for all users. This passion makes for a field that is not just exciting but is driven to work towards understanding and fostering equivalent access to video and live communication.
Caption studies is where research and activism meet. In some ways it is akin to action research, where teachers conduct research in their own classroom. Only instead of working in a classroom, captioner researchers can work, analyze, and engage with closed captions and their accuracy, meaning, and rhetorical impact in our own living room, office, or mobile device. With video's ubiquity on the Internet, captions are—or should be—everywhere.
– Gregory Zobel