background image


This section describes the captioning activity and study design. The video in this section is a brief introduction to the captioning project and an enactment of student responses from the trial activity. The video is intended not only for the scholars reading this article but also for classroom use by anyone who might use this activity with their own students. An analysis of the student responses presented in the video is available under the Discussion node of this webtext.

The Study

In the classroom experiment featured in this webtext, I probed student approaches to non-standard English by having them engage in writing their own closed captions for a film with non-prestige dialect and reflecting on that experience. The questions explored through this experiment were: How do students engage with textual representation of non-standard English? What sorts of flexibility or standardizing tendencies do they demonstrate in their representations of language? What resources do they draw on to understand and represent spoken language? What kind of flexibility do they demonstrate or describe in engaging with language difference? Building on the results of this classroom activity, this webtext supports both a theoretical view of all language users as complex translingual negotiators and a practical application of this view for mono- and multilingual students (and teachers) in the writing classroom.

Initial Considerations

While this activity and study were designed to trouble students' relationship to an assumed monolingual English Only standard, it ironically did not initially trouble their (my) relationship to an assumed "able-bodied" standard in communications and classrooms.  As the reviewers of this article helped us to remember, though, closed captioning of course evokes conversations in disability studies as well. These conversations point to the ways we assume an able-bodied student population in our classrooms and render disability invisible.  At the same time, as Sean Zdenek (2011) argued in a recent article in Disability Studies Quarterly, "We do a disservice to all of our students and users when we assume that captions and other accommodations can only benefit people who are disabled (if we consider accessibility at all)" (n.p). Zdenek argued for a rhetorical approach to closed captioning that is very much in the spirit of the present webtext and previous Currents article, framing captioning quality in terms of how readers and viewers make meaning. This webtext answers Zdenek's call to attend to captioning as a culturally significant rhetorical activity, and the classroom activity herein can be mobilized to raise awareness of able-bodiedness as well as English Only monolingualism. As this activity draws out and relies on difference in the classroom, hearing impaired students could bring particularly valuable insights to the discussions of captioning in the classroom.

This webtext encourages others to use Zdenek and other disabilities studies scholarship to further explore the intersections of closed captioning and language difference in their scholarship and teaching. I see the projects of translingualism and disabilities studies as usefully aligning in their attention to our assumptions about our student body (and students' bodies) and am excited about the further development of these scholarly affinities. More work needs to be done on this front, which will be discussed at greater length in the conclusion.

Captioning in the Classroom: Methods

This in-class activity draws on the multimodal affordances of closed captioning as one way to get students to think about and engage with language variation. The research design was an informal case study of 17 college students—9 females and 8 males—enrolled in my Composition 101 class at the University of Louisville. They were all under the age of 25 and all self-classified as native speakers of English. The students were asked to view a scene from the film Raising Arizona (Coen & Coen, 1987) that featured non-standard English speech. The texts analyzed in this section include the students' own captions of the film, their guided reflections on the process, and their responses to an informal survey about language representation following the activity.

To caption the film, students watched the selected scene three times: the first time through, they were directed to primarily listen; the second time they were asked to type a representation of what they were hearing, as though they were creating closed captions; and the third time they had the opportunity to listen again and correct or add to their captions.

After students had typed their captions into Blackboard Discussion Board and submitted them, the class reviewed a selection of student captions to notice differences in the representations. Students were asked to look at other classmates' captions on their own computers to compare them to their own captions. Then the class viewed the scene again with the official closed captions (encoded on the DVD) displayed, again noticing differences and discussing the impact of those differences on the viewing experience. Following the captioning, students wrote a brief response to the following prompt: What do you do if you can't understand what they're saying? How do you represent that? Can you still get meaning? What difference do these choice make? What resources (strategies, past experiences, knowledges, etc.) do you draw on to caption these scenes, to figure them out?

Students then viewed a brief scene from Inglourious Basterds (Lawrence & Tarantino, 2009), in which both French and German are spoken but only the French is subtitled. Students led a brief discussion about the effect that choice seemed to have on their viewing of the film.

Finally, students completed a survey (see below) that further probed their experience with this activity and their dispositions towards language difference. It was expected that students would demonstrate some sense of flexibility in their language interactions by recognizing the validity of different non-standard representations of language in this context but would perhaps express frustration or confusion about why this is relevant to them. The rhetorical consequences of the choice to standardize speech into Edited American English, or not, were probed in the discussion.

Rank your agreement with the following statements according to a 5-point Likert scale, with 5 indicating "Strongly agree" and 1 indicating "Strongly disagree":
1. This activity was enjoyable.
2. This activity made me notice or think about something interesting.
3. I get frustrated when I hear people talking with a non-native accent.
4. Instructors should speak perfect standard English before they are allowed to teach.
5. If I have an instructor who is a non-native English speaker, it is my responsibility to understand them.
6. If someone speaks with an accent they probably write with an accent.
7. This exercise will help me with my future writing.

What was the point of this exercise?
Was there anything interesting that this activity made you think about? If so, what?
Did this make you think anything new or different about English or language? How so?

play icon
record icon
pause icon
stop icon
eject icon