Captioning Hypnotoad—A Quest That Helped Define a Field: An Interview with Sean Zdenek
Given Sean Zdenek's lengthy experience in working with closed captions, I hoped to understand what a longitudinal research approach could help bring to caption studies as well as how he remained engaged. I thought this might help others considering researching the field as well as help the reader understand some of Zdenek's other points in the interview.
[gz] You've been researching and working on closed captions for over ten years. What keeps you engaged?
[SZ] Captioning continues to fascinate and motivate me for a number of reasons. First, access remains one of the crucial issues of the digital age. Everyone deserves quality access to content regardless of hearing ability. Awareness continues to be low in some important arenas of daily life (e.g., the lack of TV captioning enabled in restaurants and bars). Captioning is also still confused with simple or machine transcription. Before captioning was a topic of research for me, it was (and continues to be) a daily routine of home life for our family. We turned on captions in the late 1990s when we found out our younger son was born with a profound hearing loss in both ears. We watched everything with captioning and at some point started taking the extra step to turn DVD captions on even when our kids were out of the room. Very slowly, over the course of a decade, it began to dawn on me that there were some pretty interesting things happening with the captions in terms of meaning, experience, and mode shifting. I also became hooked on captions, relying on them to provide a level of access I couldn't achieve easily through listening alone. When I turned to the research literature on closed captioning, I noted a gap in our understanding of the rhetorical nature of captioning and a need for a humanistic approach. While rhetoricians have studied texts of all kinds, they had not at that time studied captioning in any sustained way.
Today, I continue to be passionate about accessibility and captioning in particular. Honestly, I'm still trying to work a few things out. I continue to catalogue new examples, follow online discussions, and develop new ideas. I continue to advocate for quality captioning, particularly on Twitter and through new blog posts. As a way to increase awareness among the public, I am interested in how analyses of captioning can be folded into film and pop culture studies. For example, discussions of the latest Star Wars film might include an analysis of the caption layer. My recent blog post on BB-8, which catalogs and analyzes all 78 nonspeech captions attributed to the droid, attempts to insert caption studies into the public's fascination with Star Wars and pop culture more broadly. In this way, I want to show how captioning can be an important and compelling source of meaning that is typically overlooked in the mainstream. (What also becomes apparent, I hope, is that tracking recurrent nonspeech sounds in a single movie is a skill that starts with a set of tools for extracting a complete caption track.) Another example: My recent blog post on whether sirens always wail in closed captioning was a response to a tweet I came across:
To the people who write closed captioning…— Rock⚡God (@redpawn3) December 26, 2015
Is there ever a time the police sirens are going off but not wailing?
With my small corpus of caption files, I was able to run a number of simple searches on siren and wailing sounds/captions to answer this Twitter user's question. Finally, my interest in kinetic or animated captioning was piqued by a suggestion on one of the captioning mailing lists to check out the innovative English subtitles on Night Watch.
In other words, I strive to be a public intellectual for captioning and access by interacting with the public through open channels and contributing to the public discourse about captioning. What keeps me engaged? There's so much more we need to do to increase awareness and demonstrate the important roles that caption studies can play in the fields of literacy studies, education, accessibility, and pop culture and film studies.
[gz] When you were writing Reading Sounds, were you interested in documenting your research and method and sharing that, or were you—are you—hoping to inspire others to engage in caption studies research? Or…?
[SZ] Reading Sounds is not, for better or worse, a reflection on method but a “meditation on the possibilities and challenges of transforming sound into accessible writing for time-based reading” (2015, pp. xii–xiii). While the book discusses my basic procedure and rhetorical methodology, it stops short of discussing, for example, how to visualize captions in figures and timelines. I was more interested in providing a comprehensive picture of how captions work—which turned out to be a significant undertaking—and less interested in discussing all of the procedures for getting there. For example, I visualize captions on timelines in a number of places in the book—something that's never been done before—but I don't discuss how I arrived at the idea or the tools I used to create the visuals.
Having said that, I hope the procedures I followed can be replicated by others. I hope others are inspired to build on, revise, or critique the framework I've created. In particular, I'd like to see others inspired to develop big data studies and use their own data to create more sophisticated data visualizations using captions as a foundation. In short, I hope my work leads to greater awareness of the importance of accessibility for all.