By Alison Roth
Jacques Vest took a rather non-traditional path to his career in academia. After growing up in the rural, working-class south, he started and dropped out of college, joined a punk band and spent several years working a variety of manual-labor jobs.
When he was finally ready to, as he says, “take college seriously,” Jacques took that to the extreme. He finished his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Virginia Commonwealth University and then headed to Ann Arbor, Mich. for his Ph.D., which he defended in 2018. He now works as a history lecturer at the University of Michigan.
A U.S. historian with a keen interest in music, Jacques’ dissertation, “Vox Machinae: Phonographs and the Birth of Sonic Modernity, 1877-1930,” explores the origins and evolution of the phonograph, from its invention by Thomas Edison to its popularity as a form of home entertainment in the twentieth century.
The dissertation charts the evolution of modern ideas about recorded sound, paying particular attention to the role of capitalism and mechanical technology in shaping the things people said and believed.
Jacques says he became interested in this topic partly because of his childhood in the rural south. “I approach problems in different ways and have questions that many people don’t,” he said. “Southern writer William Faulkner famously said that in the south, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ There’s real truth to that – it’s very much alive.”
His own experience as a musician was also influential in his research interests. “Sound is my wheelhouse, and I attribute that to my experience in music,” he said. “After I played in rock bands, I got into Americana. I experimented a lot with different instruments and got interested in early recordings. That’s one of the things that led me back to school to make a living immersing myself in this genre.”
As a cultural and intellectual historian, Jacques is preoccupied with the way people write, talk and think, which requires the study of primary sources like news. While doing research for his dissertation at the University of Michigan, he began to delve into ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
While poring over articles from the late 1800s, “I noticed people were saying some strange things,” he said. “The way they were talking about recorded sound was alien to my ears. Subjects didn’t realize they were hearing a recording. They thought the machine was taking in the sound, processing it and playing it back – that’s where the colloquialism ‘talking machine’ came from.”
Through his research, Jacques wanted to explain not only the evolution of the recording industry, but “the phonograph as part of a much larger network of technologies and social relations, and how this machine mapped onto existing gender relations through its introduction as a labor-saving device for typists.”
It was an entire social process that convinced people to start believing that there was a lot of labor going on behind the scenes to conceal the technology – and that, ultimately, they really were listening to the voice of a singer, he said.
Although he did more reading than listening for his dissertation, Jacques is now starting to explore more varied content, including listening to first-generation recordings to understand how people were interacting with the technology itself.
As a faculty member, Jacques said he’s noticed a shifting in the pedagogy of history – instead of just teaching “what happened,” professors are encouraging their students to think more about narratives and the process of creating history. For that, primary sources – including news, archival materials, manuscripts, personal papers, and more – are essential.
Primary sources also essential for students in what he calls the “fake news era” – when information is everywhere, but increasingly difficult to evaluate.
“It’s more critical than ever for students to be able to examine narratives, to develop critical thinking skills,” he said. “We’re in the jungle in terms of information access, and it’s harder and harder to get students to think judiciously.”
In an effort to ensure that information is reliable and vetted, Jacques finds himself both using and assigning ProQuest sources to students often. “ProQuest is an amazing resource,” he said.
Learn more about Jacques Vest’s research on his personal website: https://www.jmartinvest.com/
Alison Roth is the lead business blogger at ProQuest. A former journalist, she enjoys AP style, direct quotes and a good Oxford Comma debate. She was inspired to become a writer many years ago by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, and is still influenced by his style to this day. You can follow Alison on Instagram at @five_speed_