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POV in Practice: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Natalia (whose public scholarship I wrote about earlier this year, and who will be one of my podcast’s first guests starting early next year) has two POVs: one for her long-form public scholarship, and one for the podcast she co-hosts (Past Present) and her Twitter account, @nataliapetrzela.

For public researchers, having two POVs is now as common as athleisure. But problems arise when you use one POV (e.g., an advocacy Twitter or podcast POV) in a place or for an audience where you’ve been using a more dispassionate POV, like a long-form analysis in The Atlantic.

Natalia is very good about keeping those POVs distinct, yet linked by her identity as a historian of contemporary American politics and culture:

One more time: let’s recall my four POV axes:

  1. Are You From the Past or the Future?
  2. Are You an Advocate, or are You Dispassionate?
  3. Are You a Fox (always knitting together lots of disparate ideas) or a Hedgehog (jamming on one big idea)?
  4. Do You Stress Risk and Agency, or Trends and Context?

On Past Present and on Twitter, Natalia is a lefty-liberal advocate whose analysis is rooted in the past. On the hedgehog-fox spectrum, here she plays a fox — she and her podcast cohosts talk about an amazing range of issues. (The week I’m writing this, for instance, the latest episode of Past Present discusses Puerto Rico’s new ban on cockfighting, doping in international sporting competitions, and the comeback of ornate fonts). So I’ve made her POV here blue to indicate “fox” about ideas. It’s a rectangle (instead of a circle) because her position on the fourth axis skews hard toward stressing trends and context (rectangle) instead of risk and agency (circle).

When writing opinion-analysis for elite media, Natalia’s POV is in the brown rectangle — still a historian, but here much more dispassionate instead of advocate, and much more of a hedgehog (hence the brown rather than the blue). In her public scholarship writing, she tends to reach back a little more into the past, shedding light mostly on the present and a little less forward into the future. And this works well for both a) the expectations of the outlets she’s writing for, which are asking her to illuminate a current trend through her historian expertise; and b) her audiences here, which might not share her political positions as automatically as those for Past Present and her Twitter account. If she were to write as Twitter Natalia, it might confuse or alienate those audiences — not to mention getting her draft sent back to her for rewrite. (Whether the confusing/alienating aspect is a good thing or not depends on your goals as a public scholar.)

It helps to be conscious of how you’re juggling these POVs, and for what ends.

It helps to understand that your POV is a compact with a specific community/audience, and that one that might be found comforting by some might be experienced as full of unnecessary friction by another.

It helps to understand when you’re trying to construct a POV with an audience you might not fully yet understand.

Natalia is still Natalia in both POVs; she hasn’t traded in her authenticity to embody one or the other. She’s still a historian and a fitness expert — those are foundational to her identity. What she chooses to bring forward in a POV depends on what she’s trying to accomplish in her public scholarship and with whom.