epilogue – on cat herding

Authorship on collaborative projects often raises dirty conversations, sometimes unspoken, about who gets credit for what. When we first planned to write Dirty Methods, we discussed if there would be a ‘project lead.’ In a group of (at the time) eight authors, it seemed necessary to have one designated leader to keep everyone on track. One person to stoke the fire. One ring to rule them all. That’s usually how these things work: there is a lead author or corresponding author or power-hungry author (the last one is a half-joke). In the spirit of dirtiness, we wanted to resist such conventions of academic writing. We thought about ways of signaling collective authorship: names listed alphabetically; a rotating disc where no one author’s name could appear first in a list; one pseudonym that combined all our initials (ZAMBLAMS!). Our text became a mixture of all of our voices, with pauses for individual stories to model the openness embedded in our concept of dirty methods. But regardless of these various means of denoting collective authorship, we also needed to put it into practice by rotating the role of lead author.

Because we all knew each other well by the point when we started working on this project, it made sense to take turns being what we flippantly designated the ‘cat herder’ (it stuck). The idea was that each month, a different author would volunteer to be the cat herder, so we could work with everyone’s schedules. The cat herder also had a ‘switch hitter,’ someone to call in if that month unexpectedly became too swamped with other stuff (as it often does). These terms were chosen on the fly but they stuck and became meaningful. They acknowledged the care work that is part of managing people — the cat herder would check in with everyone to see how they were doing, to offer support and humour, in addition to organizing video conferences and priority lists of writing tasks. The switch hitter was there to care for the cat herder and take over if necessary. 

Herding cats suggests a ridiculous if not impossibly absurd endeavour, and a switch hitter on the sidelines holding a baseball bat at the ready perhaps wasn’t the best way to represent someone meant to help with cat herding. Despite the mixed metaphors, it made sense to have these more approachable terms as part of the process of organizing the project. They also brought levity that helped to mitigate the time-sucking drudgery that can accompany the invisible organizational roles behind a written work and make them not only visible but part of our shared whimsy.

While the monthly cat herder would sometimes end up buried under their own work and feel like they had not done enough, in practice no one ever did call on the switch hitter for anything other than minor support tasks. We found ourselves still conditioned to ‘do it all’ even when we had intentionally set up a system with a release valve. Some things are not so easily changed after all. 

And as with the dirty business of all collaborative work (recalling group work as undergraduate students, perhaps), in practice some cat herders shepherded us more often than others. But in the case of a collective like this one, these differential forms of engagement were seen as a way of caring for each other across rough patches in our academic and non-academic lives, rather than the grounds for conversations about percentages of authorship credit. 

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