It’s Black Friday.
No, this isn’t the shopping frenzy after Thanksgiving day. This is the end-of-semester evaluation of the Computer Science Ph.D. students. All of the faculty involved in advising Ph.D. students in our program gather together for a full day meeting, to discuss in detail the progress of each student — about 160 of them, more or less. As a group, we write a letter to each student, giving our evaluation of their progress through the program. In parallel, the students have a big all-day party. Perhaps out of guilt or a need to keep the faculty happy, the students provide the faculty with a huge bucket of beer. (This is not a joke! ;-)
Black Friday is truly one of the great traditions of the Computer Science Department. It has been copied by all of the other academic units in the School of Computer Science and by departments at other universities. The reason for the name “Black Friday”, besides the fact that it is held on the Friday of finals week, is that some students, um, get kicked out of the program. While an outsider might think that this would be a somber day, in fact it turns out to be a day of celebration. For me, it is the one day each semester where I get to see each student’s face (a photo is projected on the screen) and hear the relevant faculty brag about each student’s accomplishments.
Perhaps the best explanation of why Black Friday is great was given by Jeannette Wing. Printed with her permission, here is her essay:
The Importance of Black Friday
by Jeannette M. Wing
I. Black Friday is for the students.
It is our only means of evaluating them. It is their only official feedback from the department on their progress.
Students do not have oral exams, written exams, or qualifying exams. They get only Black Friday letters. Their standing in the program is determined solely by our Black Friday meetings.
Writing Black Friday letters is also a way for us to personalize the feedback we give each student. This individual attention our students receive is what makes Carnegie Mellon Computer Science special. Current and past students surveyed said that Black Friday was the #1 feature of our Ph.D. program that should not change.
II. Black Friday is for the faculty too.
It is a way for us to calibrate our standards across areas.
It is a way for us to ensure consistency in evaluating our students.
It is a way for us to share our values.
Black Friday is a good time to share advice with each other on how to advise students, especially those who are free-spirited or those who are in trouble.
Black Friday is a good occasion to learn about our students, not just what research they are doing but also their outside interests and personality traits. It is a good occasion to learn about each other’s research, through what our students do. It is a good occasion to meet each other, some of whom we would never see otherwise.
It is a fantastic opportunity to learn about departmental culture. The inside scoop. How your fellow colleagues think. Who are the nice guys. Who are the curmudgeons.
The time that would go into creating, conducting, and administering qualifying exams goes instead to attending Black Friday meetings.
It is the only official meeting that faculty are required to attend.
– Jeannette Wing
Peter Lee @ December 14, 2007