MCS-287: Organization and Theory of Programming Languages, Spring 2001


Throughout your computer science education, you work with programming languages. But in this course, the programming languages themselves will be our object of study. Because any two real programming languages usually differ from one another in several unrelated ways, which makes systematic comparison difficult, we'll instead use a "variations on a theme" approach for our study. However, the principles we learn will be important precisely because they are the same ones that shape real languages -- of the future as well as the past. Our primary tool for understanding languages will be writing programs that operate on other programs, including interpreters that carry out the computations that programs specify.


You should have taken both MCS-178 and MCS-236 prior to this course. I expect that you can program in Scheme and are comfortable with recursion, higher-order programming, data abstraction, and inductive thinking.

Reaching me

All office, phone and schedule information will be maintained in my web page I'll try to keep it updated with any temporary changes to our schedules as well. In short, if my office door is open you are welcome; if I'm busy, we'll set up an appointment. Email and phone calls work, too.

All course handouts will be available through the course page, and some supplementary materials such as code to use as a starting point in assignments may be available there as well. The URL for this course is

Text and readings

The textbook for this course is Essentials of Programming Languages by Friedman, Wand, and Haynes. I will be distributing a newer version of chapter 6 to those with older printings of the book and a chapter 13 (which was not included in the first edition).


In this course, there is an important distinction between lab assignments and lab days. Lab assignments are longer, more coherent programming assignments than the homework assignments. Lab days are class periods we will spend working in the computer lab. However, you may spend lab days working on homework as well as lab assignments. And you will definitely need to work on the lab assignments on your own, not just on the lab days.

Attendance is mandatory for all lab days, unless you have already turned in all homework and lab assignments that have been distributed. I will excuse up to three absences per student, for any reason. Use yours wisely. If you exceed this allowance, I may reduce your course grade by one letter grade.


Students are encouraged to discuss the course, including issues raised by the assignments. However, the solutions to assignments should be individual original work unless otherwise specified. If an assignment makes you realize you don't understand the material, ask a fellow student a question designed to improve your understanding, not one designed to get the assignment done. To do otherwise is to cheat yourself out of understanding, as well as to be intolerably dishonorable.

Any substantive contribution to your solution by another person or taken from a publication should be properly acknowledged in writing. Failure to do so is plagiarism and will necessitate disciplinary action.

The same standards regarding plagiarism apply to team projects as to the work of individuals, except that the author is now the entire team rather than an individual. Anything taken from a source outside the team should be be properly cited.

One additional issue that arises from the team authorship of project reports is that all team members must stand behind all reports bearing their names. All team members have quality assurance responsibility for the entire project. If there is irreconcilable disagreement within the team it is necessary to indicate as much in the reports; this can be in the form of a ``minority opinion'' or ``dissenting opinion'' section where appropriate.

Homework assignment policy

I will assign a collection of homework problems for each chapter. Many of the homework problems will be programming problems, which you should check using a computer. A few will be problems that call for thinking and writing, rather than programming.

You may turn in any homework problem whenever you think you have it solved. I will return it to you as quickly as I can, but normally with only an indication of whether it is acceptable or needs more work. (Sometimes I may give a brief indication of what area it needs more work in.) If a problem needs more work, and you aren't sure what sort of work it still needs, you should treat that as an invitation to come talk with me about it. Once you've done the additional work, you may turn the problem in again. In fact, you may turn in each problem in as many times as you like, until it is marked as acceptable. Your grade for the homework portion of the course will be based on the fraction of homework problems that you eventually did acceptably.

Normally homework problems may be turned in at any time. However, if the class is not being responsible, and it looks like I may be faced with a flood of problems at the end of the semester, I may set due dates (always at least a week in the future). Also, if we would benefit from discussing a homework problem in class, I may issue a ``last call'' for solutions to that problem (again, at least a week in advance).

Unless I indicate that a particular problem must be done individually, you may work on any problem in a group of two or three students. Any solution produced by such a team should be turned in only once, with all team members names on it. Write ``we all contributed fairly to this solution'' and have all team members sign under that statement.

All lab assignments are due at the beginning of class on the day indicated. Late assignments will be penalized by one ``grade notch'' (such as A to A- or A- to B+) for each weekday late or fraction thereof. However, no late assignments will be accepted after graded assignments are handed back.

If you are too sick to complete an assignment on time, you will not be penalized. Simply write ``late due to illness'' at the top of the assignment, sign your name and hand it in. Other circumstances will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Deliverables and grading

We will provide you with a letter or a numeric grade on each homework, project and test. 90% or more of the points, you will earn an A, 85% for an A-, 80% for a B+ and down by 5 percentage points each to the lowest passing grade of 45% for a D. There is no curve.

However, I reserve the right to subjectively adjust your final grade. Please see me if you have any question how you stand. Class participation is not graded; however, it allows you to find and repair the gaps in your understanding before doing the assignments, and thus can dramatically improve your grade. You are responsible for all course material, whether or not you are present when it was covered or distributed.

All assignments should be readily readable, and should not presuppose that I already know what you are trying to say. Use full English sentences where appropriate (namely almost everywhere) and clear diagrams, programs, etc. Remember that your goal is to communicate clearly, and that the appearance of these technical items plays a role in this communication process. Be sure your assignments are always stapled together and that your name is always on them.