Syllabus and general information for MCS-287: Organization and Theory of Programming Languages (Spring 2012)


This course will help you learn how programming languages are designed, specified, and implemented. You will learn about broad areas of commonality that underlie many superficially different languages, as well as about the critical distinctions between languages that may at first glance seem similar. Although we will spend some time working with a few example languages, the goal is not to make you a master of any of these languages, but rather to give you ways to think about languages. This skill will serve you well as you encounter future languages.

Office hours

I will be available in my office (OHS 306) from 9:00-9:50 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, as well as by appointment. Or try your luck: just stop by and see whether my door is open. You may send me electronic mail at or call me at extension 7466. I'll try to put any updates to my office hours on my web page, so check there if in doubt.

World Wide Web

All course materials will be available through my World Wide Web page. The URL for this course is After this syllabus I will give hardcopy handouts only to those students who want them.


This course has MCS-178 and MCS-236 as prerequisites. In MCS-178 you previewed several topics we cover in this course: grammars, evaluation, the stack-oriented use of a computer's memory to support recursive procedure invocations, and object-oriented programming. Most of you also learned one of our example programming languages, Java. From MCS-236, you should be comfortable with basic mathematical concepts and notations, such as sets, functions, relations, and logic.

Text and readings

The primary text for this course is Modern Programming Languages: A Practical Introduction, 2nd Edition, by Adam Brooks Webber. Numerically specified readings in the syllabus refer to its chapters and sections.


There will be two take-home tests as shown on the syllabus and a final exam as scheduled by the registrar. If you have a conflict with a testing time, please contact me as soon as possible to make an alternative arrangement.

Exams will be closed-book and mostly closed-notes. You may, however, use a single 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper with hand-written notes for reference. Both sides of the sheet are OK.


Some days, shown in the syllabus, we will meet in the OHS 326 computer lab rather than in the usual classroom. Each lab assignment will also require you to spend additional time out of class.


You are expected to be familiar with the college academic honesty honor code policy, and to comply with that policy. If you have any questions about it, please ask.

In doing an assignment, you may discuss the problems and their solutions with fellow students, but you should make an effort to solve each problem on your own. Give credit to the people and/or reading sources that help you find the solutions, be they textbooks, journals, or internet postings. Be explicit and acknowledge clearly what sort of help you received. Failure to do so will be considered cheating.

Mastery homework

The syllabus shows due dates for eight homework assignments; each will typically consist of a few problems. You must turn in each problem in an assignment by that assignment's due date but may turn in individual problems earlier if you wish. I encourage submissions by email, but I accept hardcopy as well.

I will mark each problem as "OK" or "redo" and return them to you as rapidly as I can. (The mark "OK" means "mastered" and "redo" means "not yet mastered.") For those marked redo, I may write some brief indication of what area needs work, but you should really take these as an invitation to come talk. You may turn in a revised version of each problem however many times it takes to reach the "OK" point, even after the original due date. If you revise homework in hardcopy form, attach the previous graded version.

The only restrictions are these:

Note that if you turn in each homework problem as soon as you can do it, rather than saving them for the assignment due dates, you will have more opportunity for revision and resubmission before the cutoff dates listed above. Keep in mind that you will also be working on lab assignments.

The homework portion of your course grade will simply be determined by the fraction of the homework problems you eventually mastered.

Late assignments

All lab assignments are due at the beginning of class on the day indicated. Late lab 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 or solutions are distributed.

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.

Grade changes

Please point out any arithmetic or clerical error I make in grading, and I will gladly fix it. You may also request reconsideration if I have been especially unjust.


The course components will contribute to your grade in the following proportion:

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.

Style guidelines

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.


Gustavus Adolphus College is committed to ensuring the full participation of all students in its programs. If you have a documented disability (or you think you may have a disability of any nature) and, as a result, need reasonable academic accommodation to participate in class, take tests or benefit from the College's services, then you should speak with the Disability Services Coordinator for a confidential discussion of your needs and appropriate plans. Course requirements cannot be waived, but reasonable accommodations may be provided based on disability documentation and course outcomes. Accommodations cannot be made retroactively; therefore, to maximize your academic success at Gustavus, please contact Disability Services as early as possible. Disability Services ( is located in the Advising and Counseling Center.

Support for English Language Learners (ELL) and multilingual students is available via the College's ELL Support staff person, Andrew Grace ( or x7395). He can meet individually with students to consult about academic tasks and to help students seek other means of support. In addition, ELL and multilingual students can seek help from peer tutors in the Writing Center. Please let me know if there is any accommodation in the course that would enable you to more fully show your abilities.


This is my best guess as to the rate at which we will cover material. However, don't be shocked if I have to pass out one or more revised syllabi.

2/61.1-2.5Overview and grammars
2/72.6-2.8More on grammars
2/93Syntax meets semantics
2/104Language systems

2/135A first look at MLHW 1
2/14Lab 1: ML Programming
2/177A second look at ML

2/21Lab 1 continues
2/239A third look at ML

2/27Lab 1 concludesHW 2
2/2811A fourth look at ML
3/1No class
3/2No class

3/5Review/catch-up (take-home exam 1 out)Lab 1
3/612.1-12.6Activation records
3/812.7-12.9Closuresexam 1
3/9More on activation records and closures

3/1213A first look at JavaHW 3
3/1314.1-14.4Memory management
3/1514.5-14.6Garbage collection
3/1615A second look at Java

3/19Lab 2: An Interpreter
3/20Bracha 1-3Java generics
3/22Lab 2 continuesHW 4
3/23Bracha 4-6More Java generics

3/26Lab 2 concludes
3/27Lab 3: Java Generics
3/29Lab 3 continuesLab 2
3/3016Object orientation

4/9No class
4/10Lab 3 continuesHW 5
4/12Lab 3 concludes
4/1317A third look at Java

4/16Review/catch-up (take-home exam 2 out)Lab 3
4/17Barbara Liskov video
4/1918Parametersexam 2
4/2019.1-19.7A first look at Prolog

4/2319.8-19.11More prologHW 6
4/2420.1-20.4Prolog implementation
4/26Lab 4: Parsing and Analysis in Prolog
4/27Guest: Greg Lupfer

4/30Lab 4 continues
5/120.5-20.7More about Prolog
5/3Lab 4 continuesHW 7
5/421Cost models

5/723.1-23.3Natural semantics
5/8Lab 4 concludes
5/1023.4-23.6More on semanticsHW 8
5/11Yet more on semantics

5/1424History of programming languagesLab 4

5/18Final Exam (8:00-10:00)

Course web site:
Instructor: Max Hailperin <>