LeBron James, Realist: A Paper Assignment for Intro to International Relations

This is a guest post from Sarah Fisher, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Emory & Henry College.

Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper has his quirks, but his deeply rooted concern for relative power and hegemony, whether winning a Nobel Prize or crushing trivia, is pure realism. LeBron James’ contract details reflect the fluidity of alliances, another realist.


Sheldon Cooper and LeBron James are just two of the individuals my Introduction to International Relations students analyzed for their final paper this past semester. After assigning this paper assignment to three different classes, I’ve enjoyed reading papers that outline Leslie Knope’s liberal tendencies and even the realist principles in a sorority’s official pledge.

The goal of this assignment is for students to apply a theory of international relations to a primary source, very loosely defined. Some students choose traditional primary sources, such as a speech or transcripts from meetings, but the majority of students have chosen a movie or television show as the basis for their papers. Applying theory to a source that is not obviously related to international politics asks students think about theoretical concepts in a new way. Russia may be challenging U.S. hegemony, yet the new kid on the block is challenging the reigning high school hegemon in Mean Girls as clearly as any real-world example.

Throughout discussions of U.S. foreign policy and issues of economic development in my intro class, an underlying goal is for students to be able to apply theories outside the classroom. Applying constructivism to a single character in a film is different than applying constructivism to discourse surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, yet the underlying goal is identical. I want students to have tools that make sense of the world around them, whether that world be Middle Earth or Crimea.

I have shared the guidelines for the paper assignment here, both as a PDF and MS word document. Encouraging students to take chances on this assignment has proved fruitful (one of my favorite papers this past semester was on a vampire clan in Twilight). There have been a few topics I’ve deemed off limits simply because I’m tired of reading papers about how characters in Game of Thrones are realists. Reminding students to avoid summary and cite specific assumptions of their chosen theory has also made for better papers.
I would enjoy hearing variations or feedback. Best of luck to all of us starting this semester!

Link for assignment.