Laura Tropp's blog

The Joy of Doing Nothing

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Yesterday, my daughter came to me and said, “All I did all day long yesterday was play babies. ALL DAY.” I couldn’t tell if this was a complaint or not, but I had to admit that I felt guilty that my children were not in camp.

Up until last year, I had always sent my kids to some type of day camp. Partly I did this so that I could get my own work done during the summer (because, unlike what non-academics believe, professors do work during the summer months). I also thought that they needed the stimulation and activity of camp. In fact, when other mothers would tell me that their kids were not signed up for camp, I admit that I felt sorry for them (both the kids and the mothers) and figured that it was probably just a matter of cost.

Now that I have joined the ranks of campless moms, I can tell that some people feel sorry for me. After the chaos of the school year, I just wasn’t interested in camp. I didn’t want to have to do the typical send-off routine of finding bathing suits, sunblock, bug spray, water bottles that don’t leak (an almost-impossible task), and the towels. I was tired of convincing my daughters that the camp bathrooms were clean enough to use, and that even though I always make them change out of wet bathing suits at home, that rule wasn’t applicable during camp. I also wanted to take a break from the drama of the camp friends and the inclusion/non-inclusion stories. I just wanted to relax with them and have fun. We have a pool in our new home, and isn’t that half the fun of camp? 

I then began to feel guilty that my children were not getting enough stimulation. Some days, we haven’t left the house before 2pm. I decided we could have a theme each week so that the kids could feel that they were getting a camp-like experience. The first would be Greek week, when we could make Greek food, discuss Greek mythology, do early science experiments from Greek philosophers, and make cool Medea characters out of toilet paper roll tubes. All I have done so far is remember not to throw away one toilet paper tube.

I have now begun to accept slowly that I was falling into the trap of the over-stimulated child and the hyper-parent. Last year, an article from The Atlantic  explored the value of play during the summer. I don’t need to entertain my kids all day. The girls played with their dolls for most of yesterday and were happy. I don’t have to reproduce an activity from Pinterest for them to have a fulfilling day. It’s okay if we spend an afternoon reading (myself included). Maybe they won’t have engaged in as many sports, and they won’t know what ga-ga is, but they can have the simple joy of learning how to fill their time and knowing what it feels like to be bored (an increasingly fleeting experience among screen-saturated youth). Yesterday, they discovered a turtle in their front yard.

I still think camp is a great thing for many kids, and for the many parents who don’t have the luxury of being home during the summer. My kids may go back in the future, but in the meantime, we are enjoying a more relaxing summer experience. While we may not have our own Greek-themed week, maybe we can at least all go out for some Baklava.

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Bribing, Incentivizing

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This week I have been following some conversations taking place about screen addiction. Jane Brody wrote about the issue in her New York Times column, and a new documentary called Web Junkie, about teens in China addicted to video games, airs next week on PBS. As I write this, my son is in the room next door addictively playing Minecraft on his computer. Next week, we are sending him to a Minecraft camp, where he will still be on a screen all day, but I get to pay for him to do that in an officially sanctioned “camp.” It makes sense that these conversations are coming up during the summer, when children often have more free time to spend on screens, but I’ve also been viewing some interesting discussions on Facebook with faculty about how they are going to handle their technology policies this fall semester.

It seems that people tend to be divided into two camps: those that have given up (or are adapting to the new technology environment, which sounds better) and let their students use the screens, and those that enact strict rules and policing policies to prevent students from using screens while in the classroom. I have found myself sitting in both camps in the past. This summer, however, I am noticing that those in the former camp are thinking about reverting to a no-technology policy because they think it is interfering with students’ ability to focus and reflect. Clay Shirky, a Professor at NYU who specializes in emerging media technologies, wrote an interesting piece last fall about his new policy to ban all screens in his classes. He even made an intriguing analogy comparing technology in a classroom to second-hand smoke. However, many faculty have responded that banning technology does not work but only creates a deceptive culture in which students slyly sneak their technology use in class.

So, I have a new suggestion. Why not incentivize the policy a bit? What if, in the fall, I bring a basket into my classroom, and any student who chooses to put his or her device(s) in it for the class period will earn a point in each class towards a portion of the final grade? Now, I know that some people are going to say that I’m encouraging us to reward something that should be a given — listening — and maybe that is true, but maybe it’s worth it? Everyone likes to feel they are getting something for nothing, so this may be just the ticket to help students focus and have them feel that there is something in it for them (beyond, you know, actually learning).

I know that education should be their true reward, but that doesn’t seem to be working anymore. And, how is it any different than my reward system for my own children? I mean, they should go to bed when they are tired but since they won’t, that sticker reward chart always does the trick: they get to sleep, and I get to watch Orange is the New Black, so everyone is a winner. The thought of being able to teach an entire class without asking a student to put some device away or watching a student text (sometimes to another student across the room) seems worth a few grade points. My next questions are: how much of a percentage should I offer, and what heading should I label this policy in the syllabus?

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The Helicopter Parenting of 'Inside Out'

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I saw the Pixar movie Inside Out over the weekend. It is the perfect film for the Age of Helicopter Parents. The premise, for those who haven’t been exposed to the media hype over the last week, is that we see animated the internal emotions of an 11-year-old girl. The film, though, taps in to all the fears of modern parenting.

Much of the plot involves the emotion of Joy trying to prevent sadness from invading the memories of the girl. How much of parenting these days is about working our hardest to protect our children from having feelings of discomfort or sadness? Today, at my child’s school field day activity where I was helping out as a parent volunteer, we were encouraged to judge both teams at the event I was supervising as having tied, rather than declaring one a winner. One child caught on after awhile and said that it’s pretty funny that the teams always have ties. Thinking on my feet, I said, “Well I guess it means you are evenly matched,” but I wondered whether I’m doing any of these kids any real favors by not allowing a team to lose.

In the film, the emotions, who seem to be the equivalent to the hovering parents of today, learn that sadness and joy need to be paired. The film shows us the behind-the-scenes actions of the brain, positing that people have core memories that stay with them for life and specific areas within the brain that serve as their lenses for living. I will leave the reality check for the neuroscientists in the crowd, but it made me think how this very premise taps into our hopes and fears as parents. How many of us live with the fear that one bad moment of mothering will be the only moment our children remember? I can’t tell you how awful my nighttime routine was when they were little; all I could think about was how we had such a wonderful day and all they will remember is mommy yelling at them to go to sleep right before bed. You can imagine my delight when Go the F*** to Sleep came out and I realized I wasn’t alone. The film also brings out the dreams and hopes of parents. Would it be only that easy to be able to simply choose wonderful memories for your children?

It is ironic, then, that some parents’ posts on websites I was reading said that they didn’t like the movie because it was too sad for their children. One parent was angry that their eight-year old left the theatre crying. Two of my children cried as well, and I admit to shedding some tears myself, but that was kind of the whole point. On our way out, I explained to my children that sometimes movies, or school, or life is sad, but then later we will have happy moments with them, and those moments will feel even happier because we experienced the sad ones, too. Wouldn’t you rather children learn that lesson at age 7? And wouldn’t you, as their parent, be the one who imparts that lesson to them?

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The Helicopter Parenting <br>of 'Inside Out'

A Second Look at Fathers

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Recently, my son wanted me to attend an event in which he was participating. I told him I’d do my best to finish up my meetings and get home in time.

He was outraged.

My son informed me that I had yet to attend a single event at his school, while my husband has attended several. Keep in mind, we only moved at the end of January this year, but this is an event-heavy school. He said his friends were going to think his father and I were divorced, or worse: that I wasn’t even alive.

I explained to him the double standard. If I had been attending these events and his father hadn’t, would the kids assume I was divorced, or that his father had a demanding job where he wasn’t free to attend all these events. My son acknowledged this fact and apologized. Note: I did internalize the guilt and made sure I was at the event.

Since then, I’ve been thinking more about how his comment reflects just as much our expectation of fathers’ relationship to work as much as it does for mothers. I admit that I’m guilty of taking advantage of the patriarchy. Whenever we have a child home from school and one of us has to bring him or her to the office, I always make my husband do it. I reason that, when a woman brings a kid to her office, it looks like she can’t balance her work and family life. When a man does it, it looks like he’s stepping up for his family. 

It is important to note that we have made progress when it comes to changing roles and expectations of fathers in society. In fact, in Deconstucting Dads: Changing Images of Fathers in Popular Culture (due out next year by Lexington Press), an edited collection I am co-editing with Dr. Janice Kelly that examines media depictions of fathers, I have studied how fathers are appearing more in active roles within media outlets. The bumbling father image, once a staple of fatherhood representation, is a bit more complicated now. In fact, when Huggies released a commercial showing a bumbling dad, fathers protested.  

Yet at the same time, until we begin to make larger structural changes in society that benefit both working women and men, the ability of fathers to have the freedom to be equal players in the lives of their children and still have a successful career (a fight women have long waged) will remain a challenge. Paid family leave, access to childcare, and a decrease in the expectation that all of us need to be available and working 24 hours per day, seven days per week must be addressed. In addition to changing policy, we also need to change social expectations of men playing the role of family provider. We can look to the example of our more progressive countries regarding family policies, like Sweden, where fathers can be more able to be involved in early childcare because of generous family leave benefits. For that policy to work, though, the country had to incenticize fathers to take some of the leave days by reducing the number of days available if only mothers used the benefit. In other words, even countries way ahead of the U.S. regarding work/life/family balance need to change their cultures.

Since we seem to be, sadly, far away from the policy and legislative changes that need to happen, we can still work to change culturally how we see fathers and our expectations of them. So in honor of the upcoming Father’s Day holiday, I think we should encourage (or permit, if you are in a position of authority) fathers the chance to turn off their work on the weekend, bring their family lives into the office, arrange a playdate with a dad (a task that is usually a mom’s role) or some other activity that acknowledges and encourages the contributions of fathers as more than economic providers, but as equal caretakers of the family. Perhaps only then will society not assume that caretaking is solely mothers’ work.

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Move Over Stork

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I’ve been reading with interest about the depopulation problem in Denmark and the ways different groups have been trying to tackle it. From a marketing perspective, there’s a travel agency using the crisis as an opportunity to encourage people to “Do it For Denmark” and use their holiday as a sex-cation. The country has shifted its sex education classes for children to include pronatalistic attitudes. In many ways, the country has been forced to make discussion about sex an open, public, and necessary conversation.

What’s been particularly interesting to me is contrasting Denmark’s moment with my own experience of sex education in the U.S. When I was in public school thirty years ago, my health classes would separate the boys and girls for “the puberty talk.” Later, we would have co-ed health classes that emphasized abstinence. My son, now ten years old, recently joined the other boys in his class to watch a short film on puberty. I’m wondering if it is the same one my male classmates saw many years ago?

How has sex education changed in thirty years? How does it conflict with the much more open communication our country is having about gender? I spend time teaching my children and students about notions of gender fluidity and places where sex and gender discussions are problematic, but then the boys and girls are separated for lessons on puberty. My son seemed relieved to be with “just the guys,” but does making the other sex a mystery lead to more problems down the road and further perpetuate gender/sex divides? And what about those students who do not identify their sexuality in such a binary way? How can their needs be accommodated when classes are divided into “boys” and “girls?” How much of puberty is hidden in our culture, and for what reasons?

With two daughters who soon will enter this stage of education, I’m also curious specifically about how girls are taught about menstruation. For some girls, is the first time they even have an interaction with menstruation going to be with a health film at age ten? Some of the newest birth control pills actually prevent woman from having periods more than once or twice a year, if at all. A former colleague of mine, Giovanna Chesler, made a film on this topic called Period: The End of Menstruation. How are these possibilities and issues dealt with in schools, or are they ignored completely?

We have made some good progress as a society on beginning to discuss gender identity, but where does sex education fit in with these advances? Are there any educators reading this post who study or teach about these issues? How do you see sex education changing? How should it?

 

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Conforming ... or Not?

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My son is a self-proclaimed non-conformist, which is something I always have applauded him for. I think most people, if asked whether they would prefer their child be more of a conformist or non-conformist, would probably prefer the latter. In my observations, professors generally prefer to think of themselves as free thinkers. I can think of plenty of meetings where people seemed to be on the same side of an issue but were disagreeing for the sake of appearing to think differently. In fact, Apple’s branding campaign once was based entirely on the premise that everyone should “think different.”

However, it’s one thing to embrace individuality as a 40-something year old adult, and quite another to watch your ten-year-old child live through it. We might all talk the talk about embracing difference and encouraging children to think for themselves, but the reality of childhood is that it is filled with social rules. Though we recognize and combat peer pressure and bullying much more frequently these days, they certainly have not disappeared from children’s lives. 

Therefore, when my son decided he wanted to wear neon green and silver gardening gloves to school the other day just because they looked cool to him, I experienced an extreme cognitive dissonance. My professor world is built around encouraging students to think differently and celebrating my ability to do my own thing. I want to afford my son the same freedom, but I’m still a mother and don’t want my son to go to school and be teased when I could easily steer him away from that potentially traumatic experience. I simply could have told him that he can’t wear the gloves, but what type of message would that send? Yet, if I let him wear the gloves without any warning, would I be setting him up for social ostracism? 

I know I’m talking about gloves, but this incident is just the latest one of many that I have encountered with my son, and I’m sure this pattern will continue. Yet, when we discourage a child from being who he or she is with the excuse that we are trying to protect them from a harsh society, are we simply becoming a part of that hegemonic force?

I said to my son, “It is your decision whether or not you want to wear those gloves. I’m just going to let you know that you may get one of a range of reactions. First, you could wear the gloves, and no one notices. Second, you could wear the gloves, and some kid says, ‘you look like a weirdo in those gloves.’ Third, you could wear the gloves, and everyone loves how cool they look and tomorrow, four more kids will be wearing neon gardening gloves in 80-degree weather.” 

My son thought for a moment about what I said and replied that he was going to wear the gloves. However, just before the school bus arrived, he changed his mind and handed them to me. He said thanks, but he’s not wearing them today. He added, “By the way, mom, you do a great impression of a bully.” He hopped on the bus without a care in the world.

I couldn’t figure out if this was one of my worst parenting moments, or one of my most awesome? Sure, I let him make the decision, but I certainly steered him toward the worst-case scenario. If this were a year ago, I probably would have said no to him wearing the gloves, without any explanation at all.

At the end of the day, he went off happy. Of course, this entire parenting moment happened within the span of just a few minutes. I can spend hours prepping for a class to explore hegemony, ideology, and non-conformity, but I only have three minutes to teach it to my child.

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Making Motherhood (not just mom) Visible

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I will be attending a conference on the subject of motherhood in New York City at the end of the week. It is a joint effort between the Museum of Motherhood, CUNY Graduate Center, and Manhattan College. The title of the conference is Tales of Motherhood: Dislodging the Unthinkable, and its focus is on reclaiming the visibility of motherhood. The conference was timed to be the week before Mother’s Day, one of the only times of the year when the idea of motherhood gets full attention from entertainment and news media.

The rest of the time, the media seem to be interested only when motherhood is presented as a spectacle. Whether it is Kate Middleton giving birth to her second baby (the “spare to the throne”), a mother pulling her son away from the Baltimore riot and disciplining him, or any of the celebrity moms and their post-baby weight loss, the everyday experience of motherhood is put aside in favor of the good/bad mom of the moment. The Museum of Motherhood (of which I’m a board member), received borrowed space in New York City for several years but has closed its physical doors at the end of the previous year (it remains a virtual museum and is presently looking for new space).  The museum was hampered in its ability to fundraise because of the invisibility of motherhood. People could not understand why there would need to be a museum for something that seems so “natural.”

During the next ten days, we will all be subjected to stories about presents to buy for our moms, extraordinary moms who have overcome illness or tragedy, and reports on what moms would earn if they were performing their work in the workplace. Last year even brought us a fake job interview (sponsored by American Greetings, of course) to illustrate the burden of a mom’s work. Moms might even get cards from their children, a plant, or breakfast in bed.

All that may be nice, but what would be even better is if there were more discussion on the challenges facing mom in terms of wage gaps, lack of access to day care, lack of flexibility in jobs, the difficulty of re-entry to the workplace, among other serious topics that don’t lend themselves to cute videos to sell cards or flowers, but can lead toward systematic change.

So, my wish this year is for everyone to have a happy Mother’s Day (‘cause, why not enjoy it?) but also for us all to consider ways to make mothers’ work more visible and supported on a daily basis.

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Making Motherhood <br>(not just Mom) Visible

Child’s Play in a Social Media World

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In the last 72 hours, I have received two requests from my 10-year-old son and my 8-year-old daughter for what I deem as unnecessary technology during inappropriate times. 

My son told me that everyone else on the school bus has an electronic device, and he really needs one too so that he doesn’t have to be the only one not busy on his trip home. My daughter tells me that, at the parties she goes to, the other girls have iPhones or iPads and she feels left out when they play on them.

My immediate response was “Absolutely not!” to both requests. I told my son that he needs to value downtime and that the school bus ride is great opportunity to look out the window and think about his upcoming plans. I’ve lamented here before about the loss of reflection time in our world and my desire to find moments to reclaim it. I also told my daughter that the whole point of parties is to socially engage with other children, and their screens stand in the way of that.

Have I lost this war, though? If my son and daughter are the only ones not connected (and I do acknowledge the exaggeration on their parts), am I discouraging them from finding ways to bond with the children that are forming our new socially networked age? Are kids in the same room playing on their device interacting, just in a different way?

Newer reports find that exposing children to social media at younger ages may heighten their social exclusion. Facebook made waves last June for applying for a patent that would allow children under 13 to join the social networking site. I find it hard to imagine a world with young children on Facebook.  FOMO (fear of missing out) is already happening to younger children with access to social media because they can see what their friends are doing and realize that they aren’t doing it (maybe they weren’t invited, maybe their family had alternative plans, maybe you didn’t want your child involved in that particular activity). 

I remember when my child was younger and my neighbor had a birthday party and didn’t invite her (only boys were invited). I had heard about the party from another neighbor, so I was able to keep my daughter from finding out by just avoiding the neighbor’s house during the party. The ability to shield, though, disappears in a world where children are socially networked. One may argue that you shouldn’t protect your children from these disappointments. I wouldn’t disagree, but there is a difference between having the choice and not.

Neil Postman’s Disappearance of Childhood, which focused on television’s influence over children and adults, is even more apt today. Already, the line between children and adult clothing is disappearing. Even games once reserved for children have become adult pastimes: check out adult dodgeball leagues. These trends may seem silly to me, but I’m not sure they have any lasting detrimental effects (although heels couldn’t be good for a 3-year-old’s feet). Yet, social media is still in its incunabular stage. We have hardly figured out its impact on adults. I don’t think we should be encouraging children to jump into it. Let’s allow playdates and school bus rides be child’s play.

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Child’s Play <br>in a Social Media World

Pintsized Powerhouse

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I once had a student who never made deadlines and was frequently absent from class. She always had an excuse (frequently one that involved some kind of personal problem). I kept reiterating to her that despite all these problems, she still needed to make class and deadlines or accept the consequences (a loss of points and access to information). At one point she finally erupted in anger and said, “ I’d expected more of you as a professor because you’re a mother.” I’ve given great thought to my role as a mother and how it may influence my teaching. I’ve blogged before about whether I’m less patient now that I am a mother or whether I can relate to my students better because of my own personal experiences with my children and empathy.  However, I’d never thought about it from the reverse perspective: that the students would have different levels of expectation of sympathy from me because of my role as a mother.

A new study on gender bias in teaching evaluations, though, explains this phenomenon. Apparently, students perceive men and women differently, with different expectations for each.  In regards to evaluations for female teachers“…emotional (rather than intellectual) terms are used more often in women’s evaluations than men’s. Whether mean, kind, caring or rude, students are more likely to comment on these qualities when women are the ones doing the teaching. When women professors receive praise for being ‘caring,’ ‘compassionate,’ ‘nice,’ and ‘understanding,’ this is also a not-so-subtle way of telling them that they should exhibit these qualities.”

This is just one finding in a very interesting study. You can look at this interactive chart that explores the gender biases in student evaluations across a variety of areas. Not surprisingly, men are more likely to be thought of as geniuses and women as “mean” or “bossy”.  The study looks at the terms and language in www.RateMyProfessor.com. Personally, the last time I looked at this ratings website was years ago when students called me a “pintsized powerhouse”. I was struck by the way the students chose the contrast of these terms and the way my height was even noticed as part of my “evaluation”. Now, I’ve discovered that commenting on height and other bodily characteristics is not uncommon. While faculty are taught and expected to focus only on the work of students, the students are free to focus on whatever aspect of the faculty they would like when filling out these evaluations. I don’t think this comes as any big surprise but considering these latest gender revelations in relation to evaluations and the tendency for colleges to move more towards the quantification of these evaluations, maybe we better give more thought to how we weight and assess them.  

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Broadening Out the Free Range Movement

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Recently I had the chance to check out clips from Lenore Skenazy’s television program World’s Worst Mom. Skenazy is the leader of the Free Range Kids Movement, which encourages people to give up helicopter parenting and allow their children to have more freedom and independence in their everyday activities. She counters the public perception that we live in a dangerous world with a more balanced reality and works with parents to relax and back off from their hovering.

Skenazy, and the movement, have received some attention lately within the news media. One particular point of focus has been on the cards that the group distributes and encourages free range children to carry. The card identifies the carrier as a free range kid and provides a phone number to the child’s parent for confirmation. Apparently, people were spotting kids alone in public places and then calling authorities to report the child left without a parent or guardian. This movement inspired a Facebook post listing the different ages children must be to be left alone at home. While many states do not have any set ages, those who do vary from age 6 to 14.

I think it is important to question unfounded or exaggerated fears. I also cannot object to a discussion of whether and how states should regulate the babysitting and care of children. However, last week the annual Sarah Lawrence Women’s History Conference presented research on motherhood. At the conference, someone (sorry for the lack of a shout out, but it was an audience member whom I do not know) spoke about the contrast between the free range kids, who have the first world problems of over-protective parents who can choose when they want to let go, and children who are “othered” by society. Last summer, news stories spread nationally about a woman who was arrested because she needed to work her shift at McDonalds and left her child to play at a park across the street for the day. Skenazy commented on this case and the problem our contemporary culture has of not believing children are okay alone.

For many parents on this new TV show, the problem is one of over-protectiveness and fearing for their child’s safety. Yet, for some of these othered children, the problem facing parents is one of access to affordable, quality childcare and the inability to set up a flexible work schedule. These parents often have the additional fear of not just strangers attacking their children but the possibility that their children will be policed in a racist and ultimately life-threatening way. Some might say that Skenazy’s movement may help all children by shifting societal attitude to question the intensive caring we feel obligated to provide for them. Yet, I don’t think we can forget that a child walking by herself means something very different in some people’s eyes, depending on who the child is. I wonder whether there is a way for those leading or participating in these movements to consider ways to reshape the discussion to include these larger questions about race, policing, and parenting.

 

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Broadening Out <br>the Free Range Movement

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