Following Tenured Radical's example, Dr. Crazy and others have written several interesting posts about their own formative experiences in college--basically, how they got to where they are now, often after having been academic fuck-ups or just academically indifferent. They're all great posts, with the underlying message that, as professors, we should never write off the disengaged, the sullen, or the screw-ups, because those kids, too, can get it together, sometimes quite suddenly, when something or a series of somethings sets them alight.
That's a message I agree with profoundly, having seen it happen among a number of my own students. However, that wasn't my experience in college. I wasn't an academic fuck-up any more than I was an academic star. I was thrilled to have gotten into a fancy college, and once there I was a good, dutiful student whom I suspect almost none of my professors or TAs remembered once the semester was over. I didn't talk much in class, and though my essays were better than average they continually failed to deliver on whatever promise they might have shown: I would often get warm, encouraging comments on the first essay in a class that had two or three, and very few on the later essays as it became clear that I wasn't interested in or able to push myself further. The problem is this: I had a beautiful prose style and a strong, engagingly eccentric voice, but my literary analysis was hit or miss and I really didn't understand what I was doing, what made an essay an A- instead of a B+, or what I could do differently. (I was frustrated that I was stuck in this B+/A- limbo, but I didn't seek out help and no one spontaneously gave it to me.)
The closest thing I had to the kind of formative experiences that TR and Dr. Crazy describe was the Milton lecture I took in the spring of my sophomore year. I adored the professor and either adored Milton or transferred some of the adoration I felt for my professor onto Milton himself. However, my TA gave me a B- on my first paper, far and away the lowest grade I'd ever received. It scared the shit out of me, and partly because I loved the material and partly because my TA was the first person to actually tell me that I didn't know what the hell I was doing, I killed myself for the rest of the semester. I rewrote the paper for a B+. I got 100% on the midterm, 97% on the final, and spent literally three weeks slaving over my eight-page final paper, on which I also got a very high A.
Then over the summer H.K. and I wrote a ridiculous, irreverent play, "The Fifteen-Minute Milton," and sent copies to our professor (with whom we'd never had any personal interaction) and our TA. Our prof sent us a very sweet note, our TA never replied, and that was that.
It wasn't actually a transformational moment, however, in the sense that it set me on the path to a Ph.D. or even to noticeable academic improvement. I did go on to take four other classes in Renaissance lit and three in Early Modern history, but I never did as well in a literature class again. I liked many of my classes, often quite a lot, but my essays continued to straddle the A-/B+ line and I wrote a truly horrible senior essay (also on Milton).
No one ever told me that I should go to grad school, or praised me for my critical acumen; when I asked the woman who became my senior essay advisor to work with me, she cheerfully agreed--and then added, "Did you know that David [one of the other students from our seminar] asked me to advise his essay, too? He's REALLY SMART."
That was not something anyone said about me in college, and neither did they say it about me in graduate school. My early graduate work was fine. I didn't give evidence of not belonging. But no one ever suggested that my work was exceptional or indicated that they expected great things from me; in fact, I had a complex for a long time about having been admitted just because I had the right "breeding": I feared I'd gotten into the M.A. program because I'd been an INRU undergraduate, and then into the Ph.D. program because I was already taking classes with doctoral students. (That may in fact be true--I have no way of knowing--but it's not something I worry about any longer: lots of us have unfair breaks of one sort or another, but if our work is good, then fuck it.)
But I plugged along, diligently or maybe desperately, not getting a lot of feedback or more than a basic level of support, and my work got better and I grew more confident. But honestly, I haven't ever felt, not since high school, that I was anyone's favorite or anyone's golden child (as long-time readers will recall, I got this job as a very late hire, not having originally been among even the semi-finalists). I've always been a small fish in a big pond--but it's a nice pond, and a pond of my choosing, and I'm happy I get to swim in it.
So if my experience as a student affects my teaching, it's that I wish both to build up my overlooked students and to rattle my more confident ones. I'm allergic to arrogance and complacency, even when it comes from students who are, arguably, smart enough to get away with it. Teaching at a state institution means there's often a wide range of abilities in any given classroom, and students who write pretty well and have pretty good insights tend not to get pushed and do tend to get complacent. They're big fish in a small pond, and as such they're petted and praised and often not encouraged to recognize how far they still have to go.
It's a tough thing to teach--real confidence alongside real humility--but I guess I see my job as not letting anyone think they're good enough, yet, but that they have the potential to be.