The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

SSA polymath William Borden enters the age of active wisdom

Bill Borden in front of a chalkboard in a SSA classroomWilliam Borden helped a doctoral student in the early 1990s at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration make sense of his interviews with men suffering from schizophrenia in Kentucky maximum-security prisons.

Borden played a videotape of an interview that Jim Clark, PhD '95, had conducted with an especially ill and somewhat unintelligible subject. Clark, now professor and dean of Florida State University's College of Social Work, told Borden that he was going to exclude the man from his sample because he was too psychotic to understand. With Borden's guidance, Clark realized that the man was trying to communicate the experience of his illness and his difficult life in prison.

"The scales fell from my eyes," Clark says. "This helped me immensely in understanding the entire sample I was working with. I continue to carry that memory of Bill's teaching as an extraordinary model of working as a researcher, clinician, and thinker."

Borden, an SSA senior lecturer much beloved by his students, officially retired in August 2019, following a 31-year career at UChicago, but his work in psychotherapy theory and practice will continue.

"I think of retirement as a reorientation that will allow me to continue to carry out certain kinds of work."

He's maintained a clinical practice for 36 years, and he'll continue to provide psychotherapy. He'll also continue to teach in SSA's professional development program. "And I hope to write in new and different ways."

Borden further hopes to spend more time exploring his interests in natural history, birdwatching, mineral collecting, and hiking with his spouse of 35 years, Allen Heinemann, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation in the Feinberg Medical School at Northwestern University.

Bill and his spouse, Allen Heinemann, hiking in Iceland.

Borden was a new SSA faculty member when Jim Clark arrived as a doctoral student in the 1989 Autumn quarter. “He had the reputation of being engaged, warm, and accessible to students,” Clark says. Having seen that Harvard University’s Robert Coles had written a letter of recommendation for Clark, Borden sought to connect.

“There was no book, film, or scientific paper I brought up during that first meeting that Bill had not already read, metabolized, and connected with other important works,” Clark recalled. “I found it daunting, but because he is a master of generous conversation, one never felt anything but excitement and appreciation for this. He always found ways to enhance his students’ thinking—deepening it with complexity—without any hint of arrogance.”

Borden was born in South Bend, Ind. His grandmother, Eldona Borden, exerted a formative influence on him as he grew up. He remembers her as a gardener and as a woman with keen powers observation, empathy, imagination, storytelling, and an interest in natural history.

“Many years later, I realized when I smell lilacs or see the yellow of forsythia, hear the song of a cardinal or feel the damp earth, I find myself feeling more at home in the world and it’s because of my experience with her,” Borden says.

He attended Indiana University as an undergraduate, partly because of its stellar English department. As a graduate student he intended to study both medieval and modern literature. This would enable him to explore everything from Beowulf to James Joyce, Marcel Proust to Thomas Mann.

“I had thought I would do a doctoral program in literature and teach. That was my plan,” he said. Borden found, alas, that parts of the doctoral curriculum were killing his love of literature. But years later, once Borden had dedicated himself to human development, mental health, social work and allied endeavors, he found himself integrating literature and the humanities into his new profession.

In his courses Borden thus has introduced the work of thinkers such as Donald Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst; and John Berger, a novelist, essayist, and social documentarian. He also has drawn upon the work of the scholars he regards as his mentors, author-child psychiatrist Robert Coles and the late Oliver Sacks, an author-neurologist at Columbia University and later at New York University.

Borden encountered Winnicott’s Playing and Reality (1971), as a literature student. “I’m reading the Romantic poets. I’m reading Wordsworth. I’m reading Keats. And I find this psychoanalyst and I start reading,” he recalls. “His work really helped me deepen my sense of the Romantic poets. What moved me was the wholeheartedness of his language.”

Winnicott’s writing differed from the other works that Borden had read in the psychoanalytic tradition. “He was introducing a language that allowed us to talk about the subjectivity, about our experience of ourselves in new and different ways than I had found. I thought we ought to know about this in our clinical practice.”

Borden taught his first course based on Winnicott’s work 30 years ago. He developed the first version of the course for UChicago’s department of psychiatry, where he designed it for residents and students in social work, ministry, and psychology.

“I’ve always thought it’s really important to bring the humanities into our clinical training. Winnicott was really attuned to this,” Borden noted.

Thirty years ago, however, Winnicott was regarded as a marginal figure in clinical practice. At the time, Borden could scarcely imagine the importance that Winnicott’s work would attain.

“In the next 25 years he really emerged as one of the most formative influences in our time as we think of clinical practice. He’s also influenced the fields of child development and the humanities. He’s shaped understanding across a range of disciplines,” Borden notes.

Borden was struck by how Winnicott discussed the idea of a true self and a false self. “We’re exquisitely attuned to what we perceive to be the needs or demands or requirements of others in the outer world,” Borden explained. “But this may be very removed from our more core experience of who we are.”

Borden also is deeply steeped in the sciences that underlie psychoanalysis. “The psychoanalytic tradition is richly alive and it’s interdisciplinary,” he notes. “Certainly, it’s shaped by work in the sciences. We think of neuroscience, genetics, experimental psychology, developmental psychology, but it’s also much shaped by work in humanities.”

While agreeing that social workers must bring scientific rigor to their practice, Borden advocates that they also take into account empirical research in a diversity of fields. “As clinicians we have to figure out what’s valid, what’s sensible, what’s useful in the concrete particularity of the clinical situation,” he says.

“But from the start I also wanted to explore the ways that the humanities, the liberal arts—and I think of Winnicott here—challenge the abstractions of theory, how they challenge the generalizations of empirical research, how they enrich our faculties of reflection, imagination, emotion, empathy.”

Borden has a fondness for linking the sciences and the humanities, much in the style of C.P. Snow, a chemist and novelist who in 1959 advocated building bridges across what he referred to as “the two cultures.” This is “highly unusual in all academic life in contemporary America, which has become hyper-specialized,” Clark says.

Bill and Oliver stand in front of a heavily decorated art car

Bill with Oliver Sacks outside Sacks's home in Greenwich Village, NYC.

Oliver Sacks also would seem to fit into that rare mold. He and Borden first met over dinner after the latter gave a talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2002, Borden recalls. The dinner lasted for seven hours.

"We found that we shared many concerns and interests. We began corresponding and meeting to talk about our work, about cases, about our reading, what I was teaching. I think of him very much as a mentor."

Borden has incorporated Sacks' case reports into his human development courses for years. Sacks, in turn, published one of Borden's cases in his book Hallucinations, published in 2012.

Borden had hoped that Sacks would write the foreword to his latest book, Neuroscience, Psychotherapy, and Clinical Pragmatism, published this year by Routledge. Sacks died in 2015, however, shortly after Borden began writing the book.

One of the best ways to appreciate Borden's ability to connect the humanities and the social science is to reflect on his friendship with Sacks, Clark says. "That friendship was characterized by a sense of discovery, curiosity, and polymathic engagement on both sides. I think Oliver found Bill to be a soul mate precisely because they shared such unusual characteristics as American intellectuals," he says. "For example, both were drawn to case studies, the history of science and intellectual achievement, and the moral phenomenology of therapeutic work with patients."

Borden's new book is the latest of his prolific scholarly contributions to clinical literature. "Among his highly regarded journal articles and books, two volumes stand out, widely used in clinical training and practice," says Froma Walsh, the Mose and Sylvia Firestone Professor Emerita at SSA. These are Comparative Psychodynamic Theory and Perspectives (2009), and Reshaping Theory in Contemporary Social Work Practice: Toward a Critical Pluralism (2010). Both of these works focus on the conceptual and theoretical foundations of clinical social work practice.

"Bill espouses a critically reflexive practice, integrating comparative theoretical and interdisciplinary perspectives," she says. "He urges practitioners to avoid reductionistic, mechanistic approaches in favor of multiple conceptual frameworks."

His approach acknowledges the dynamic interaction of influences that encompass the neuroscientific, psychosocial, developmental, socioeconomic, and cultural, and the need to address social justice concerns and larger systemic barriers, she adds.

Borden also espouses psychodynamic theory because "it really challenges what I think of as a technical rationalism that has shaped reductive conceptions of evidence-based practice," he says. The psychodynamic concepts of therapeutic action, change, and growth focus on the subjectivity of the individual. "They focus on the crucial role of the therapeutic relationship and collaboration in health and care."

Borden's career has been almost as varied as his wide-ranging intellectual interests. For four years during the 1970s he worked as a journalist, first at the South Bend Tribune. Later he worked as a freelancer, writing about music, art, and social concerns for magazines and newspapers. He loved the work yet yearned for a change. "I found myself more and more an observer. I wanted to find points of entry into the authority of experience that comes through doing things in a different way," he says.

Borden joined the UChicago faculty in 1989 as an assistant professor. A year after his promotion to associate professor in 1993, he decided to reorient himself. "I was moving into midlife and I had always thought of myself first as a practitioner," he says. "I care a lot about ideas, but I care more about people and lives and how we put ideas to use. That's what really brought me into the field of social work."

He became a supervisory social worker in UChicago's student mental health clinic and began teaching as a lecturer in the psychiatry department. All the while, he continued to teach at SSA, first as an adjunct lecturer, then as a senior lecturer. His course evaluations consistently came back with high marks from his students.

In addition to teaching in the SSA master's and doctoral programs and in the psychiatry department, Borden also has provided advanced training to clinicians via SSA's Professional Development Program. For 20 years he also has directed the Fellows program in Advanced Psychoanalytic Clinical Practice. It's a nine-month program for clinicians who wish to deepen their understanding of theory and practice methods.

Borden, who received the 2000 SSA Excellence in Teaching Award, seeks to ensure that his students neither dogmatically embrace a single clinical paradigm nor a willy-nilly eclecticism in their practice.

"We have to establish a point of view and formulate basic principles and values that guide the way we make use of different theories, empirical findings, and technical procedures in a critically reflective practice," he says.

Karen Teigiser, former director of the Professional Development program and former Deputy Dean for the master's curriculum, compliments Borden for his stunning intellect, remarkable generosity of spirit, and an uncommon devotion to his students.

"He teaches how to integrate theories so that students would have the capacity to respond to what the client was presenting, not just respond from an understanding of a single theoretical orientation. His goal is always to convey how theories could be used to help students," says Teigiser, senior lecturer emerita at SSA.

She also credits Borden with helping to shape SSA's clinical curriculum. He did so by ensuring that the curriculum contained intellectually challenging material and that it included the complexities involved in helping people solve problems.

Outside the classroom, he helps students take advantage of the rich intellectual environment at SSA and the University more broadly, Teigiser adds. "He works with faculty from other departments such as divinity, the humanities, and psychiatry, and makes connections for students with courses and faculty colleagues to expand their overall learning.

In the end, Borden sees himself fundamentally as a clinical social worker who is also a professor and researcher. All three endeavors benefit from the interplay.

"Bill Borden has exemplified the very best in SSA's long tradition of clinical scholarship and practice," Walsh says. "Bill challenges us all to question and reach, to better understand the many influences—and messiness—in people's lives, to foster a deeper understanding of human suffering and, with clients who are struggling, to appreciate their potential for healing and positive growth."

--Steve Koppes